Manhattan Nocturne, by Colin Harrison
New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1996
List of main characters:
Porter Wren, tabloid newspaper reporter
Lisa Wren, surgeon and Porter’s wife
Sebastian Hobbs, Australian billionaire and owner of the tabloid that publishes Wren’s column
Walter Campbell, personal assistant to Hobbs
Caroline Crowley, Porter Wren’s mistress
Simon Crowley, famous filmmaker and Caroline’s husband
Frank Crowley, Simon’s father
Josephine Brown, the Wrens’ housekeeper and nanny
Billy Munson, friend of Simon Crowley
Porter Wren, a famous tabloid newspaper columnist in New York City, is the narrator of Manhattan Nocturne. In typical noir fashion, he starts an affair with a woman he is attracted to and begins a downward spiral that almost costs him his marriage, his son’s life, and his ego. It’s true: Ego doesn’t usually appear on a list of details making a film or a novel noir. And I have to be honest: I don’t think Wren loses his ego, at least, not all of it. For me, this characteristic made Wren unsympathetic, almost to the extreme. I began to wonder about his intentions and his reliability, which I suspect wasn’t the writer’s intention. It made the novel in turn an unpleasant read, and this is one of those rare instances when I much preferred the film version over the novel. Manhattan Nocturne would have been so much better pared down to essentials, to the action, with much less chance to “hear” Wren thinking about himself, his work, and what he was going to do to get out of the mess he creates for himself.
Many of the characters in Manhattan Nocturne are not particularly likable, and likability is not a prerequisite for noir, of course. However, Porter Wren is particularly unlikable. Here he is trying to justify chasing stories in the streets of New York City for his tabloid newspaper column:
. . . I like the romantic angle. And if the newspaper is a vulture, then it restores me even as it tears from me. Listening to, say, the grieving confessions of a humble, decent woman in her kitchen in New Jersey, I find that there is a moment when I am made whole by her suffering, when I glimpse the humanity of a stranger, am made better than I really am. (page 91)
Romantic angle? That’s hardly the right expression for witnessing a woman grieving the death of her daughter. Porter Wren is “made whole by her suffering”? As I understand it, a person is made whole by wrestling with his or her own suffering. Witnessing the suffering of a stranger and then writing about it for publication doesn’t strike me as a genuine way to make oneself whole. And precious little about the rest of Wren’s story makes me think he is whole at the conclusion. He nearly destroys his family, his son is shot and injured by people Wren has angered, and his wife can barely trust him again. I thought Porter Wren was much more likable in the film, where viewers don’t have to listen to his inner monologue about the misfortunes he has brought upon himself and so many others.
(This blog post about the novel Manhattan Nocturne contains spoilers.)
I am emphasizing the line about spoilers in this post because I want to compare some points from the novel to the film version. I read Manhattan Nocturne after I saw the film Manhattan Night, which was based on the novel. I blogged about the film on November 18, 2016, and you can find the post by clicking here. (You can also click on the arrow for 2016 in the left-hand column of this screen and then click on the arrow for November.)
I had some questions after seeing the film Manhattan Night, and I wondered if they would be answered by reading the novel. Alas, not all of my questions were answered to my satisfaction. Here are my questions from my previous blog post about the film and my lingering concerns:
