Manhattan Nocturne: A Novel

Manhattan Nocturne: A Novel

4.2 6
by Colin Harrison

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Now a major motion picture, Manhattan Night, starring Adrien Brody, Campbell Scott, Yvonne Strahovski, and Linda Lavin

Porter Wren is a Manhattan tabloid writer with an appetite for scandal. On the beat he sells murder, tragedy, and anything that passes for the truth. At home, he is a dedicated husband and father. But when a seductive stranger


Now a major motion picture, Manhattan Night, starring Adrien Brody, Campbell Scott, Yvonne Strahovski, and Linda Lavin

Porter Wren is a Manhattan tabloid writer with an appetite for scandal. On the beat he sells murder, tragedy, and anything that passes for the truth. At home, he is a dedicated husband and father. But when a seductive stranger asks him to dig into the unsolved murder of her husband, he is drawn into a very nasty case of sexual obsession and blackmail--one that threatens his job, his marriage, and his life.

Manhattan Nocturne is a brilliantly drawn tableau of the gritty, gaudy city, and a thrilling literary noir.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
If it weren't for the miles of dangerous videotape that snake through this marvelous story, binding its participants to each other and to their ever more elaborate lies, Harrison's latest (after Bodies Electric) could take place in the Manhattan of 40 years ago. The nostalgia is so palpable that the opening scenes conjure images of a jaded reporter sidling through the city's midnight shadows, intent on getting "the story." Porter Wren (returning from earlier Harrison novels) is a columnist for a New York daily tabloid, happily married with two kids and a terrifying mortgage, when he's approached at a swank party by a woman who in earlier parlance would have been called a "dame." She's Caroline Crowley, widow of hot young filmmaker Simon Crowley. Not even Wren's native cynicism cues him to Caroline's real intentions until he has compromised himself and his family's safety. Crowley was found mysteriously dead in a Lower East Side lot; more than a year later, his murder remains unsolved, but that doesn't seem to be foremost on Caroline's mind. Her current predicament concerns the monstrous billionaire who owns Wren's paper, and who believes a mystery video that has been turning up repeatedly in his office must be coming from her. All Caroline asks is that Wren find the original video, which has nothing to do with Simon's deathmaybe. But as Wren was advised years earlier by a washed-up journalist, "It's all one story." Harrison shows the truth of this maxim as he deftly connects dozens of far-flung charactersa pair of sad, dotty lawyers in Queens, a spurned lover who shot his fiance, a nanny in Wren's serviceand as many Manhattan locales into a breathtaking collage. His prose brims with the anguish and joy, the guilt and regret and recklessness, of hundreds of the city's voices. He proves that it is all one storyand one that will keep readers enthralled. Author tour. (Sept.)
Library Journal
This third novel by Harrison (e.g, Bodies Electric, LJ 3/15/93) tells of a cynical, burned-out Manhattan tabloid columnist, Porter Wren, who is seduced by a beautiful woman who, not coincidently, agonizes over the unsolved murder of her famous husband. The resourceful Wren investigates, ultimately endangering his family by provoking an evil billionaire while agonizing over his infidelity. Manhattan Nocturne rehashes the same theme of Harrison's earlier novels: A relatively wealthy man must come to terms with his small evils while working to right a larger, societal evil. Incessant name-dropping and an anticlimactic ending shave some points from what is otherwise a well-written, very entertaining story peopled by intriguing and fully fleshed characters. Ultimately, this will do well in popular fiction collections, but one can't help but expect better from this author. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/96.]Mark Annichiarico, "Library Journal"
Thomas Gaughan
Journalist Porter Wren has it all--a booming career as the new Jimmy Breslin, a happy marriage, two kids he loves deeply, and an eighteenth-century farmhouse in Manhattan. His street-wise columns are read faithfully by everyone from the mayor to immigrant cabbies. But Wren risks everything when a striking and mysterious young woman crooks her finger. He soon finds himself, his marriage, and his children threatened by his surplus of testosterone and curiosity. Suddenly, he's investigating the death of the mystery woman's late husband, who was a hot young filmmaker. He's followed, harassed, and beaten by the minions of the Rupert Murdochlike Australian media mogul who owns the newspaper. And he's holding videotaped evidence in the unsolved death of a cop. Even the police are looking for him. This is a complex and compelling story, and it's filled with deeply etched characterizations and thoughtful, almost epistolary and elegiac ruminations on the joys, pains, and fears of marriage, parenthood, death, and other aspects of life. Harrison, who is deputy editor of "Harper's", is an elegant and insightful writer, but there's a dissonance between style and story here that calls to mind John Grisham trying to become John Updike. Still, the pluses far outweigh the minuse--and a vigorous publicity campaign will generate demand.
Kirkus Reviews
In fair homage to the noir tradition, Harrison (Bodies Electric, 1993, etc.) turns all of Manhattan into one man's personal sinkhole, where he can indulge a passion for moment-of- death stories and the twists elevating brute violence into tragedy.

