By Heidi Simmons

What You Break
by Reed Farrel Coleman

Does our past affect our future?  Does it lie in wait?  Or, is our past a part of our present?  In Reed Farrel Coleman’s What You Break (Putnam, 358 pages) the past not only plays a part in life, it will rear its ugly head and find the ones you love.

This is Coleman’s 25th novel, his second “Gus Murphy” mystery. 

What You Break finds Murphy, grief-stricken and depressed after the death of his 20 something son.  His marriage has fallen apart and he’s no longer a cop.  Instead, he lives and works at an airport hotel driving the courtesy van, working part-time security and serving as the lounge’s bouncer.

The hotel is the perfect hide-away for Murphy.  He can keep his head down, and his secrets, and nobody asks too many questions.  He discovers that other hotel employees also like to keep a low profiles and secrets. 

But, when Murphy discovers his Ukrainian buddy, a co-worker and confidant, might be in some trouble, Murphy takes an interest, which leads to him witnessing an assassination.  Murphy quickly becomes a person of interest to the police, to the assassin and to his buddy.

At the same time, Murphy’s friend Bill, a former priest, asks Murphy for a favor.   The unsanctioned clergyman assisted Murphy through his darkest hours after his son’s death so Murphy is inclined to help.  Bill introduces Murphy to a wealthy, unlikable, brutish businessman who wants to find out how his granddaughter died and why. 

With the granddaughter’s killer already convicted and in prison, Murphy doesn’t completely understand the request, but he reluctantly takes the job when the businessman offers to start a charitable foundation in his son’s name.

As Murphy tries to determine the truth about the granddaughter’s life and death, he learns that the businessman’s past is appalling.   Murphy realizes he is working for a monster.   The businessman confesses that his past is part of the reason he must know why his granddaughter was killed. 

Meanwhile, Murphy’s Ukrainian buddy finds that his past has caught up to him as well, and it is as disturbing as the businessman’s.   Soon, Murphy draws the attention of some very dangerous and despicable people. 

Author Coleman weaves a gritty tale of emotional suffering and survival.   The characters are damaged human beings with dark and complicated pasts. 

Murphy realizes that he had the perfect life.  As he considers his current predicament he thinks, “Among my family, my friends, my house, my pensions, and time to enjoy them all, I had everything I’d ever wanted.  More.  Then I didn’t.” 

Murphy admits that before his son’s death, he never experienced jealousy, resentment or had anger issues.  Searching for the truth about the businessman’s granddaughter and helping his Ukrainian friend, he has a growing sense of vengeance for the injustice of his son’s death, and finds a kinship for those who have suffered and lost.

The Long Island setting becomes a character in the story as Murphy makes his way around the good and bad parts of town.  Author Coleman describes neighborhoods and names streets in such a way that I felt like I was a local. 

I like how Colman always put his hero in the thick of things.  Time after time, Murphy makes things worse for himself.  But Murphy can’t help it.  He is on a mission he cannot turn away from.  Whether it’s bravery or stupidity, he is compelled to find answers.

With short chapters and fresh characters that intersect, the mystery moves quickly.  Coleman is able to develop complete lives for his characters providing the reader with a perspective that engenders some empathy.

The complicated – in a good way — ending is full of danger and action.  With an unpredictable outcome, Coleman delivers an honest climax and resolution that made my hands sweat. 

The affable Coleman spoke at the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival in January.  He was happy to share his personal story and some of his writing secrets.  He told the audience that there are no minor characters.  He said, “When you see someone on the street walking his or her dog, know they have a rich life and story to tell.”

With his character “Gus Murphy,” Colman said wanted to write about a guy who had it all and believed life was good and easy.  He thought a guy like that didn’t understand how challenging life could be until something turned his perfect world upside-down.

Before the story begins there is this quote: “What You Break, you own…forever.”  The lives of the characters in this novel are all deeply damaged with pernicious pasts they are forced to confront. 

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