The Lost Genius of Jerome Charyn
by Peter Walker
Although I am not normally given to making overstatements I'll make an exception here: the Isaac Sidel books of Jerome Charyn are great crime books. They are neglected classics, which deserve reading and re-reading, and they have, in the course of the last twenty years, literally, transformed the genre. I could go on but I won't. It is simply my intention here to get you to read the books.
The opening book in the series, "Blue Eyes", blew me away. It starts like this: "Shotgun Coen". Something about those first two words gave me a jolt. A friend gave me the book just after Bloomsbury had reissued it. Other than the fact that Charyn was touring the UK with Walter Mosely (this was in 1993) I knew nothing about him or his writing. The opening few pages stunned me. Manfred Coen's stoolie Arnold the Spic has spotted Chino Reyes in Brummy's Grill. Chino is upset with Coen - the Blue Eyes of the title - because Coen had slapped him down in front of some people he was supposed to protect after Coen had busted an illegal card game. Chino has taken to wearing a red wig and threatening Coen. Added to this he is the main suspect in the taxi murders. The other Bulls in the squad hate Coen because, being a pretty boy, he got the glamour jobs and had the First Dep. as his Rabbi, the fallen from grace Isaac Sidel. Worse the Bulls suspect Coen of being a spy and hope he'll return from Brummy's with a hole in his head. The Bulls tease Arnold and sneer at Coen, who they describe as Chino's cousin.
These first few pages had an immediate impact and I was hooked. But Blue Eyes continued to surprise me. Chino Reyes is in the employ of the Guzmanns, a tribe of Peruvian pickpockets who are moving into Isaac's territory. Coen grew up with them. Child brides are being kidnapped and are turning up in Mexico. Isaac sends Coen to investigate when the daughter of millionaire Vander Child goes missing. Vander is in hock to the Guzmanns and Reyes is pimping his other daughter, Odette. Coen has to team up with Reyes to go to Mexico. Caught between his childhood loyalties and Isaac, Coen is buffeted and manipulated. He's never quite sure what's going on and makes his final stand in Schiller's Ping-Pong Club - the only place he can make any sense of the world. Chino Reyes turns up to frighten him and ends up killing Coen almost by accident. Little is resolved but the emotional impact of the book rooted me to the floor.
Charyn wrote Blue Eyes in 1973. Already an established writer and professor in English with six books to his name he read Ross McDonald's The Galton Case. He was immediately struck by what he called McDonald's "particular craft", his ability to build structures into a "wild masonry" with "sad strange histories that crept between the tight closed spaces." Charyn decided to write his own crime novel.
He had been a "body builder and ping pong freak" in his youth. His sense of the underworld came from the pool halls and street gangs of the Bronx. He was something of an extortionist by the age of 12 but quickly grew out of the habit and by 14 was "studying French irregular verbs at the High School of Music and Art". Charyn's brother, Harvey, was an NYPD Detective. So Charyn went to the wilds of Brooklyn and became the chronicler of Harvey and the other Brooklyn detectives. He seemed to see his brother afresh. Manfred Coen became "an odd amalgam" of Harvey and Charyn, a Detective who preferred the rituals of ping pong and who had Harvey's "sad gentle ways", who was isolated and adrift in the badlands.
Blue Eyes was intended as a one off but Charyn wasn't able to let either Coen or Isaac go. They were both far too compelling. So he brought Coen back from the dead and set his next book, Marilyn The Wild at an earlier time in Coen's life. This chronological switch is almost deliberately confusing.(As an aside, whilst Bloomsbury did a great job reissuing the Isaac books they didn't half make a mess of describing the order they should be read in). Isaac becomes a more compelling character as his love for his wild and beautiful daughter drives him to extremes. Marilyn is in love with Coen but so is Isaac - he can't bear to lose either of them. Isaac is a coward when it comes to his daughter. Charyn begins to weave a myth around Coen's death. Did he die because of Isaac's jealousies? Whilst you are pondering this the book tears off in all sorts of directions. The Lollipop Gang have it in for Isaac and want him dead. Their crazed vendetta leads Isaac into his past. When his mother is attacked his enemies within the NYPD move on him as well.