Porter Wren, a tabloid columnist specializing in the human face of death, has climbed to success in part by subverting a real talent for exposing corruption in the city. He has two precious kids, and is married to one of New York's best surgeons, but none of that seems to matter when a beautiful woman approaches him at a party. He finds her mesmerizing and the story she tells of her husband, an acclaimed filmmaker whose body turned up in a building being demolished and whose murder remains unsolved, fascinating. Porter wants more of the story and of her; the next day she takes him to bed, then opens a trunk of tapes her husband left behind, videos that are clandestine scenes of real life and death. Told by his publisher (a ruthless Australian with a worldwide publishing empire built on tabloids—sound familiar?) to retrieve one that he finds compromising, Porter courts disaster when he can't locate it. He does find a tape of an NYPD officer being murdered, a case also unsolved, but he no sooner informs a friend on the force about it than he's beaten and the tape stolen by the publishers' goons. When his toddler is wounded by another intruder on the Aussie's payroll, Porter retaliates, tracking down the material so feared by his boss. In the process, however, he learns his lover's secret too, with a glimpse into her black heart that both ends their affair and binds them uncomfortably together in a lethal conspiracy of silence.

Sordid stuff sure to tickle any voyeur's fancy, written with skill and considerable visceral force—even if occasionally straying beyond the credible.

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Manhattan Nocturne

By Colin Harrison

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1996 Colin Harrison
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0525-1





Begin on the night that my old life ended. Begin on a warm April evening with a rumpled thirty-nine-year-old man stepping out of his cab at Park Avenue and Seventy-seventh. Manhattan steams and rumbles around him. He needs food, he wants sex, he must have sleep, and he'd prefer them in that order. The cab speeds off. The time is 1 a.m., and he looks up at his apartment building with a heavy, encyclopedic exhalation, which in its lung depth and audible huh can be found his whole life — wish and dream, sadness and joy, victory and loss. Yes, his whole life swirls in that one wet breath — as it does in everyone's.

The idea was for him to get home in time for his son's birthday party, as a surprise. Even his wife isn't expecting him. But his plane was delayed leaving San Francisco, circled LaGuardia endlessly, and then the traffic into the city was slow, even at that hour, the Brooklyn -Queens Expressway full of bumping badboys in smoked-glass SUVs, off-peak tractor-trailers, limos from hell. Now, planted on the pavement with his suitcase, our man loosens his red silk tie and top shirt button. He's tired of such constriction, though addicted to its rewards. And has he not been rewarded? Why, yes, of course — bonuses and dividends and compound interest and three-for-one splits. And does he not expect many more such rewards — semiannual wifely blow jobs, prompt service at the dry cleaner's, his secretary's unhesitating agreement to do whatever he asks? Yes, how could he not? He's worked for all these things.