1. How did Caroline escape suspicion with all the blood she must have had on her after Simon’s evisceration?
The answer to this question is explained in great detail in the novel. Caroline takes off all her clothes before eviscerating Simon to get the key that he swallowed:
. . . She [Caroline] stands abruptly and walks over to the bed. There she kicks off her shoes, then lifts up her yellow dress and lays it carefully on the bed. There is a colored shape on her shoulder blade, a butterfly. She takes off her bra, then her panties. These, too, she lays down on the bed. Then she takes Simon’s baseball cap off the floor and tucks her hair up into it. Her naked bottom rests on her heels. A naked woman in a baseball cap. Then she returns to Simon. The knife is still sticking out of his belly. She leans over the body, looks away, then sets her weight above the knife. It goes in with a bellowing whoosh of air and blood. Now she is wet. She looks at it and sighs. Then she saws at the flesh, cutting a flap. Holding the flap back with one hand, she cuts deeper. . . . Then she reaches her hand into the cavity and fishes around. Nothing. She sighs. . . . Now she cuts a larger flap. Then she sits back to one side of Simon and rolls him onto his stomach. There is an audible dribbling as the contents of his stomach come out. She rolls him onto his back again. She pushes around in the stomach contents with the knife, looks up. Rats have appeared in the shadows. . . . She returns to the task. She puts her hand back into the cavity and then suddenly pulls something out, looks at the bloody object in her hand. The key. Now she stands, puts the key on the table, and moves back to the bed, where she removes a pillowcase and wipes her hands and belly carefully. There is a bit of blood on her thighs, her knees. She rubs each place vigorously. She checks her pubic hair for blood, sucking in her belly, both hands pressed against her hipbones. Then she wipes off her fingers and hands and looks at the back of her legs, her ass. She steps back into her panties and shoes, then slips on her bra and yellow dress, buttoning it behind herself with the awkward grace that women have. She takes off the baseball cap, inspects it, shakes it, inspects it again, then tosses it onto the floor next to Simon. She slides the key off the table and puts it in her purse. . . . (pages 336–337)
2. No one else, including Hobbs’s henchmen, could figure out that the key opened the padlock on the basement door of the building that had been demolished after Caroline had killed Simon and left his body there?
Porter Wren goes to 537 East Eleventh Street in New York City at least three times, the first time to see the site where Simon Crowley died. He goes with the padlock key, given to him by Sebastian Hobbs, to 535 East Eleventh Street and asks the superintendent about it, who tells him that both buildings could be accessed from the sidewalk doors to 535 and that Caroline’s key opens the sidewalk doors. Near the end of the novel, Wren excavates some of the rubble at 537 to find the elevator shaft, where he finds the tape of Simon threatening Caroline and Caroline stabbing him. If Porter Wren could do it, surely a billionaire like Sebastian Hobbs could have hired someone to figure out the same details before coercing Wren into doing it.
3. No one else, including the police, was able to trace the mailings of the video copies to Norma Segal?
The following lengthy explanation didn’t satisfy my curiosity enough:
. . . This [Simon’s death] had transpired either in the last hours of August 6 or the early hours of August 7. If the time had been late enough, it was possible that no one had noticed her [Caroline] or remembered that they had noticed her. After all, Simon’s body was not discovered until August 15, and that interval was certainly long enough for someone to forget what they had seen. But Caroline’s immediate actions were not the only indication of her guilt. She had gone to elaborate lengths to cover up what had happened. She had lied to the police about the nature of Simon’s disappearance. She had told them that she didn’t recognize the little piece of jade figurine. She had the cleverness to hire a private investigator to try and determine what had happened to Simon. That was smart, for the investigator might unknowingly report to her information that might implicate her, allowing her to anticipate problems. Even more ingenious was that such an arrangement, should it come to the attention of the police, would seem to indicate that she was not the culprit. The investigator found no useful information, of course, because if he had checked the ownership of 537 East Eleventh Street, he would have found out that a Korean owned it, not the Segals. If, like the police, he had talked to the Korean owner, the owner would have been able to tell him nothing, because, being unfamiliar with the building that was about to be demolished, the owner did not know about the quirky sidewalk doors. Nor did the foreman from Jack-E Demolition, who was obsessed with a piece of rope he’d found. The detectives had no reason to seek out the Segals, and Mrs. Segal, because of her questionable deal with the Koreans, had what she believed to be a good reason not to seek out them. The police did talk with the superintendent of 535, but their conversation had centered on access to the roof door of 535, not on the sidewalk doors to 537. It was true that if the police had looked through the paperwork to Simon’s estate, they might have been led to Mrs. Segal, as I had been. But I had been looking for a singular item, namely, the Hobbs tape, when I found her and not, as the police would have been, for information about how Simon had entered a building. It was logical contraption of chance and intent. No one had acted with full knowledge; no one had planned on the events as they occurred, including Caroline. So was it murder? In my mind, yes. (pages 340–341, emphasis added)
But surely Sebastian Hobbs could have hired someone to trace the packages containing the copies of the tape. Hobbs was also looking for the “singular item . . . the Hobbs tape . . . .” Hobbs could have approached the problem from a different angle and hired a private investigator clever enough to figure out how to trace a package. Once the investigator discovered Norma Segal’s involvement, he or she would likely have found out the information needed to solve the mystery. It is possible that I watch more than the average number of films noir and read more noir literature than the average person does, but wouldn’t the audience for Harrison’s novel almost guarantee that many like me would be reading his novel, too?