Family Matters

by Ira Berkowitz

Published by Justin, Charles & Company

251 pages, 2006

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Unhappily Ever After

Reviewed by Stephen Miller


Jackson Steeg is a defiant, attitude-laden cop right out of Central Casting. Suspended by his finger-to-the-political-winds commander on a trumped-up charge of beating a handcuffed prisoner, he's cooling his heels in his Hell's Kitchen tenement apartment, seething with resentment. One night, he's awakened by a siren and discovers a full-blown homicide investigation underway in the apartment directly below his. Naked and dead on the bed is a young girl, obviously a hooker and not the tenant -- and definitely not someone who belonged in this section of New York City.

Mid to late twenties, Steeg thought. Blond hair cut fashionably short. Softly pretty. Fingernails neatly trimmed and buffed. Makeup meticulously applied. A woman careful about her appearance. A woman out of place in Hell's Kitchen.

With too much idle time on his hands, and having nothing to do except monitor the comings and goings of a homeless friend, Herkie, and a practically abandoned 13-year-old neighborhood girl named DeeDee Santos, Steeg begins conducting his own investigation into the downstairs killing, only to discover that the victim is the daughter of a woman murdered 20 years earlier -- a case that Steeg's father investigated during his stint as one of New York's finest.

So begins Family Matters, a debut novel from Ira Berkowitz, a native of the novel's gritty setting, and clearly a writer in touch with his characters and their world. He writes:

In earlier times, Hell's Kitchen was a sulfurous mix of breweries, factories, warehouses and slaughterhouses built right up to the docks. Toss in a heavy dose of gangs preying on the Irish and German immigrants and you had combustion. Violence was so common that it inspired George Gershwin to compose "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." He certainly had the neighborhood pegged.

Alternately complicating and enhancing Steeg's investigation are his older brother, Dave, a mid-level mob boss working Hell's Kitchen (but living across the river in New Jersey); the neighbor, Graham Moore, in whose apartment the young girl died (and who is soon fished out of the river with a bullet in his head); as well as the smut peddler behind a thriving prostitution ring, a local member of the New York City Council, and an opportunistic African-American activist with the memorable moniker Gideon El. Knowing full well that the homicide detectives assigned to this case are neither competent nor concerned, Steeg takes it upon himself to crawl into the underbelly of the victim's family, as well as his own. The dead girl's short life had been a horror show, starting with childhood incest and culminating with her apparently having witnessed her mother's murder, when the latter was flung rudely off a high-rise terrace. The dysfunction in the Steeg family is nearly as profound. The bad blood between the elder Steeg and his two sons is palpable and begging to be left unresolved. And the connections between these two murders a generation apart become more and more apparent as Jackson Steeg tries to solve both slayings, and salvage what's left of his father's dignity.

Then, there's the psychopathic Bible-quoting Indian, a tired plot device that appears out of nowhere and disappears implausibly when unseen forces push back.

I'm not kidding.

"Is there something on your mind, pal?" Steeg said.

The Indian appeared nonplussed. Many things good and hurtful, things that try my soul, but why would that be of interest to you, sir?"

"For the last ten blocks, we've been tethered to each other, and frankly, it's annoying."

[The Indian] flashed Steeg a half-mocking smile. "Two people make a busy road, and that's just the way it is."

Perfect, Steeg thought, the guy speaks in tongues.

"Let's cut the bullshit -- who sent you?"

"The good Lord cuts a path in the wilderness for all of his children. I'm just followin' mine."

The violence that follows flashes like a neon sign in a Hell's Kitchen pizzeria window.

Nearly every convention in the crime-fiction playbook is on display in Berkowitz's new novel. Steeg is a divorced alcoholic who quits -- cold turkey -- after an all-night bender, when the stress of his police suspension, a renegade murder investigation and the caretaking of an adolescent come to a full boil together. An attempted family reunion between Steeg's father and his pair of sons in an exclusive Italian restaurant quickly escalates into an alcohol-fueled tirade of profanity. Steeg falls for the older sister/daughter of the two murder victims. Finally, Luce Guidry, Steeg's lesbian NYPD partner, takes some overdue vacation time in order to watch his back, accompanied by her lover, who also happens to be a cop. However, these women are so ineffective, that you wonder how they made the force in the first place.

Such faults are all the more disappointing, because Family Matters contains some flourishes of a promising new writer. For instance, when he's describing the uneasy and shifting balance of power inside an apartment being shared by a cop and a teenager, Berkowitz writes:

Conversations took on a monosyllable quality, her clothes had migrated all over the apartment, MTV was on the tube, and rap music blasted from her room. It was getting so bad, he was beginning to learn the words.

Berkowitz's depiction of a proud neighborhood undergoing uneasy gentrification hits all the right notes, and despite some of the rampant clichés here, the characters are fully realized and alive. Elements like these make Family Matters a book worth reading, even though it's a thoroughly average detective yarn. It's enough to hope that Berkowitz, a retired advertising executive, keeps on writing. Perhaps his sophomore effort will be more impressive. | June 2006


Stephen Miller has worked as a columnist for Mystery News since 1999, writing about new authors. He lives in Hilliard, Ohio.