He's a successful lawyer, our lawyer. My lawyer. My own lost self. He's been with his firm for fourteen years, made partner long ago. His client list includes a major major bank (run by dragons in suits, minority-owned by the House of Saud, accountable to no one), several real estate developers (testicle-munching madmen), a television network (puppets dangled by-puppets), and various high-net -worth individuals (inheritors, connivers, marriage-flippers). He can handle these people. He's a man of brisk phone calls and efficient business lunches and clean paperwork. Dependable, but not a killer. Or rather, apparently not a killed. Not a screamer or a power -drinker or a deal-popper — no doors get blown off when he goes by, the secretaries don't look up. In fact, he should be a little flashier, but probably couldn't quite pull it off. His hair is too thin, his waist one Sunday Times too thick. On the third hand, the world runs on dependable, unflashy people like him and he knows it. People feel comfortable with him. The law firm feels comfortable. So he feels only somewhat uncomfortable, only a bit replaceable. He understands that it's going to be a slow climb. Five years long for every big one up. He sees the middle passage looming, the gray hair, the stiffness in the knees, the cholesterol pills. But not yet, quite. Where the climb ends, he isn't sure, but it probably involves golf and a boat and the urologist, and this is acceptable, almost. If there's a streak of fatalism in him, he keeps it under control. He wishes for many things and knows he'll get only a few. He wishes he were taller, richer, slimmer, and had screwed many more girls before getting married. On the other hand, his wife, Judith, who is five years younger, is quite lovely. He wishes, however, that she was just a little nicer to him. She knows that she's still quite lovely, for a while at least, until — as she has announced many times — she gets her mother's neck. (Will it be a softly bloated horror, or an udder of empty skin? He doesn't know; there's a family history of cosmetic surgery.) Meanwhile, he's been faithful and a good provider and even changed a few diapers when their son was young. Steady — the same guy year in and year out. Judith, however, believes in the reinventability of all things, especially herself, and has cycled through shiatsu, aromatherapy, yoga, Lord knows what. Wanting something, something else. Seems frustrated, even by her own orgasms. Wants, wants more. More what? Don't he and Judith have quite enough? Of course not. But such desire is dangerous. Thus the constant reinvention. He doesn't understand how that can be done; you are who you are, he believes, and that's it.

He'd like to reinvent his paycheck, however. He's paid a lot. But he's worth more. The old senior partners, amused and goatish, padding along the hallways, suck out more money than they bring in. Though he and Judith live in one of those apartment buildings where a silver -haired doorman greets every resident by name, he wishes that he were paid better — eighty percent would do — for Judith wants another child soon. And kids in New York City are expensive, totems of major money. The ability to project a couple of children through infancy, doctors' visits, babysitters, private school, music lessons, and summer camps while living in Manhattan requires a constant stream of after-tax cash. It's not just the cost of education and supervision; it's the protection, the cushioning. The city's children were traumatized enough by the World Trade Center attack. They don't need to see all the panhandlers with seeping sores, the crazies and subway-shitters. You hope to keep them segregated and supervised. Not loitering or dawdling or drifting, because to linger along the path home is to invite bad possibility. The child snatcher, the pervert, the mob of taunting adolescents wielding box cutters. In Manhattan all monsters are proximate, if not by geography, then by imagination.

And the contours of the imagination are changed by money. The units of luxury get larger. And this lawyer, this man, my own man, this hairless ape in a size 44 suit, knows it. You eat what you kill, he tells himself. Kill more and you'll eat more. Another child means a new apartment, a bigger car. And keeping Selma, their baby-sitter, on for another few years. He's paying Selma $48,000 a year, when you figure in the extras and freebies and vacations. That's $100,000 pretax. More than he made as a first-year lawyer! How amazing he can pay this, how terrible that he must! And Judith is expecting a big, shingled summer place on Nantucket someday, just like her friends have. Fifteen rooms, tennis court, heated gunite pool, koi pond. "You'll do it, I know you will!" she says brightly. He nods in dull acceptance at the years of work necessary; he'll be humpbacked with fatigue. Yes, money, he needs more money. He's making a ton, needs more! The law firm's compensation committee is run by a tightfisted bean counter named Larry Kirmer; our lawyer, a sophisticated man who made the review at Yale, has enjoyed fantasies of savagely beating Kirmer; these scenarios are quite pleasurable for him to indulge, and such indulgence results in his ability to appear cheerful and positive when in Kirmer's company. Kirmer has no idea of the imaginary wounds he's received, the eye-gougings, dropkicks to the groin, secret heart-punctures. But if Kirmer doubled his salary, the fantasies of violence and retribution would disappear. Life would be kinda great.

