A few years ago I read a New York Times Magazine story about the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington, home to the “largest open-air heroin market on the East Coast,” which has stayed with me ever since. Jennifer Percy’s story describes an encampment of homeless drug users in an abandoned railroad ravine, and it seems to be in that same ravine that Liz Moore’s novel Long Bright River opens. Two cops respond to reports of a body in the ravine, something all too familiar in their work, where they are always finding people who have overdosed–some can be brought back from the dead by Narcan; for others, it’s too late.
One of those cops is our narrator Michaela (Mickey) Fitzpatrick, who grew up in the neighborhood. Every time she is confronted with the body of a young woman, she fears it will be her sister Kacey, an addict she has found “dead” more than once already, and who is now missing. The woman isn’t Kasey, and she doesn’t seem to have died of an overdose, either.
From this point, Moore unfolds multiple mysteries. In the present-day timeline, there are the hunt for a possible serial killer and Mickey’s search for Kacey, along with Mickey’s fear that these searches will intersect, that Kacey has been a victim. Long Bright River cuts back and forth between “Now” and “Then,” the story of Mickey and Kacey’s youth and how they became the people they are.
I hate phrases like “transcends the genre.” Let’s just say that Moore’s novel is crime fiction, but it doesn’t follow standard police procedural conventions. The serial killer plot, here, is mostly backdrop (Mickey is only marginally involved). The mystery of Mickey’s past is much more central, and I found it equally engrossing.
Initially it seems that Mickey has “escaped” her background: she’s become a police officer. Off-duty, she wears another uniform of black pants, a white shirt, and sensible flats. She’s raising a son. Her life is orderly, decent, respectable. But why is that so important to her? Slowly we–and she–begin to understand. She’s not exactly an unreliable narrator, but she has been keeping a lot of secrets, including from us.
Perhaps part of what I loved about this just now is that it’s focused on a woman coming to terms with her past and her own mistakes. Coming to terms with them just might free her.
The pacing of this book is uneven–or maybe that’s just another way Moore doesn’t conform to genre conventions. Sometimes it moves slowly; at others, big events happen abruptly and are quickly resolved. There are touches of melodrama in the family story, but maybe that’s the from best suited to writing about the ravages of heroin, even on the characters who don’t use it.
It can be difficult to write this story from a police officer’s point of view, but because Mickey grew up with so many of the people she arrests, she doesn’t see them as “other.” Their choices may make her angry, and she can be judgmental, but she understands them and sees their humanity. This isn’t a book where the police are righteous heroes. If you like crime fiction, I recommend it.