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Break and Enter: A Novel

Break and Enter: A Novel

by Colin Harrison

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Peter Scattergood is a Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney, a relentless and clever prosecutor who has just landed the biggest case of his career--a double homicide, involving the mayor's nephew and his mistress. This is not the best time for his wife to walk out on their crumbling marriage and to disappear. As Peter tries to find his wife, and to build his


Peter Scattergood is a Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney, a relentless and clever prosecutor who has just landed the biggest case of his career--a double homicide, involving the mayor's nephew and his mistress. This is not the best time for his wife to walk out on their crumbling marriage and to disappear. As Peter tries to find his wife, and to build his case, he is drawn into an affair with an alluring stranger named Cassandra, a woman whose greatest skill is arousing suspicion. Break and Enter is an intense, intricate thriller about the thresholds we must cross in order to get at the truth.

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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Break and Enter

By Colin Harrison


Copyright © 1990 Colin Harrison
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0524-4


GUILTY. THE MAN'S AS GUILTY as they come, Peter Scattergood argued to himself, nearly speaking out loud. He needed to get back to the courtroom but tried, even as he hurried along — a big, black-haired man in a dark, expensive overcoat — to look up at the sky, to catch a piece of pale lunchtime light bouncing around up there between all the new skyscrapers. There was no time to stop and stand. Peter moved faster through the crowds, cold air slipping under his wool scarf. Awaiting him was another appalling common case of sex murder — premeditated, first degree. No need to think about it. But because murder marked the outer limits of human depravity, reminding him that he stood at the opposite end of the continuum, there was a small pleasure in its contemplation, a certain grim comfort. And he'd take what comfort he could get, for lately it had been in short supply.

He turned the corner onto Market Street, bent red-faced into the January wind. A block east stood Philadelphia City Hall — six hundred rooms, thirty years to build, walls twenty-two feet thick, once the largest and tallest public building in America, the colossal statue of William Penn reaching five hundred and forty-eight feet above the ground. He'd first been awed by it as a schoolboy. The edifice stood before him in all its marble-scrolled splendor, gray from pollution, with pigeon shit dripped around the cornices and columns and window ledges, but still it was a godawful magnificent building and filled with the offices of government; the Mayor and his entourage — corrupt bureaucratic pinheads all, the ever-bickering City Council, the social services offices, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the city property office, and jesus christ, of course, forty-nine courtrooms, and even, he had heard rumored (from Berger, who knew everything), a small janitor's closet where you could get a blowjob any hour of the working day. A girl sat there on a wooden stool. Five minutes, thirty bucks. But lately City Hall bothered him. It was the many figures sculpted in stone on the outside, the lion gargoyles who grinned maniacally at him, the bearded old tyrant perched over a window lintel five stories up who watched below, and the marble-cheeked virgins who stared wistfully from the tops of porticoes. He told himself not to look at their stone faces.

Peter crossed at the green light, walked beneath the arch, and inside, past the Register of Wills office, toward the elevator to the fourth floor. He was working out of Courtroom 453 these days, and Judge Scarletti was not above scolding an assistant district attorney for being late to the afternoon session. He passed judges' offices, jury rooms, and other doors open wide enough for him to glimpse fleets of tired secretaries and wooden, ceiling-high shelves stuffed with files brown with age. The halls were subterraneanly gloomy; silhouettes advanced through light and shadow, shadow and light. He nodded silent hellos to other attorneys, court officers, judges. At the elevator door stood a couple of cops reading the Daily News on the taxpayers' time. On the fourth floor a group of jurors wearing yellow and blue "Juror" buttons bustled by, imperious in their fleeting importance. Somewhere a K-9 German shepherd barked. Peter hated the dogs; they were preternaturally huge and trained to terrify with crazy brown eyes and a quick bite. He passed detectives waiting to testify. Each was large, well-groomed, and overfed. They laughed amongst themselves. In City Hall, everybody knew everybody.

On the bench outside Courtroom 453 sat a man in his thirties sucking at a cigarette, the smoke lost in the dimness of the hallway. Long curly hair, motorcycle jacket, deep chest. A big man. Peter recognized him as one of the older brothers of Robinson, the defendant.

"Mister prosecutor," the man grunted in a hoarse voice. He stood and sized up the vertical sweep of Peter's Brooks Brothers gray pinstripe, maroon tie, and crisp white shirt. They stood out of earshot of the two policemen at the courtroom door.

"What can I do for you?"

"You from Philly?" The man flicked his cigarette at the floor. "Just asking."

"Born," Peter said. "And raised."

"How old are you?"


"Shit. Punks sending up punks." He stepped closer, quite fearlessly. "If my little bro's found guilty, what will it be?"

"Life, probably life."

"He's a kid. You gotta go easy, man."

"The jury will decide that, not me."

"It's you who keep saying how guilty he is."