Now our man steps toward the apartment house admiring the cherry trees under the windows, just past their peak, as is our man himself. Passerby at this late hour notice nothing unusual about him; if he was once sleekly handsome, he is no longer, if he had once been a vigorous twenty-year-old, now he is paunched in the gut, a man who tosses a rubber football to his son Timothy on weekends. A man whose wife apparently does not mind that when he suggests that they have sex he uses mock-witty metaphors involving speedboats ("get up on my water skis") or professional basketball ("drive the lane"). Yes, apparently Judith likes his conventional masculinity. It does not cause any rearrangements of her femininity. It is part of Judith's life, her life style, to be honest, which is not quite the same as a sofa or a minivan, but not utterly divisible from them, either. This is the way she prefers it, too, and any danger to their marriage will come not from a challenge to its conventionality — some rogue element, some dark and potent knight — but from her husband's sudden inability to sustain the marriage's predictable comfort. He, for his part, doesn't yet understand such things, which is to say he doesn't really understand his wife. He understands his law firm and his son and the sports page. He is, in fact, very similar to a sofa or a minivan. He has never lost or gained very much. Just dents and unidentified stains. His griefs are thus far minor, his risks utterly safe, his passions unremarkable, his accomplishments incremental and, when measured against his enormous advantages of class and race and sex, more or less obligatory. If he has the capacity for deep astonishment or genuine brutality, it is as yet undiscovered.

Am I too hard on him, is my description cruel and dismissive? Probably. He was, after all, handsome enough, quite well thought of, dependable in word and deed. A real workhorse in the office. A heck of a guy. Right as rain, a straight shooter, a good dude. His waist really wasn't one Sunday Times too thick. He was even reasonably fit. But I am allowed to distort this man, to seek indications of weakness and decay, because it makes his fate easier to explain. And because that man — you know this already — that man was me, Bill Wyeth.

I'd last talked to Judith early that afternoon, telling her I'd see her the next day. It was one of those marital conversations full of irritation and subtext. "Timothy really misses you," she'd told me. "He wishes you were here."

I'd thought about telling her I was taking an earlier flight. But I wanted Timothy's surprise to be hers, too. I'd been away for four days. My boy was turning eight, and he and his friends were set to go bowling, attend a Knicks practice, and eat at a midtown restaurant featuring waiters dressed like aliens. Then, stuffed with stimulation, they'd all sleep over at our apartment that night. And as I opened the door the signs of their wolf-pack activity met me in the hall: a dozen -odd sport shoes scattered over the floor, a spray of coats and hats, a pile of gift bags, then a finer grade of debris — jelly beans, baseball cards, sneaker-flattened candy, removable vampire teeth, balloons, plastic spoons, streamer paper, chocolate cake, even fake rubber fingers oozing fake rubber blood. With children, one learns to read domestic disorder and its patterns like a forensic investigator sifting the wreckage of a plane. Judith, I concluded, had corralled the boys into bed, then skipped cleaning up after them. A shadowed glimpse into our bedroom confirmed my guess; there Judith lay, exhausted in her sleep, her breasts rising and falling. (She hadn't nursed our son much, and they were still "the franchise," I always told her, which both disgusted and pleased her, and which, we both knew — and were to learn again — was exactly correct; at age thirty-four, her breasts still had market value — more, in fact, than either of us had dreamed.)

I gently closed the door — on this, the night my old life was to end — and peered into our son's bedroom, where all nine boys lay huddled and overlapping in their sleeping bags like puppies. Perhaps one sighed or tossed or addressed a professional athlete in intimate dream-whisper. I kept the hall light on in case of bathroom seekers (who can forget the hot shame of pee, the furtive, groin -clutching pajama-shuffle?) and drifted into our new kitchen, which had cost almost $100,000, and picked up stray plates and pieces of shredded paper tablecloth. The multicolored chaos of the apartment suggested nothing so much as a hurricane passing over a small coastal town, leaving denuded trees and tossed pickups. No wonder Judith was exhausted.

