In Paperback: Manhattan Night
by Colin Harrison
A new Hollywood movie, directed by Brian DeCubellis and starring Adrian Brody, is the somewhat dubious occasion for a happy event: Picador’s re-release of Colin Harrison’s source material, otherwise known as his 1996 novel Manhattan Nocturne, the title of which has been duly dumbed down for Generation Trump to Manhattan Night. But neither a simplified name nor a boring movie-art cover (having the gall to replace the beautiful original Eryk Fitkau photo) can lessen by one iota the sheer pulpy exuberance of Harrison’s novel itself; any excuse to have it back on bookstore New Release tables and under the eyes of the reading public again is a good excuse.
The novel tells the story of Porter Wren, a thirteen-year veteran of the New York tabloid trade, and the opening is classic Colin Harrison channelling Raymond Chandler and a bit of John Dos Passos:
I sell mayhem, scandal, murder, and doom. Oh, Jesus I do, I sell tragedy, vengeance, chaos, and fate. I sell the sufferings of the poor and the vanities of the rich. Children falling from windows, subway trains afire, rapists fleeing into the dark. I sell anger and redemption. I sell the muscled heroism of firemen and the wheezing greed of mob bosses. The stench of garbage, the rattle of gold. I sell black to white, white to black.
Wren is a paint-by-numbers Chandleresque hero, a past master of the seediest sides of Manhattan and yet not seedy himself, a tough-talking cynic on the job but also a loving husband and father to a family he scrupulously tries to keep separate from the crazier aspects of his work. The novel bolts from its starting gate and races along at a totally unembarrassed clip: digging around for some dirt he can parlay into a column, Wren is quickly enmeshed in case involving the sultry widow of a filmmaker who died under suspicious circumstances, and suddenly our hero is wondering: “How does any tale of misfortune begin? When you’re not expecting it, when you’re looking elsewhere, thinking of other problems, the regular problems.”
What follows is equally paint-by-numbers – seduction, double- and triple-crosses, punctuations of brutal violence – but it’s all done with such enthusiasm and steely control that all but the most pitiless readers will find it an easy thing to convince themselves that this is not mere escapist fun. Harrison writes with a self-consciously cinematic flair that extends even to his love scenes, ordinarily the muddy fields of Waterloo where brave narratives go to die:
We took our time. Her passions did not embarrass her. The winter light was low across the city outside the window. She held my tongue tight with her teeth; another moment, in another position, she closed her eyes and frowned, as if concentrating on an intricate piece of music. I remember her fingers splayed out on the sheets, grasping and releasing. I remember the blonde hair caught in her mouth, and the earring that came loose and feel upon the sheet that she reflexively whisked to the floor …
The movie adaptation will no doubt be unremarkable and fade from view after a weekend or two; that’s the nature of risk in Hollywood. But as a corporate-mandated side-effect to that non-event, thousands of paperback copies of Manhattan Night will be printed that otherwise wouldn’t have been. If some of those paperbacks manage to venture into the wider world outside the Adrian Brody fan base and find readers, that can only be a good thing.