Book review: Hurt Machine by Reed Farrel Coleman

Hurt Machine
Reed Farrel Coleman
Tyrus, 2011.

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.

Other reviews of Hurt Machine: Seattle PI, Mack Captures Crime, The New York Times and The Cyberlibrarian Reads.

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.

44 thoughts on “Book review: Hurt Machine by Reed Farrel Coleman

  1. Hmmmm…I have downloaded this too ‘cos it was free one day but you have not tempted me to open the file😉

    I hate acronym use too – in life and in books😉

    • I think it is one of those books that one would have enjoyed more either if one had read the previous 6, or if all of the parts of this one about the past of Moe and the other characters had been excised (as the plot here is one that works just as well without all that). I don’t usually download free books but this one seemed quite well-recommended/reviewed, and it’s interesting to try new authors…….but, in the event, one of those take it or leave it books, for me.

  2. Maxine – An excellent review, for which thanks. I know just what you mean about acronyms – very annoying. And I do enjoy books with some local colour in them and a solid sense of setting. But this one….I’ll wait on it I think.

  3. Acronyms! The NHS [there’s one] were notorious for loving acronyms and over a quarter of a century ago when I sat on the Kingston and Richmond ADAC I received a letter with a circulation list that didn’t refer to any of the other 20 plus people on it by name, but by their acronyms.
    Mine was the only name listed as I wasn’t important enough to have an acronym.😦

    This was in the early 1980s so I thought that the CCCD was something to do with the Soviet Union.😉
    ADAC-Area dental advisory committee
    CCCD- Central Committee for Community Dentistry or some such nonsense

    • Ha ha, Norman, tell me about it. Scientists use them all the time and it is a devil to unpick them all – most can simply be replaced by pronoun “it”, “her” etc which makes the reading better. If acronyms were banned then the writer would need to do more work to convey meaning and we (readers) would be better off.

  4. Yes I used to work for the civil service where acronyms ruled. I have to say as someone relatively new to twitter that I sometimes have to look up abbreviations that people use (TTYL was one this week).

  5. Good balanced review, Maxine, thanks.

    This is going to sound horribly pedantic but technically FDNY and EMT are initialisms, not acronyms. In defense of the author, these two terms, particularly EMT, are so common in the US that I can see where he didn’t feel the need to spell them out. FDNY was seared into our consciousness after 9/11. I didn’t even notice them as I read.

    I was annoyed by Moe not looking into the background of the man who collapsed as well. I couldn’t see how anyone could not think it worthwhile. Carmella packing up her sister’s stuff and disappearing (again) seemed out of place as well.

    • Thanks for your comment and correction, Mack. There are abbreviations that are very common in the UK but unknown to US people. (An American colleague once asked me what PTO meant.) I think it is best if authors assume they have a global readership and write accordingly😉

      • Quite right, Maxine particularly when I rant about publishers not thinking globally and letting me buy the books I want.

      • Good point, Mack. I think it is also a style point, even if one knows what an initialism stands for, it is ugly when the text is peppered with them instead of perfectly good pronouns, etc. To me, I hate texts full of these contractions, perhaps because they remind me of unedited scientific manuscripts and impair my fictional reading enjoyment.

  6. Speaking of contractions — I watched an episode of Bones where the FBI psychologist, Sweet, said that a person was probably telling the truth, because, among other behaviorisms, he used a lot of contractions. Apparently someone who is focused lying tends to not use contractions. I did a quick Google search and that appears to be accepted as one indicator of lying.

  7. Thanks for a thoughtful review. I’ve seen lots of positive mentions of the book, but I like to know what I’m getting into before trying a new series.

  8. I don’t need to read this book, have so much on various lists, but it’s interesting to read this review. Some reviewers and bloggers in the U.S. rave about this series, but it’s never moved me to pick up a book. I may do so out of curiosity, but I won’t rush. Acronyms in fiction really don’t seem right to me. It would seem that writers would want global readers. Also, even in news stories, some of the better newspapers and online media try to decrease the use of acronyms.
    It does jolt one’s senses in a novel to see them. In the news, less so, but we could use less of them and find proper nouns as your said.
    A friend, who is a long-time copy editor, has always amused me by using “It” when referring to a large description of a proper noun or noun. It’s a good idea to do this instead of acronyms, too.

    • Indeed, Kathy, as I mentioned above, pronouns (or a phrase such as “the department” after it has been first defined) usually does the trick (I was a subeditor once, which is what we call copyeditors).

