Long Bright River

Written by Liz Moore

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

Long Bright River
RRP: £12.99
Released: January 09, 2020

A big heavy book; dominated by drugs, users and others close to the end of their tether, this one is daunting from the first sentence: “There’s a body on the Gurney Street tracks” – but misgivings are followed by relief and even excitement for this author can write and her protagonist is so powerful that one’s sympathy is on hold because she is more than on the side of the angels, she has supped with the devil too.

Mickey Fitzpatrick is 32, a cop still in uniform after thirteen years on the force. She’s content with her place in life which, formally, is keeping a watching brief on the seamier side of Kensington, Philadelphia: a district occupied by exploiters and the exploited, the main commodities being drugs and sex. People live in abandoned houses, on waste ground, under bridges. When they die and it’s in plain view they are ignored for a while, there being so little difference between a corpse and a sleeper on Kensington Avenue.

Mickey knows most of the working girls here, which serves well her ulterior motive in patrolling the district even of becoming a cop in the first place. She is looking for her kid sister, Kacey, who went wild when still in high school. First it was drugs then prostitution followed by pregnancy. Periodically she reappears at the house the sisters once called home, where they were brought up by their maternal grandmother: a martinet bound by duty but capable of cruelty ranging from scorn and ridicule to utter deprivation. The girls left “home” as soon as they could.

Mickey married a detective, divorced him and now lives as a single mother with her beloved Thomas, aged four, a singularly bright boy forced to endure his mother’s long shifts under the auspices of an affordable but irresponsible teen-age sitter.

Crime in Kensington, Philadelphia is usually drug-related, as are the deaths. Toxic substances and overdoses are not uncommon but murder is rare. Mickey has doubts about the death which opens the book, her suspicions confirmed by the pathologist but dismissed by other colleagues until more violent deaths point to a serial killer.

The story is told in alternating chapters: Then and Now, past and present, demonstrating in harrowing detail how the younger sister changed from a happy child to a despairing and desperate slut with no one bothered other than her big sister. Finding and rescuing her is Mickey’s mission. In a lesser book, with a less competent writer one might question such devotion and wonder if Kacey is worth the trouble but here we are deeply involved in the joys and misery of the girls’ childhood: the nostalgic glimpses of their mother, and bitter resentment towards the father who walked out on his family and died unknown and unmourned.

This could be an intimidating book but it is lightened by sympathetic characters: Mickey’s landlady, Mrs Mahon, who hates men and teaches a four-year-old to play chess, by Phoebe the fierce working girl with the big heart, by Truman, Mickey’s former partner in the police cruiser: intelligent, steady, and a crucial support when she is suspended from duty.

For there are rumours of corruption in high places and Mickey has become aware that powerful criminals are operating on Kensington Avenue and the working girls are terrified. Fearful of the risk to Kasey, Mickey has crossed lines to find her social world turn fluid; family members, old friends, lovers, cops – no one can be trusted.

We build to a climax – “we” because we are hooked. Mickey Fitzpatrick is courteous, gallant, sincere. Stern to start, uptight with her small boy, she softens subtly, evolving. Moore’s dialogue is perfect: graphic where appropriate, honed to the speaker. This is a big book with a big theme. The descent to hell, attempts at salvation and redemption. The end is not conclusive, not even in the exposure of the perpetrators but then this is not an entertainment. It’s a fine portrayal of humanity by a superlative craftsman.

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