Private Dick, Doomed Dame— But No Clue About N.Y.

022607 article book abelson Private Dick, Doomed Dame— But No Clue About N.Y.Gumshoes have it hard, what with all their warm beer and cold women, felonious friends and faceless foes. But these days, Manhattan P.I.’s have it hardest: There are decades of serious white-knuckled noir to compete with, and New York City isn’t the fertile gangland it once was.

Peter Spiegelman doesn’t mind. His careful, girl-in-the-river whodunit features an ineloquent and winning narrator, John March, and lots of arty but dirty sex. Red Cat is a filmic, fun and unambitious novel about rummaging through 21st-century New York.

“Here we have sex tapes, adultery, a beautiful white victim,” an attorney tells March, who starred in both of Mr. Spiegelman’s previous novels, “and wealthy, prominent, unsympathetic suspects—a cable television wet dream.”

Those ingredients also make for a zippy read, but that zip is balanced out by an essential slush of heavy sighs and headaches and blanketing frost. If it weren’t for March’s emotional lethargy—he’s a widower, a one-time pothead, a recovering alcoholic, and he eats oatmeal—our prime-time murder mystery would glide past too hastily.

From the get-go, his self-conscious gumshoe talk (“she padded across the living room wearing a scowl and little else”) makes the storytelling as much fun as the action, which begins with a Roy Lichtenstein thwack: March’s tight-faced and unendingly unpleasant older brother David asking to be rid of an anonymous woman he’s been trysting with—a woman he met on the Internet.

Things start really popping once March learns that his brother isn’t the only one looking for the doomed dame. And, lucky for us, a piece of her grimy high-concept video art happens to feature March’s brother in flagrante. “Abuse, self-abasement, voyeurism: it’s quite the trifecta,” a cashew-chewing video viewer remarks.

If only Mr. Spiegelman had lavished on New York City the same sultry, scary details that make those sex tapes come alive! Instead, there’s a clichéd coffee bar in Williamsburg, a boutique hotel in Nolita, a foul tenement odor in Bushwick, snow in Central Park.

The cast of Red Cat includes David’s wife, her voice like “breaking glass,” her nails “like pink pearls.” Even that well-manicured spouse can’t compare to the video artist’s sister in Connecticut, whose mouth is “a bloodless seam beneath the blade of her nose”; we have to wait 250 pages for that Mary Astor face to finally “split into a nasty grin.”

There’s a downy girlfriend around too, whose quaintness is pitiful in comparison with the other, spiky women. John March himself isn’t quaint, though he is old-fashioned. Like any self-respecting private eye, he wavers between valor and coldness—and some of the fun is in finding out which comes when.

And what about the cymbal-crashing grand finale? By the time Mr. Spiegelman pins on a cliffhanger epilogue, it’s hard to imagine that the P.I. would care to tune in tomorrow. “Surprises make our jobs harder,” he tells his brother, “and, trust me, they’re already hard enough.”

Max Abelson writes Manhattan Transfers for The Observer.