  9. I don’t want to push the discussion of initialisms and acronyms past its natural life expectancy but it interests me and raises an issue that must concern authors: how do you maintain the local flavor of a book without alienating non-native readers.

    Is the use of acronyms and initialisms substantially different from using words and expressions common to the locale where the story is set? Or, phrased differently, why do acronyms annoy but words and expression add color? Most of the authors I read lately are African, South African mostly. Consequently, I expect to go to Google Search, Google Translate, and Wikipedia frequently. When I first came across the initialism MK and ANC I had no idea what meant. Later I discovered that MK refers to Umkhonto we Sizwe, the militant wing of the ANC or African National Congress. South Africans are familiar with MK and ANC but would it hinder the flow of the narrative if the author needed to work in a sentence or two to explain what MK and ANC mean within the context of the story? Or should an author have the expectation that anyone who picks up their book will be curious enough to look up that which they don’t understand?

    A South African author told me that her publisher is reluctant to market her books in the US because they are “too African.” Some of the commenters here have expressed that they like books set in a different culture or country to have the flavor of that culture and country and would have no problem going to the Internet if they didn’t understand something they read. Why does the use of acronyms and initialisms have such a negative effect on the reading experience?

    Part of the problem could be that acronyms and initialisms can have many meanings. Entering MK into Google search wouldn’t produce anything useful. I gave up after 5 screens. You might think that MK refers to the game Mortal Kombat based on te number of hits. Entering MK Africa gets you a relevant hit right away. If I read a book set in London and someone finds an oyster card in the street I might not know what it means but a Google search pulls up something right away.

    This comment came to me while washing dishes after a couple of glasses of wine so forgive me if I rambled. What do you think?

    • In fact, Mack, Google Scholar has just issued guidance to (factual) publishers (that it indexes) about visibility, and one of their recommendations is not to use acronyms/contractions (another problem with them is that there is often more than one definition of a set of letters).
      I think that there are two different issues here: I love the local colour provided by use of words and phrases I haven’t heard of before. It adds to the atmosphere and sense of place. I find abbreviations, on the other hand, quite lazy and I think it is a more common fault in US fiction (as the US in general is a more acronym-oriented society) than in European fiction. You rarely get an acronym in a Scandinavian novel for example.
      I read a US novel recently about the NAACP. this was never defined. (I did know it was something related to civil liberties for African Americans but I had to look up the exact meaning). But after using it once, could not the author thereafter have used “the association” instead?
      In short, I don’t think abbreviations add to the local colour at all, they tend to be a distraction to the reader and break up the prose, whether or not you know what the definition is. A good writer will not use them. Use of local language, however, is one of the pleasures of reading about places far away from one’s home region.

  10. Yes, use of local language is important, even more if one wants to learn about other countries and cultures through reading fiction.
    I agree on the overuse of acronyms, especially in the States. I’d also like to see more use of nouns and pronouns. “It” is fine with me.
    On the NAACP though, that is how it is known throughout the U.S. Newspapers, which usually write out a full name of an organization first and then use acronyms later on in a piece, always use NAACP, as the organization calls itself. One reason is because a very outdated word is in the name, which is considered insulting these days. But also, this is how the group is known everywhere and how it’s referenced in articles in print and online. It would be highly unusual to see the full name anywhere, as it’s simply not used.
    Now another organization, the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, is known both ways and in articles, the full name will be given and then the acronym. Many people only know it by the acronym, which is often in crossword puzzles, too.
    I think in globally distributed books that perhaps there should be glossaries in the back of the book. Of course, we all love Stephen Sartarelli’s end notes in his translations of Camillieri’s books, but I’ve often thought there should be glossaries even in books in English but from countries other than the ones in which the reader lives. (I’m reading a book from Australia, which is a joy, but a glossary could be put in the back to explain terms/words. I’m trying to figure out words’ meanings from context, but it’s not always easy.)
    By the way, you were spot on in your remarks on FF about reviewers keeping very clear the difference in crime novels between “sexual abuse” and “sex scenes.” I think at this point, where there is so much violence against women in thrillers and other mysteries, that this must be continually raised so it permeates publishers, advertisers’ and reviewers’ consciousness — and their blurbs, ads, articles and more. And also clarifying that when women have been captured, kidnapped, and are victims (tough as they may be, as Merete!), how they act towards the perpetrators to save their lives or others’ lives is coerced, not given in a state of equally, freely or with affection. Coercion is exactly that. I think you and FF — the other women bloggers — do a terrific job on explaining these very important points. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Kathy. I have to slightly disagree with you about NAACP. I had exactly the problem you identify about its anachronistic actual meaning when I looked it up, which is why in my review does not literally define it but states what it is, as I did not want to use demeaning terminology. Nevertheless, I think it is useful for global readers to be given the definition of what the organisation is, rather than it being implied (eg African-American civil liberties union, or some such). I do think there are probably plenty of people in the world who don’t know what it means or is (sadly), and I think that the author just looks like he is writing to an American readership, ie closed circle. Writing, good writing that is, should be readable and comprehensible to anyone.