On the new kitchen counter, a kind of grayish Brazilian marble streaked with purple quartz ("It looks — oh, it looks a foot deep!" our designer had moaned at the prospect of further insertions of our money), lay a list, typed by my secretary, of each boy's full name, their parents and/or stepparents and/or nannies, and the numbers of each (offices, home, cell); in addition, the names of certain boys had been annotated by my wife with pickup times, ear infection medication doses, etc. Innocent enough in its intention, the sheet was sociologically revealing. Here were the sons of some of the most prominent fortyish fathers in the city or, in the case of several second marriages, fiftyish fathers, and likely as not their equally prominent mothers. Every day their corporations and banks appeared in the global financial press. Citibank, Pfizer, IBM. This fact hadn't been lost on me from the beginning. Certain boys in our son's class were favorites of his, others not. But the favorites didn't correspond perfectly with the boys in the class whose parents might be cultivated. Perhaps I had suggested a few certain other boys be invited "for fairness." Perhaps? Of course I had.

Judith had just sighed, tallying the added effort and hypocrisy, the cost of arguing with me, the cost of not. "Okay," she'd breathed heavily, knowing my motivations. That was partly why she married me, no? To eat what I killed? Our son, meanwhile, had clapped his hands in excitement. He was a generous kid and so the party went from five to eight other boys. And here was the list of them, blurred by spilled juice, appended with a smear of chocolate icing.

I set it aside and prowled the refrigerator. Some cold pasta, eight -packs of butterscotch pudding for Timothy's school lunches. But nothing ready-to-eat for a hungry man. I called the Thai takeout place two blocks away and ordered up a hot, greasy mess that came in fifteen minutes, the delivery boy smiling as he took the cash tip, and then Bill Wyeth, yours and mine, spent the last minutes of his former life eating dinner, watching the sports scores, opening bills, and checking his e -mail. There was some consolation in all this multitrack-ing and functionality, the servicing of diverse needs at the same time. Some, but not enough.

Bill Wyeth has one other need, so he steals into the bedroom just to check again. But Judith is miles under, her breath faintly foul, her arm flopped out on the sheet like she's just lobbed a hand grenade against his advance. She is not the kind of woman you can wake up in the middle of the night and jump on. Judith needs preparation — on -ramps and gradual acceleration. They'd had sex before he left for San Francisco, but that was five nights ago, and he never partakes of the hotel porn, out of fear that it will somehow appear on the law firm's bill. Every click, every selection stored forever, a string of data trailing behind each of us like a spider's filament. He'd been hoping that getting home early might put her in the mood. But no dice. He needs release, a little shot in the dark. He needs some comfort. Just a little. Besides, he'll sleep better, have more energy tomorrow to deal with the work that's piled up in his absence, to deal with Kirmer.