The Education of Patrick Silver continues Charyn's compelling vision. Isaac's shifting war with the Guzmanns is getting him nowhere. Isaac went undercover and turned up in their candy store on Boston Road (in Blue Eyes). This got him nowhere and got Coen killed. Papa Guzmann fed Isaac some blood sausage and Isaac inherited a worm from them. The worm becomes Isaac's conscience - or his guilt over Coen. The Guzmanns have employed Patrick Silver, an ex-NYPD cop, an Irish Jew who can't wear socks and who lives in his father's decaying synagogue. There is no joy for Isaac as he forces the Guzmanns to leave New York. There are no simple solutions for Charyn.
Still Charyn was unable to finish his history of Isaac Sidel. Secret Isaac is devoted entirely to him. Now the Police Commissioner, he's sadder and alone. He only has the worm for company. Police corruption, deeply entrenched within the NYPD, becomes Isaac's obsession when he comes across Annie Powell, a prostitute scarred with a D.
Searching for who marked her leads him to Dermot McBride who in turn leads him back to the heart of the NYPD. Once Isaac tried to help Dermot by recommending him for a scholarship but Dermot became an enforcer for a corrupt cop, keeping street gangs in check and then milking profits from prostitution.
Charyn had gone to Harvey to gather material for an "uncomplicated crime novel" but had ended up with four books about Isaac Sidel and his tapeworm. "For me" Charyn wrote "the four books comprise a vast confusion of fathers and sons". The books were a hit. Charyn became the celebrity of Brooklyn Homicide, the chronicler of their stories. Harvey, however, begrudged the complications of the last three Isaac books. He preferred "the purity of "Blue Eyes". After all, Coen came from the Bronx like him.
Charyn's original intention was to write a quartet. The best analysis I've come across is Mike Woolf's aptly named Exploding The Genre. With the Isaac books, he argues, Charyn brilliantly conveys the complexities and contradictions of urban disorder. Crime and criminality become metaphors in which social disorder and evil are perceived as the norm. Indeed the books are about New York as much as anything. Charyn represents the Big City as "a tribal society, populated by warring ethnic communities....these groups are deeply intertwined in a system that blurs the boundaries between goodness evil, detective and criminal". In a crazy world Isaac achieves, at best, a temporary illusion of control.
After a long hiatus Charyn returned to Isaac with The Good Policeman . Charyn's intention was to write a second Isaac Quartet for the nineties. There is a shift in emphasis away from the "magic" of the earlier books and toward a realist and almost political vision. Isaac becomes central to this. His fate and New York's survival become intertwined. Throughout The Good Policeman, Maria's Girls, Montezuma's Man and Little Angel Street Isaac is at war with rival factions within the City. To this end the books become more plot driven although Charyn was still able to surprise and perplex with his writing.
Charyn had already introduced the idea of New York as being central to his books. Secret Isaac was as much about saving New York as the NYPD : "The Bronx is dying, soon the edges of Manhattan will go then you'll have towers on the East Side with machine guns in the lobby...there were more arsonists in the Bronx than grocers". With The Good Policeman things are getting worse: "Isaac had to contend with the new Indian countries of Brunswick and the South Bronx. He couldn't reclaim the schools, which had become holding pens for moon children, kids who lived like marauders and maddened wolves. Nine year olds with knives.." Chaos is threatening.
Woody Haut's excellent Neon Noir puts Charyn in the context of modern urban reality. In Maria's Girls for example, Haut says that Charyn continues to map New York's disintegration (what Charyn calls, in his deeply personal book Metropolis the "Manhattanisation" of New York - i.e. the process whereby New York was and is sanitised into a safe place for wealthy white people, losing its diversity and vitality along the way). The reality of contemporary urban life makes crime inevitable. Maria Montalban, the superintendent of Lower East side schools, adds to her budget by selling drugs: "We sell drugs so children can eat". The whole system is rotten so who's the real criminal, the real killer?
