I have always said that I prefer series fiction to have a natural ending, that I’m not a fan of those series novels that play out indefinitely with no end in sight, except that brought by a decline in sales or the author’s interest slowly fading.
But the idea that Onion Street is the second last book to feature Reed Farrel Coleman’s incredible creation, Mo Prager, makes me feel somewhat sad.
The end was always coming, of course. Ever since we learned that Mo is ill, that his own body is working against him like a ticking time bomb, its been inevitable that an end is in sight.
So it feels only right that the second to last Prager novel should come almost as a breather, a chance for us to catch our breath. In essence, Onion Street seems like an extended flashback; giving us a glimpse of Mo Prager in the days before he joined the police force, in the days where he was still figuring who he was and what kind of man he wanted to be.
This is very much in keeping with the general them of the series. The past and the present have always been intertwined, not just for Mo but for those around him. When he worked as a part time PI, Prager often found that events from the past had often inevitable effects upon the present.
And so Prager, finds himself at the funeral of an old friend. Death is on his mind, of course. It has been since his diagnosis.
Dead or not, gone is gone. It’s what happens to friends: they fall away. Time erodes them into fi ne grains of powder carried by the wind to alien places to teach or to start up a business or to settle down or to just run away. Me, I’d never strayed too far from Coney Island, but I suppose we all had to kill time somewhere before, in the end, time killed us. In the scheme of things, it didn’t much matter where that time was spent.
The funeral – and the thought of friends gone – sparks old memories in Mo, and we are pulled back into the past along with him, to a world where Mo couldn’t conceive of the pain that is to come in his life, of the things he might achieve or the challenges that would await him.
By going back to this pre-formed Mo, we gain a deeper sense of who he is. Often, flashback origin novels can feel hokey or unnatural; events are often given a false sense of foreshadowing or the narrative winds up winking to the reader but, hey, you know this. Luckily for all, Coleman’s too smart a writer to try these kind of tricks, and what he does is tell a story that feels so utterly of its time and place that it is not so much the events but the themes of those events that carry into Mo’s later life.
These are what define Mo to one degree or another, and here we see the first time that he starts to question all these qualities of life, the first time that he is forced to make truly terrible decisions that will wind up affecting not just himself, but everyone around him.
The novel proper begins in 1967. Moe’s in college, still trying to find who he is. There are radical groups on campus, and when one of Moe’s friends seems too close to some of their more dangerous activities, Moe is spurred into action to protect his friends and his current girlfriend, whose behaviour is, from Moe’s point of view at least, become stranger and more erratic as she moves deeper into other circles.
The sense of time and place in the novel is, as one would expect, utterly convincing. Coleman seems incapable of writing a dull sentence, and here he manages to balance the naivety of the young Moe Prager with the more worldly narration of his older self. There’s a sense here of a dual narrative, of the older Moe trying to connect with his younger self, to rediscover and understand who he – and by extension his old friend Bobby – was.
But among all that, the plot rockets forward with a compelling pace. Coleman lays out a number of disparate threads, only to masterfully pull them together as the novel heads for its retrospectively inevitable climax. The action scenes are handled well, but more than that Coleman never loses sight of the fact that character is the heart of the Prager novels. His mysteries are those of motivation and the unknown burdens that can make someone act in a way we might not understand at face value.
Onion Street serves as a reminder of who Moe is, and what it is that he stands for. It lets us breathe before the inevitable, serving as a way to better understand the man whose life we have found ourselves a part of for eight previous novels. But more than that, it is a brilliant 60’s set thriller that makes the politics of the era personal, that shows the lengths people are willing to go to for what they believe in, that shows us people at their worst and more importantly at their best. The Prager novels are not noir in the most cynical sense. They are philosophical crime novels, explorations of people and motivations. They allow us to get a real sense of the complexities of moral choices. And more than that, they are beautifully written.
I don’t want to say goodbye to Moe.
But Onion Street convinces me that Coleman will find the right way for us to say goodbye.
Russel D McLean for Crimescenescotland, 06/04/13