Judith rolls on her back, breasts shifting, letting go her own wet, capacious breath, and he watches her, his hand idly massaging his groin. Is he frustrated? Hard to say. Bill Wyeth has, sexually speaking, reached the Age of Acceptance. He accepts the fact that he is faithful to his wife. He accepts his desire to plunder any number of younger women and a few older ones who cross his path. He accepts that this will not happen. He accepts that it could happen, given sufficient prevarication, rerouting of cash, and subtle adjustment of his schedule. He accepts the fact that his wife has become rather unmotivated in bed — "disinterested" would be clinical yet polite. "Lazy" would be inflammatory but true. He accepts the fact that it might be his fault but that it really might not be either. He accepts the idea that marriage is the best arrangement for raising children, although it's pretty tough on the parents. He accepts the fact that many, if not most, of the women he desires to plunder are, no doubt, biographically bruised, and that their intriguing neuroses would quickly become tedious, and he accepts the fact that, all things given, Judith is a rather wonderful human being and that he is enormously lucky to be married to her. She is, above all, a devoted mother to their son, still feeling guilty about not nursing, but unconflicted by the outlay of time and energy of mothering. She'd wrecked her career to be a mother, and because she's accepted this, so has he. Also finding his acceptance is the fact that Judith — sweet, loving, busty, good and nervous Judith — has failed to understand exactly what he needs sexually, despite his patient, nonconfrontational description of what that is — and it is not a position or explicit behavior — no, not at all (well, maybe a few behaviors), but rather a kind of emotional largesse on her part, a kind of lingering generosity he has yearned for his whole life it seems and received only rarely. He accepts that she may desire all kinds of lovers who are not him, for it is clear — just walk the streets of New York — that human beings are infinite in their variety. She probably thinks about women, and she definitely goes a little weak around older, powerful men with full heads of white hair, and says she doesn't find black men attractive (but she has said this a few too many times for him to believe it), and anyway, he accepts this, too. Just as he accepts that out there, in the real world, not just the thin stratum, of economic frosting where he resides, that people are fucking and boffing and sucking and humping, all shapes and sizes, and putting things into each other — dicks, fingers, tongues, hands, fists, toys, vegetables, viruses, etc. — and that often they are made happy by these activities and often not. He accepts that there are women who require their men to be hairless, and men who desire their women to bench -press three hundred pounds. He accepts that a few radical lesbians actually inject themselves with gray-market testosterone even as certain gay men are stealing estrogen pills from their postmenopausal mothers. He accepts the "classical" feminist critique of men, male hegemony, etc. He accepts the "do me" feminist revision of those critiques. He accepts the terror that women feel at the idea of rape — real, mouth-covering, vagina-tearing rape. He accepts his own occasional, always unplugged desire to do so. He accepts that in certain moments in bed with Judith, he gets close to doing it himself. He accepts that this is a lot of baloney. He accepts that sometimes she loves, loves, loves this (his forceful passion! her helplessness!) and other times accepts it dutifully as a necessary chore to be endured, as transcendent as replacing empty toilet-paper rolls. He accepts that the she-males advertised in the back pages of The Village Voice often look better than the women. He accepts that he has wondered what it would be like to give a blow job or get fucked up the ass. He accepts that he will never know. He accepts that each one of us wants, wants so much, yards and miles and continents of affection and sensation and release, and that mostly we do our best to get it and our best not to get it, depending. We deal with disappointment, we sublimate, we masturbate, we accessorize, we fantasize, we sprinkle psychosexual condiments onto our gruel. Yes, he accepts this, he accepts all of it.


Excerpted from Manhattan Nocturne by Colin Harrison. Copyright © 1996 Colin Harrison. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Colin Harrison is the author of several novels, including The Havana Room and Afterburn. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, writer Kathryn Harrison, and their three children.
Colin Harrison is the author of the novels Break and Enter, Bodies Electric, Manhattan Nocturne, Afterburn, The Havana Room, The Finder, and Risk. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Manhattan Nocturne 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could not put it down. You feel the terrible guilt plaguing the main character and the choices he makes.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
If anyone had their life altered due to an affair this book rings true. It is written in gritty New York style which comes from the author's Brooklyn roots. The story is totally believable - older man fools himself into thinking an affair is more than it is and he can get out anytime he wants - but reality always prevails. It is a quick read, totally suspenseful and if you concentrate on some of the sentences out of context it is also quite humorous. A writing style mix between Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin. I cannot wait to read his other books!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I listened to an abridged audiotape of this book and liked it from the beginning. The narrator was good and gave the story a kind of grittiness that makes you think of dark, foggy nights and footsteps in the dark. I found it very easy to visualize the scenes. The story was interesting (but not engrossing), and I liked the author's 'style.' The frankness in his writing surprised me, but didn't turn me off. You hear about so many affairs in real life, that the one that happens here isn't a shocker. I don't agree that it happened, but it didn't shock me that it did. The story was decent but not as engrossing as I expected due to the narration and author's style. Meaning, this sounded like a book that would grab you from the start and keep you on the edge of your seat, but it wasn't. It did grab me from the start, but it wasn't suspenseful or thrilling enough to have me on the edge of my seat. The ending was okay and the 'wrap-up' reminded me of the old detective noir stories. Again, the ending didn't lead up to a big bang full of excitement, but it wasn't bad. I would recommend the book but only in an audiotape version. Had I been reading it visually, I don't know that I would have gotten through it so quickly. But on audio, it was a nice 'read.'