The end of mystery

Historians of the Weimar Republic's collapse into the Third Reich occasionally have argued that hints of the horrors to come could be found in the era's art, which cultivated a fascist aesthetic underneath its famous libidinousness. If those scholars are correct, then we might be concerned with popular crime novelist S. J. Rozan's latest title, Absent Friends, even though as a society we don't take mystery writers seriously enough. Ostensibly a classic old friends-hidden secrets yarn, the story's resolution promotes a reactionary message worthy of Karl Rove: In the topsy-turvy post-9-11 landscape, detectives, those flawed bulldogs of truth consequences be damned, are not the heroes.

   Absent Friends

By S. J. Rozan
Delacorte Press
$24, 384 pages
ISBN: 0385338031

Rozan's tale unfolds in the smoky, unsettled streets of Lower Manhattan in the months following September 11, 2001. Her large cast of characters, most of whom grew up as friends in a tightly knit outer borough, wander within yards of the gaping crater left by the Twin Towers' collapse, a black maw that mirrors the gaping hole left in their lives by the death of one of the clan, a famous hero firefighter named Jimmy.

Through flashbacks to their idyllic childhood as the sons and daughters of a community's leaders - cops and criminals both - we learn that Jimmy always played the rescuer, his adulthood as a decorated firefighter no surprise to those who knew him. But following his death on 9-11, a muckraking reporter begins to scratch the surface of the group's shared history, and it seems there's some explaining to do about another friend's death and large sums of money paid to his widow and surviving son. When the muckraking reporter takes a dive off of the Verrazano Narrows bridge, his muckraking-reporter girlfriend Laura knows it must have been an assisted suicide.

Rozan is at her best when her characters are engaged in verbal confrontations. Her dialogue is crisp and her muscular yet economic transitions forcefully move the narrative along. But Absent Friends suffers from two weaknesses, one of which is that her plot requires her to spend a lot of time inside her characters heads as they mourn the loss of the life they knew and worry how much of their past Laura will uncover. Several of the characters know a great deal of the secret, so the reader has to accept Rozan's conceit that they would repeatedly mull so close to the truth, but not reveal it. After several of these passages, the melancholy and enigmatic threaten to turn moribund and infuriating.

Spoiler alert!! But the greatest weakness by far is Rozan's inversion of the good guy-bad guy equation. At the end of the story Laura communes with her lover's ghost, who reveals that he took a swan dive off of the bridge because he couldn't live with himself when he discovered that the hero firefighter whose reputation he questioned really was a hero. (As something of an aside, the newspaper stories are unbelievable. They don't read like news copy, and they wouldn't pass editorial muster on facts and conclusions drawn.)

So, farewell, too, to detectives, whose services are no longer required. In the final scene of Chinatown, Jake is despondent that his meddling has failed to save the woman he loved, but we never misunderstand that regret for culpability. And neither we nor Jake ever question his vocation. He'll continue to ask the uncomfortable questions, and he'll continue to have his nose rearranged for his trouble. But with Absent Friends, Rozan has posited a new world order, in which a reporter/detective performs the ultimate mea culpa for even daring to ask. It's almost as depressing as the recent survey which found that only 51 percent of high school students agreed that "newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories." Now, that's enough to make a reporter jump off a bridge.

By Elaine Wolff