Peter remembered the murder victim, Judy Warren, and the hours spent consoling her family, swearing to her parents he'd put the killer away, explaining each step of the maddeningly slow legal process, from the charging to pretrial hearings to, finally, a jury trial. For months the family had been consumed by the monstrous energy of grief; the fine points of prosecutorial strategy meant nothing to them. The family wanted justice, the purge of their outrage. Judy's severed left thumb had been found in her vagina.

"That's what you wanted to tell me?" Peter replied in a cold voice.

The defendant's brother stared at him, then smiled.

"No. I wanted to tell you to go fuck yourself."

Peter pushed past him and was waved through the door by a cop with a metal detector wand. The familiar gloominess of the courtroom comforted him, with its faded carpeting, faulty lighting, and the wooden paneling on which hung grim portraits of long-dead judges. Gladys, the fat black court clerk, watched him make his way to the table and put down his briefcase.

"Mr. Scattergood, your wife called," she said sternly, stacking her records. "She don't seem happy with you."

"You know something I don't, Gladys?"

"Don't mess with me, Mr. Scattergood. She's a good woman."

"She leave a number?"

"Yeah, she did."

"Well, that's a start." He took the pink message slip from Gladys's smooth black hand and folded it into his pocket. "And without a start in life, where are we, Gladys?"

She gave him a sober look. "You tell me, Mr. Scattergood."

We're dead, he thought to himself. He fingered the slip, thought about calling. There was no time to worry about Janice now, no time to ponder what latest piece of his marriage had crumbled away. His chest was bothering him again, a dull pain right under the breastbone. The doctor said too much caffeine and entirely too much stress. It was chest wall pain; there was no need yet to run an EKG — he had the heart of an ox, and low cholesterol, too, thanks to Janice's vegetarian meals.

Judge Scarletti came in and sat behind the bench with the obliviousness of a man boarding a bus. He fussed with a computer printout of cases, checked his watch, then looked up.

Two beefy sheriff's deputies entered with the unhandcuffed defendant, William Biddle Robinson, who sat down next to Morgan, his counsel. Robinson was a brash young man who looked as if he had just stepped out of an American Express card commercial. But despite a staid wool suit and tie, Robinson was entirely unpredictable — perhaps it was his habit of smiling inappropriately and raising his eyebrows several times a minute. His parents owned a controlling interest in the holding corporation that owned one of the city's private hospitals. Young William had murdered a girl whom he had seen romantically and then been dumped by. As cases went, it was typically horrific and had received little attention, perhaps because the murderer was from an outlying county and the girl, whose family shunned reporters, was lower-middle-class and without media-lustre. There had been some minor, obligatory attention to the case — page three of the B section of the Inquirer, the usual write-up in the Daily News — but basically not much, due also to the fact Philly was undergoing yet another periodic paroxysm of massive public scandal, with Common Pleas judges dropping regularly to corruption charges and organized-crime bosses being trapped by undercover operations. The swarming clot of cameras and reporters was down on the second floor reporting on this week's story of the decade — the prosecution of one of the crime bosses, a gentleman given to gold tie clips and tidy mob hits — and that was fine with Peter. Although this case was more gruesome than many, it would fall into the hopper of history with all the others. He was eager to get the trial done, in and out, no fuss. The roving, insatiable eye of the media — it could suck the energy out of a man — was just what Peter didn't want now, not with the trouble he already had.

Actually the newspapers and television stations had missed a good story. The defendant was twenty-two, brilliantly articulate at times, disturbingly disoriented at others, with a preppy Main Line education — the local brand-name private schools. A graduate of Yale, with one year at Columbia in the MBA program. He'd been arrested with no fewer than eighteen credit cards in his wallet and wearing L. L. Bean duckboots, green wide-wale corduroys, and a button-down oxford shirt.

Through the interconnected world of Philadelphia's private schools, clubs, and summer camps, Peter had known vaguely of the Robinson family for over a decade, even once been to their home. As was often the case, the crime by one member of the family reflected the reality of the rest of its members. The Robinsons lived on a huge, Revolutionary-era estate twenty miles out of the city in Chester County, with a long driveway that led to the thick stone walls and simple lines of the old mansion. A pool in the back — in which Peter had swum, the most modern of kitchens, old Kashmiri Oriental rugs on the wide, pegged floorboards, Chinese jade on the bookshelves in the study, an expanse of bedrooms above. The parents had, over the years, smiled into the society columnist's photographer's flashbulb, drinks in hand, dental work gleaming. Sad, polished wealth. Covert facelifts, the Devon Horse Show, the shingled old summer house tucked away in the dunes of Nantucket, the signed Ansel Adams hung in the foyer, the quarterly trust fund check from a Manhattan bank. Peter had known such people all his life. Their children sometimes went mad, despite fancy funny farms in New England at eighty thousand dollars a year, psychiatrists, etc. What was worse? To have all of life's advantages and be a complete failure, or to have all of life's disadvantages, fight like hell, and still be crushed by your circumstances? Robinson's parents, shamed and angry, had made certain funds available for their son's defense and then absented themselves from North America for an indefinite period.