In the end no one can control such madness and lawlessness. In a typical response to this realisation Isaac sides with the DeAngelis Family not only against the rival Rubino clan but against Isaac's rival LeComte, from the Justice Dept (and F.B.I.). For Isaac the Mafia are inevitable and at least they operate with a moral code the "Pink Commish" can accept: "All it needs are citizens who can't get what they want from City Government because it's too involved in feeding its own belly, and tickling its own back". LeComte wants to "off" the Mafia but only (according to some crazed plan of his own) because he wants to control New York. His backing of the Rubino clan is a cynical move to this end. Isaac cannot allow this. "All it needs are citizens who can't get what they want from City Government because it's too involved in feeding its own belly, and tickling its own back."
In all this Isaac becomes an ever more compelling character. In one exchange between Isaac and Issy Wasser, the DeAngelis mallemed, they argue about who was best - Stalin or Trotsky. Isaac has long since been called the "Pink Commish". For him Stalin was a realist, a survivor. Trotsky, Issy contends, would have saved the poets. Siding with the Family is a dangerous business however, but "That's why he was such a good policeman. He liked to dance at the very edge of violence."
With The Good Policeman Isaac starts his return to some kind of family life. He is no longer a "father figure". Margaret Tolstoy, Isaac's lost childhood love reappears but, naturally, she is an agent for LeComte. In the books that follow Isaac and Marilyn reconcile themselves and Marilyn marries one of Isaac's "angels", Joe Barbarossa. But there is a price to pay. As Isaac rises up the political ladder toward Mayor he may find some peace but at what price? Having been "glocked " he loses the worm: "The worm was a moralist, the worm had encouraged Isaac's descent into the unknown, the worm was like Shakespeare, breathing melodies wherever Isaac happened to go. He was miserable without the worm."
Perhaps Charyn is writing another Quartet. In El Bronx Isaac is drawn into the dangerous and lethal world of politics. This is a world which makes the dangers of the streets look simple and easy to understand. Papa Cassidy, a millionaire with political influence, tries to have Isaac killed before becoming his campaign treasurer: "That's how alliances were made in New York". Whilst the Bronx is dying millionaire Baseball players are on strike and there's some very dirty money tied up in rejuvenation programs with a whole bunch of corrupt cops and politicos are manoeuvring for a leg up the greasy pole. Citizen Sidel takes Isaac further as he is nominated for "Vice Prez". Drawn back into investigating some very nasty cops who keep a clean precinct for very dubious reasons (a criticism of Zero Tolerance?) Charyn is still able to dazzle and surprise.
I've only skimmed the surface of Charyn's Isaac books. They have to be experienced and my aim here is to lead you into these books but after that you're on your own. Unfortunately most of the books are out-of-print and the last two haven't got a UK publisher but don't let this deter you (try one of the Internet book searches - for example: www.abebooks.com or www.interloc.com). I'll leave the last word to Charyn: "New York is my heartland and the heart of New York is crime. It is into this maddening heart that I have tried to enter not as a sociologist, not as a judge, but as a participant in the city's merciless magic".
1. All the biographical information comes from two sources: Charyn's own introduction to the Black Box edition of the first four Isaac books (Published by Zomba it is now out of print but should you come across it, it is worth buying for this alone) and from Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers
2. Exploding The Genre: The Crime Fiction of Jerome Charyn in American Crime Fiction Ed B Doherty. St Martin's Press 1988
3. Neon Noir Woody Haut. Chap 6 From Mean Streets to Dream Streets. Serpents Tail 1999
4. Metropolis: New York as Myth, Marketplace and Magical Land Jerome Charyn. Avon Books 1986
5. This article, now substantially rewritten, first appeared in Crimetime Issue 9.
The books: (Note: This is the order they were written in and, I would argue, the order they should be read in.)
Blue Eyes 1975. Published UK Bloomsbury 1992
Marilyn The Wild 1976. Pub ditto 1990
The Education of Patrick Silver 1976. Pub ditto 1992
Secret Isaac 1978. Pub. ditto 1992
The Good Policeman Pub. ditto 1990
Maria's Girls Serpents Tail/Mask Noir 1993
Montezuma's Man Pub US Mysterious Press1994
Little Angel Street ditto 1994
El Bronx ditto 1997
Citizen Sidel ditto 1999
Short: Young Isaac in The Armchair Detective (New York), Summer 1990.