Moe Praeger is a retired cop and sort-of retired PI, now running a wine business with his brother. He is given a diagnosis of cancer at the start of the book, and is advised to “put his house in order”. He reflects on his exceedingly complicated personal life and on his career, which have been described in six previous books in the series. Now, however, Moe’s main priority is to stay alive for his daughter’s wedding (to someone who has turned out to be her biological cousin). It is at a pre-wedding gathering in New York that Moe encounters Carmella, his second ex-wife. Carmella tells Moe that her estranged elder sister Alta has recently been murdered, and asks Moe to investigate. The rest of the novel mostly tells the story of this investigation and what Moe finds out, filtered through his reflections on his state of health and presumed early demise.
Because Moe is an ex-cop one might think he has contacts to help him, but because of his age most of his old colleagues have died, retired or have been sacked for corruption – and the younger cops don’t want to help a PI. There is one police detective, however, who seems a straight arrow and who does seem prepared to assist, so he and Moe share some information. Moe also knows the cop bars, and finds fellow-drinkers who can provide him with snippets of information. It transpires that Alta was one of two paramedics (confusingly referred to as EMTs throughout, it took me ages to work out what that meant*) who ignored a cook who collapsed in the kitchen of a restaurant where they happened to be at the time. The two women have since been vilified in the media and on the internet, so one obvious theory is that Alta’s death is connected to the earlier event. Moe therefore interviews the surviving member of the pair and begins tracking down the people who have been sending death threats to the women.
Although the story is quite interesting and provides plenty of local colour, the mechanics of the plot are rather pedestrian. For example, Moe decides at the outset that the man who collapsed and was ignored by the paramedics is not relevant to Alta’s death. Half way through the book, getting nowhere or being stonewalled, he decides to pursue this line of investigation, conveyed as if it had never occurred to him. Another way in which the story is spun out is that information available via simple criminal-records checks is only discovered after one part of the double mystery has been solved near the end of the book – and this information would have immediately made that character very suspicious. Carmella, who had asked Moe to undertake the investigation in the first place, not only removes all her sister’s belongings half way through the book and won’t share them with Moe, but also vanishes. As well as being told what seems like a lot of Moe’s back-story from earlier books, there is a lot of summarising of the plots of the previous novels, and explanations of characters who had appeared in them as they crop up in this book.
Despite these inconsistencies and rather obvious methods of filling the pages until a solution is found, Hurt Machine is a readable novel (though could have been better edited), with plenty of local colour – particularly so in Brooklyn and Coney Island. Moe follows up clues that others have ignored, such as why were two paramedics at a restaurant where they could not (presumably) afford to eat? There turns out to to be several mysteries, involving people feeling they have to cover up their true sexual orientation in order to keep up appearances, as well as blackmail, smuggling and money-laundering. One of the perpetrators is easy to guess from the start but the other is more of a surprise. The stories are all tied together well, though some of the revelations are very dark. The “hurt machine” of the title is applied both to the randomness of biology as well as to the damage that humans do to each other – which is, of course, an entirely different form of “hurt”.
*Emergency medical technicians. Another repeated acronym is FDNY – fire department of New York. I hate acronyms that pepper text, and I wish editors would use the good practice of replacing them by a proper word, as otherwise the reader has to break concentration to recall what they mean each time if they are not previously familiar.
I read the free Kindle version of this book.
Author’s website, where you can find lots of information about the earlier books in the series, videos of the author at various locations where his books are set, and more.