Crime and punishment

A Cold Case

Philip Gourevitch <em>Picador,184pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0330485040

Philip Gourevitch is one of an elite handful of writers who make it tough to be a critic. His book on Rwanda, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families (Picador), which was built on the firm foundation of his reportage in the New Yorker, was widely and rightly admired for its supreme eloquence and clarity. And his new work, a brief but razor-edged account of a New York policeman's hunt for the perpetrator of a 27-year-old double murder, already feels trim and ageless, like a classic. Which makes things rather awkward. I mean, here we are, cudgelling our brains for something devastating or nasty to say, scanning the book for defects and oversights - no need to thank us, only trying to do our job - and what do we get? Nothing. Gourevitch has had the luck to find a remarkable and engrossing story, and the cheek to tell it with immaculate restraint. How irritating can you get?

A New York detective called Andy Rosenzweig resolves, shortly before he retires, to investigate a trail long since gone cold. Nearly 30 years earlier, two men were shot dead by a known assassin called Frank Koehler. The police were never able to track him down, and eventually the case was closed. Rosenzweig's dislike of loose ends prompts him to reopen the investigation, which turns into a meticulous and inventive nationwide hunt for a man who has grown old under an assumed name. Eventually he catches up with his man, who surrenders willingly enough to his fate and is happy to tell us (in some appropriately self-justifying monologues) all about his Cagney-inspired life as a Hollywood-style tough guy.

Gourevitch follows the sequence of events with superlative detachment, and moves at such speed that it seems like a fairy tale: crime and punishment in a cartoon format. The modern merger between fiction and non-fiction here finds full and flamboyant expression. Gourevitch, inspired by his doggedly heroic detective, saturates the book with melancholy, seen-it-all-before optimism: cases can be solved; justice can be done; the system can be made to work (sometimes). But the book trembles with ambivalence. At the end, Rosenzweig admits to a sense of puzzlement. "I thought, I can't leave this thing open and unresolved, and I was thinking especially that I wanted to put it to rest for the victims' families. The thing I didn't think about was that many of them had long ago found their own ways of dealing with it . . . My idea of laying it to rest was their idea of an upheaval."

Frank Koehler, the murderer himself, emerges as a tantalising figure, one liked by almost everyone who had any dealings with him, except for those he left on the floor in a pool of blood. It's possible that Gourevitch surrenders a bit too easily to the idea of Koehler as a charismatic enigma - to the cops, he is never more than a lowlife scumbag. But the author has enormous fun with Koehler's straight-from-central-casting lawyer, Richman, who tosses out wonderful lawyerly epigrams such as: "Reasonable doubt begins with the payment of a reasonable fee." Gourevitch's tape recorder must have wriggled with pleasure at such moments.

The story is so strong that it might seem to require little help, but Gourevitch's style is better than exemplary. Here are the first three sentences: "On November 15, 1944, an army deserter named Frank Gilbert Koehler was arrested for burglary in New York City. Frankie, as he liked to be called, had no criminal record. He had walked off his post at Fort Dix, New Jersey, after suffering unsustainable financial reversals in a crap game in the latrine, and when it was discovered that he was 15 years old and had lied about his age to enlist, he was sent to children's court, declared a juvenile delinquent, and returned to military control."

If only all books started like this. It is courteous, unhurried, happy to accommodate an almost quaint formality by spelling out names in full, yet also vividly idiomatic, moving from three-name to nickname terms in a single line. It whips through arresting events at high speed, letting the dry recital of facts speak for themselves, yet still finds room for a knowing wink: "unsustainable financial reversals" are the kind of thing that happens to Merrill Lynch executives, rarely to hoods having a flutter in a latrine. There is no padding, and no fake atmospherics. It is quiet, yet teeming with action. This is prose we can lean into, knowing it will take our weight.

Throughout the book, the pace hardly ever slackens, and the tone does not slip. It is helter-skelter, yet meditative. The following five pages of the first chapter escort us swiftly through almost 20 years. Koehler shoots and kills a 16-year-old boy, robs a bar and a construction company at gunpoint, spends more than a decade in jail, works as a stevedore and strong-arm guy down at the docks, murders a couple of restaurateurs he takes a dislike to in a New York apartment, and vanishes. Do we want to read on? You bet. I didn't put it down until I hit the back cover.

At which point, I hesitated. Somehow, without ever seeming less than excellent, the story had never quite been allowed to gallop away with us. I have commented already on its supernatural neatness, that sense of not having a word out of place. But maybe there are a few missing. Has Gourevitch's uncanny composure, which seems such a strength, in the end kept things on too tight a leash? Might a story this good, and this well written, not support a fuller, more detailed work? He refers, through Rosenzweig, to the "upheaval" the case brought to the victims' families, but he does not explore this: it would spoil the elegant lines of his parable, perhaps. At greater length, this could have been a full-blown epic. Modesty (and a distaste for melodrama) having prevailed, it sets its sights no higher than on being a perfect short story. That is no small thing. But I can't quite shake the feeling that there is, in this slim volume, a fat one dying to come out.

The publishers have spaced it out as much as they dare, adding to its sheen of class and style, but the story can't be much more than 30,000 words. That all of them are well polished is not quite enough to banish the suspicion that they are merely an elegant synopsis of something that might have been still grander.

Robert Winder's reviews are published monthly in the NS