Forget who the “Hangman” is in this crime novel, for a second, and why he’s hanging all those young girls to their deaths around Western New York. Let’s start with some mysteries of geography: how did a venerable Buffalo street called Sycamore migrate from its long-established home linking downtown Buffalo to the city’s East Side to an apparently affluent location in the Delaware District?
And while we’re at it, where is Remsen Street in Buffalo? If you look it up in Google, it tells you that there’s a Remsen in Brooklyn but not in Buffalo. This novel would have it otherwise.
If it’s OK with you, let’s move on to the confluence of geography and sociology – the place where urban location and social makeup and terminology meet. Where did a cop born and raised in South Buffalo learn to refer to “The North” in Buffalo as that once obscenely wealthy part of Buffalo that is proscribed by the former “millionaires’ row” on Delaware Avenue and such other neighborhood streets as Summer and Elmwood?
If you talk to those raised in South Buffalo, they will tell you plain as day that in their neighborhoods, “North Buffalo” meant such streets as Hertel and Amherst. And if we’re talking about affluence, maybe such venerable tree-lined North Buffalo thoroughfares as Depew, Woodbridge, Morris and Beard i.e. the Central Park area.
Stephan Talty’s is clearly an imaginary Buffalo.
It has street names and locations in common with the city in which actual residents of the place live and work but in his second Buffalo-set novel, it has become increasingly difficult for us poor natives to maintain patience with his way of reinventing the city to suit a paranoid fictional version of Buffalo ostensibly born in its Southern grid.
Talty’s biography tells us he was born in Ireland and grew up a Bishop Timon boy in South Buffalo before going on to write such nonfiction books as “Empire of the Blue Water,” “The Illustrious Dead,” “Mulatto America,” Escape from the Land of Snows” and “Agent Garbo.” Most importantly, perhaps, Talty was the writing professional who co-wrote “A Captain’s Duty,” the book that turned into the Tom Hanks movie “Captain Phillips,” one of the very best of last year.
Talty’s first work of fiction was “Black Irish,” which introduced us to his female homicide cop refugee from the Irish precincts of South Buffalo which are painted for us in very deep shades of parochialism and xenophobia at best, and paranoia and conspiracy at worst.
In Talty’s reinvented South Buffalo they refer to themselves as “The County,” i.e. the 27th county of Ireland, and adjust their angles of vision accordingly for the rest of their lives. In real Buffalo terms, Talty’s “county” seems to have some similarities to what Jimmy Griffin used to mythologize for us in Buffalo’s First Ward.
What made “Black Irish” such a very promising beginning to a projected series of crime novels set in Buffalo was the possibility of seeing both crime and the city itself through the eyes of a truly fascinating character – a young female homicide cop raised in South Buffalo but bringing a Harvard education to her home turf and its native environs on Lake Erie’s shores.
Her name is Abbie Kearney – born Absalom Kearney, an irresistible literary shoutout to Faulkner – and she’s back for Talty’s second crime novel set in Buffalo, a little ditty called “Hangman” in which our investigating prodigy in the force is trying to get to the bottom of a sudden series of girls found dead and hanging from trees etc.
Buffalo references and locations are strewn by the dozens throughout the book – some of them in clean, clear focus and some completely out of whack.
Among the more credible locations in “Hangman” are Nardin Academy, the old Buffalo Psychiatric Center and the boat-rental facility on Hoyt Lake (though Talty treats Hoyt Lake as if it were always the lake’s name, even though it only dates from the period after the late city councilman and state assemblyman William B. Hoyt forced a clean-up and deodorization of a neighborhood affliction that had hitherto been known with considerable distaste as Delaware Park Lake, a place full of pussy willows and, back then, semi-toxic stench).
So our escaped serial killer here has returned, it seems, after a prison stretch to dispatch some girls in “The North” by hanging. Homicide cop Abbie has been engaged to put a stop to it.
To give Talty his storytelling props: his plot may be substandard for anyone who watches the likes of “Criminal Minds” and “The Mentalist” and “Elementary” but he does have a writerly knack for constructing compulsively readable narratives that can be consumed with considerable velocity and contentment. With flying colors, the fellow passes the “what happens next” test.
By all means, devour “Hangman” if you like.
But, but, but …
It’s a major disappointment. His biggest mistake is that he’s done absolutely nothing to develop his major character, Abbie Kearney, who remains a total cipher throughout the book. She’s an investigating machine, and, otherwise, a nonentity.
If Abbie Kearney is almost completely absent from a book on which she occupies almost every page, so is anything that resembles the real city in which the city is so insistently set.
When I finished “Hangman” I was in mourning for the hugely palpable qualities of the real Buffalo which might have given Talty a vault into a truly great series of crime novels – the city’s majestic soulfulness and equally majestic common sense.
We are to ourselves, quite famously, the “city of no illusions.” And less famously, we are the city of what I consider our defining urban moment, after the Bills’ crushing last-second defeat by the Giants in the first Super Bowl. The crowd that paid tribute to that team on the steps of City Hall in a Niagara Square rally cheered wildly for the introduction of kicker Scott Norwood despite the fact that his “wide right” kick forever branded the city’s greatest NFL dream.
That, I submit, is a city with incomparable soul.
Somebody needs to get THAT into a book.
Expatriate Stephan Talty, sadly, no longer seems to be that writer.
Jeff Simon is The News’ Arts and Books editor.
By Stephan Talty
302 pages, $26