Death in the Outer Boroughs: A Tale of Angst and Real Estate

You know a Brooklyn neighborhood has really hit the big time when it gets its own eponymous murder mystery. The outer-borough universe in Red Hook, Reggie Nadelson’s sixth Artie Cohen novel, is so shadowy and lucrative and treacherous that developers “prowl” the streets in search of real estate. What better way to depict the land of ancient dockyards and four-bedroom waterside condos and low-income projects and hip haircuts?

Our hero is Artie Cohen, who drinks just enough whiskey to make him a reliable detective, a semi-reliable newlywed husband and an unreliable narrator. His account of the novel’s three murders is hazy and half-paranoid, so everyone seems superbly creepy: There’s an oily Pulitzer-winning journalist named Jack, who’s just as suspicious as Artie’s old pal Tolya Sverdloff, a bulky Russian realty mogul.

But the novel’s central enigma is Sidney McKay, gay and black, whose demise is spelled out by the book’s big-mouthed cover flap. Sid has a grandfatherly obsession with Red Hook folklore and its increasingly pricey property—plus he has a few more intimate neuroses, too. If Artie’s booziness gives the narrative its white-knuckle style, Sid’s real-estate mania gives the novel its substance: This is a glorious work about Brooklynesque anxiety.

“People get crazy about real estate, about the waterfront,” the white-suited Sverdloff says. “Crazier than doing business in Moscow in craziest times, right?” Very right—though most New Yorkers already have a healthy appreciation for the primitive violence of hunting for terrain. Luckily, Ms. Nadelson elevates her story to the page-turning heights of Cold War intrigue.

The Russians are still coming! There are terrorists and ex-wives, gangsters and estranged sons, New York Times cover-ups and a very gory fall from Chelsea’s fabulous High Line.

Artie never seems to understand it all, especially because Sid’s death is coupled with a second Red Hook murder (and that Manhattan plunge, too). The detective gets increasingly sleepless, increasingly scared and increasingly late for his honeymoon in New Jersey.

Why go to Jersey when we’ve got Ms. Nadelson’s New York City? Red Hook looks and smells like Carol Reed’s postwar Berlin: The neighborhood “used to be a bucket-of-blood kind of place,” according to a flirty homicide detective; Sid says it’s “the fringes, an old industrial city.” Artie’s liver-damaged mentor, the book’s most lonesome character, knows it’ll always be “a safe haven for creeps.”

The novel takes place in 2004 (the Republican National Convention rumbles through the middle of the story). Back then, the neighborhood was freshly threatened by big new supermarkets and a big new Ikea and the “last big land grab.”

Who are the grabbers? Sverdloff and his anonymous competition: “I don’t say names aloud,” he says fretfully. “Not even to myself do I whisper names …. They are like nihilists of nineteenth century.”

Only a mystery novel about outer-borough real estate could pull off a line like that. It helps that Sverdloff’s trepidation isn’t quite plausible—he’s a mighty culprit from the start, when he enters the book wearing alligator-skin Gucci loafers.

On account of their creepily deep friendship—Sverdloff’s wedding present includes a gold watch and tickets to Paris, for example—our loyal detective tries to find other perpetrators instead. That makes his hazy investigation into Sid’s death even hazier: “It was only real estate,” he tells us after learning about Sverdloff’s gluttonous development plans, “stuff everyone did, one way or another.”

Sleepless Artie has other troubles, too. His ex-wife reappears after his wedding, on cue, and forlornly seduces him. Ms. Nadelson does weirdly little with her women, who are either cute young girls or the hard-nosed, middle-aged Law & Order brunettes, but the absence of engaging feminine characters isn’t too terrible—it fits with the work’s manly monochromatic noir. (The book opens with a “smudgy” sky; 60 pages from the end, the heavens still haven’t cleared.)

Ms. Nadelson makes up for the lack of Technicolor by giving the city glamorous badlands. Brighton Beach is a borscht belt; the Gowanus Canal leads into murderous waves; olden-days Crosby Street is a walkway of rotten vegetables; and the meatpacking district smells like blood and “blood orange mojitos.” Most exotic of all, Al Qaeda has infiltrated the city co-op boards: They’re after the roof gardens.

Nothing can match that vibrant real-estate map of New York, but what comes closest is the novel’s central threesome—the cynical mogul, the doomed old man, the restless investigator. They’ve got more nervousness than nerve, which fills the novel with twitchy, wobbly energy. “Brave is bullshit, you know?” Sverdloff tells Artie in their last conversation. “Brave is dead. Brave is cant.”

Max Abelson writes Manhattan Transfers for The Observer. Death in the Outer Boroughs: A Tale of Angst and Real Estate