Thus neither parent of the defendant had appeared at the trial once, which the jury had probably already noted without sympathy. The fact was that the parents had given up long ago. Dr. Robinson made immense, unnecessary sums as a surgeon and used some of this money to indulge his avid desire for fly-fishing in remote regions of Canada, South America, and northern India. He was rarely home. His wife had suffered the unfortunate fate of raising four sons in isolation and wealth, and with minimal interest by their father. The sons went to the best of schools, and thus any tendency toward cunning was strengthened by a superior education. Complicating matters were their natural physical strength and courage (all of them ran on the large side, with the wide-jawed handsomeness of their father) and their proximity to all manner of disconnected males floating around the quasi-rural landscape: drug dealers, motorcycle gang members, gas station attendants, semi-pro mechanics, volunteer firemen, small-time organized-crime members, and out-of-work truck drivers. They were used to doing whatever they pleased and as boys ran amok over their parents' property in packs with their friends, occasionally setting fires, motorbiking across what once had been a rolled croquet lawn, torturing small and lost animals, holding deafening parties in the barn at the edge of the property, and, as they got older, manufacturing drugs in one of the outlying buildings, hiding stolen cars, and keeping small harems of disaffected local young women of little self-esteem or prospect. Each son knew that he would inherit at age thirty the principal of a trust that each year grew in magnitude — an arrangement their parents were wholly unable to avert, due to the trust details drafted by the long-dead grandfather — and thus there was no incentive for the boys to work toward anything.

William Robinson, the youngest son, had deviated from the pattern set by his older brothers to the extent that he actually pursued the semblance of an acceptable life. Propelled by the sums at his disposal and a restless intelligence, he progressed through college and into graduate school with little apparent trouble. But the stress of straddling too many worlds had finally broken him, or perhaps — Peter didn't know, didn't care, ultimately — Robinson had glimpsed the immense lovelessness within the center of his family.

"Ready, Counselor?" Judge Scarletti pulled the microphone to his mouth. Peter nodded and skimmed his notes. Someone had refilled the water pitcher on his table. Judy Warren's family came in and huddled together in the chairs behind the prosecution's desk. The women held one another's hands, fingered handkerchiefs. The men, unable to grieve openly, stared hatefully at the defendant, then assumed a look of strained dignity. Peter had seen it more times than he knew, and yet always he worried that he would fail them. Rightly or wrongly, he'd become dependent on those tears of gratitude that came with a verdict of guilty; it couldn't bring people back to life, but it did deliver a form of catharsis to the decedent's family. Now the defense counsel came in, then a few straggling spectators, the jolly retired men in cardigans who drifted from one trial to another for daily entertainment. For them, the drama was entirely academic, and they clicked their dentures happily at any mention of blood and whispered loudly as they questioned legal strategy. Then a stray law student, as Peter had been almost a decade prior — alone, quietly watching from the back, yet eagerly attentive, fitting the thick law books to courtroom reality. And now the jury filed in and found their numbered seats. Last, the brother Peter had encountered outside the courtroom entered, looked around angrily, and took a seat in the back. They all knew what was coming next.

As the prosecuting attorney, Peter had already presented nearly his entire case and was now about to conclude with the examination of his final witness, the detective who had questioned Robinson after he was arrested. On the cross-examination, Morgan would do as much as he could to destroy this testimony. But Morgan's problem was that Robinson had confessed to the crime — or, at least, to a version of the crime. There had been no violation of the defendant's rights, perhaps because he was a white, college-educated male from the upper class, and so the confession was ruled as admissible evidence in a pretrial hearing. But there were certain minor inaccuracies in the confession, due perhaps to Robinson's excitable sense of irony and manipulation when talking with police officers. Forced into a corner by overwhelming evidence, Morgan had sought the bold stroke of genius and only come up with the improbable: In his opening statements he promised to create an alternative scenario of events in order to prove that Robinson could not have committed the crime, even though he had confessed to it. The strategy was as absurd as it was dramatic.

Peter flipped over the next page of his legal pad. It read:

Detect. Nelson — questioning at 8th and Race:

1. procedural stuff — orientation

2. defend. statement. — lamp, knife, gasoline

The court officer swore in Detective Ralph N. Nelson, using a Bible with an uncracked spine and the courtroom number scrawled irreverently on the closed edges of its pages. Peter and Nelson understood each other perfectly — or as best they could given their different lives. Nelson was about fifty, black, and had been a cop almost as long as Peter had been alive, testifying in hundreds of cases. He'd been through the Rizzo, Green, and Goode administrations. Peter hadn't even pretended to instruct him prior to testimony; he would just lead the detective to all the right places and let him do the rest. Nelson was a piano of a man, and his size lent him the air not of unassailable strength but of titanic weariness, a superhuman burden of the knowledge of the ways human beings brutalized one another. Nelson settled in the witness chair, gave his badge number, and lifted his bloodshot eyes in patient expectation.


Excerpted from Break and Enter by Colin Harrison. Copyright © 1990 Colin Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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 six novels, including The Finder and The Havana Room. 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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