      I don’t think a novel or a review should expect the reader to go off and look up abbreviations, though of course if the reader wants to find out more, that’s good! ( and glossaries like Sartarelli’s are both fascinating and non-intrusive). But I don;t think they should have to.

      Thanks very much for your support re the FF discussion on abuse towards women. Good to know as I hoped I had not expressed it too strongly, as the man concerned seems to have taken down his whole blog as a result!

  11. Great comments everyone. You have given me much to think about as a reader and a reviewer.

    Does everyone agree that this is a good example of handling acronyms? It is from a book I just finished.
    “I want to run his MO through Violent Crimes Apprehension Program database at Quantico, but with the way the scene was left, I can’t even ascertain enough to even start filling in the VICAP form.”

    I think that MO, like DNA, in a crime story needs no explanation.

    • No, MO doesn’t need explaining as well as DNA (don’t ask me to break it down though) but interesting discussion nevertheless. I live in the US and some the acronym Maxine quoted like ” FDNY” I wasn’t familiar with either but it’s not too hard to figure out I’m sure. It’s a regional thing and so it goes. So now I know, too but I do appreciate things being spelled out because one can’t assume and on top of that acronyms shouldn’t overwhelm the story either (looking at Karin Slaughter who does this). It can be rather jarring and sound like info dumping to me.

  12. I think MO should be written out if the book is being sold or distributed in countries other than the U.S. Detective story readers in the States will understand it but it’s not a given outside the country. I had to stop and think for a second. I think acronyms are annoying and jarring, but in the States understandable.
    I do a bit of freelance editing and take out acronyms which they’re unnecessary or make the piece look thrown together.

  13. Hmmm, M.O. spelled out is modis operandi which I’m not sure is that much better but Wikipedia says that it is backronymed as “mode of operation”. For me, if a story is about US cops and they are more likely to say MO amongst themselves, then spelling it out takes away the flavor of cop-speak and makes it more formal in a way that they would not normally express themselves.

    It looks like I’m doomed to be the odd person out in this discussion but that OK — I know this one is acceptable🙂 — because the comments have given me a whole new perspective when I read a book set in a different culture by a non-US author.

    • Sorry for delay in response, was offline yesterday. I’d either spell out MO or define it by implication – it can at least mean medical officer and modus operandi. Maybe it is a US/UK thing, but modus operandi is one of those well-known Latin expressions that does not need translation (like etc and i.e. or ad infinitum).

      VICAP, in your example, is familiar if you are already a crime reader, but I’d still advise defining it (not each letter) as “the FBI profiling database” or some such. I think FBI, like NASA and DNA, are OK to leave as-is😉

      I am not saying that abbreviations should be spelt out ploddingly each time they occur; that is just as much bad English. A good writer or editor can make the prose read well and continuously, without either extreme.

  14. I can understand global readers wanting names of entities written out, not abbreviated with acronyms. It can be confusing. And I as a reader don’t like to be hit with acronyms particularly.
    However, I would prefer modus operandi written out if it’s in text, but if it’s in dialogue between cops, or private detectives and it wouldn’t be true to life to do so, then it should be MO.
    However, it seems like when I read any non-U.S. book, that I’m sent to the Internet to look up words or just grit my teeth and look at the context. Every country has its own vernacular, which makes books published there more true to life.

  15. This thread is very interesting in that it highlights my own split personality. I hate acronyms – they are the bane of my working life (where MO means Medical Officer) and they grate when I read them in fiction. But because I have yet to make the entire world bow to my personal will (the day will come) people DO talk in acronyms all the time – e.g. nowhere in South Africa would anyone ever say African National Congress – not in the newspaper, not on TV, not in conversation – it would always be ANC (rarely even something more generic like ‘party’ from my memory of one trip there some years ago). So it makes sense for an author to use this in their writing as it would feel fake otherwise.

    I think glossaries would be a good addition to most books. Some of Peter Temple’s have had them when published in the US though I have heard this annoys Temple. I don’t know why it would though – I think it is an acknowledgement that even though we share a common language there are regional differences. But Temple can be an ornery chap, maybe other authors don’t feel the same way.

    Again I think being in little old Australia down the bottom of the world gives us a different perspective on the issue of whether or not a reader should HAVE to go off searching for extra information – from the earliest days of my reading – when it was Enid Blyton (UK) and the Bobbsey Twins (US) – there have been all sorts of terms and phrases I have not understood and I learned from the get go that reading involved having to find these things out for myself or remaining ignorant – “look it up” was always my mum’s answer to questions about what something meant – something still heard often in our family and it’s been passed on to the next generation (though in fairness she would explain the term if it didn’t appear in our set of encyclopaedias or one of the three huge dictionaries that we owned). Looking things up is something I have just always expected to have to do and so I do it without even thinking about it (though it is much easier now with google because I don’t need to get the step stool out to reach the A-L volumes of the encyclopaedias).

  16. Well, I do look things up all of the time, but some expressions and words aren’t readily accessible, and I’d really rather read fiction without having to get up and down. It breaks the flow of reading and sometimes the savoring of a passage.
    And when I proofread, I delete acronyms all over the place, unless they’re necessary. The AP rule is to write out an entity first and later on use the acronym. However, in some cases, I’d rather a noun is used as it’s less stilted.
    Anyway, I enjoy every country’s axioms and vernacular and would not want that stifled, except that when I’m reading fiction for sheer entertainment, I do not want to keep Googling. It is very disruptive to the experience, although I accept doing it with news stories, historical and scientific articles, etc.

  17. One point on which we can all agree is that “one size fits all” isn’t possible. I grew up in a military family and spent 4.5 years in the US Army. Acronyms are a part of everyday speech in the military. I would be irritated I read a book with a military setting where the author spelled out all acronyms. Equally irritated would be Maxine because she would have no idea that NMI, as in Jack NMI Smith, meant that Jack had No Middle Initial.

  18. On looking things up – agree with Bernadette and Kathy – it’s a great education to learn about vernacular and so on in other places- but one should not “have” to look these things up to be able to understand the book.

    And I do think there are some universal, global acronyms that don’t need spelling out, eg ANC as you write, NASA and DNA – in the latter case it would be more confusing to spell it out so one could say “genetic material” or something, instead (even “gene” if you are being unscientific!).

    Mack – yes, but different armies have different acronyms, as do different dental organisations (see Norman’s commment above). NMI does travel I am sure but to a limited audience in each country😉

  19. I asked retired detective Lee Lofland, who has the terrific blog The Graveyard Shift, about acronyms in law enforcement.

    He said

    Well, I tend to agree that a name should be spelled out once with the acronym used thereafter. I believe it’s best to not interrupt the flow of the story. Sometimes having to stop to research something can be a big turn off for readers.

    In real life, cops tend to use the better-known acronyms in daily conversation, such as BOLO (Be On The Lookout). But never in my 20+ years have I ever heard an officer use MO or modis operandi in normal on-the-scene/in-the-office conversation unless they were trying to be funny. It would probably sound more like, “Looks like the same pattern in that case we worked a month ago. Remember”. On the other hand, when speaking formally, teaching a class, etc. MO and modis operandi are almost always used.

    I starting to come around to the prevailing opinion here.

    • I suppose the bottom line, Mack, is that if the writing/editing is good, the reader doesn’t notice – someone has judged whether an abbreviation works and if not what is better. Luckily, there is no automated rule that will work in all situations😉 (as your example above well demonstrates). Horses for courses, as one might say (in some countries!).

      • Oooo, I like ” horses for courses” and will look for an opportunity to use it. I also like “caught out, bowled, and stumped” but haven’t found an opportunity to work it into a conversation.

  20. It was great to read all your comments. I don’t have clear ideas on this issue. Anyway I’m use to pick up the dictionary from time to time, so it doesn’t bother me if I still have to dig into the meaning of a particular acronym I’m not familiar with.

  21. Well, an interesting phrase appeared here, “horses for courses,” which I have never heard or read before. I did “look it up,” and found a few definitions.
    How would you explain it?
    Just to mention how quickly we learn vernacular, I’ve been finding myself writing “spot on,” in emails to friends, rather than “right on target,” so I can imagine how my language will be peppered with non-U.S. English terms with a few more years of reading blogs and global fiction.

    • I use it as an expression to mean there’s a way that is best for you and a way that is best for someone else – I presume it was orginally a horseracing term, as in “caught bowled and stumped” being a cricketing term meaning “comprehensively dismissed” (as any one of those verbs will get you out.)

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