Queens Noir

As a long-time fan of Nordic Noir detective stories, I never expected to see a home-grown version. You might call Michael Elias’s “You Can Go Home Now” Queens Noir since it is set mostly in that dreary stretch of two-story houses and strip malls that will be familiar to anybody who has left Manhattan on their way to the airport. I confess never having stepped foot in this wasteland and only know it as the place that Archie Bunker personified in the 1960s and 70s. I even wonder if Elias knows this area except as a background for his breakthrough novel. To render it accurately might have taken the same kind of dedication that would go into a story about a serial killer in the French Riviera, except with a lot less opportunity to savor local restaurants. For some of the characters in “You Can Go Home Now”, McDonald’s is a night on the town.

Written in the first person singular, “You Can Go Home Now” tells the story of Nina Karim, a cop working in the Long Island City police department. Like just about every cop featured in a Nordic Noir novel or a TV series based on one, Karim is not typical. She reads the refined short stories of V.S. Pritchett rather than the pulp fiction of V.C. Andrews that is ubiquitous to airport bookstores. After Andrews died, a novelist named Andrew Neiderman became her ghostwriter and a very successful one at that. I should add that Neiderman and Elias were a few classes ahead of mine in Fallsburg Central High school in upstate New York.

As a teen, Nina’s dream was to get accepted for early admission to Stony Brook, go on to Cornell for a master’s degree, and get a PhD in English Literature. All that changed when am anti-abortion fanatic killed her father in Grahamsville, N.Y. He was a staff physician in a Planned Parenthood clinic, where he carried out safe and legal abortions. From that day onward, she existed only to track him down and killing him. By becoming a cop, she would have a leg up getting the intelligence she needed to find out who did it and where he lived. Then, she could finish the job with a bullet in his head.

In the first chapter, Nina learns that a man named Ronald Steevers, who worked at Home Depot in Long Island City (Queens Noir, remember?) had gone missing. In her investigations, she learned that he was an ex-cop who had a record of wife-beating. Like all such cops, he got a free “get out of jail” card from the investigators. Women and Blacks never got justice. Wife beaters went free in the same way cops never paid for killing men like Amadou Diallo or Eric Garner. When Steevers turned up dead in a deserted warehouse near the exit of the Queensboro Bridge, Nina decided to interview anybody with a grudge. That started with his wife Susan, who Nina sized up with her customary skill when meeting her for the first time: “As Susan shuts the door her hand goes to her mouth just a moment too late to hide the hide the gap in the row of her bottom front teeth. There are the faintest bruise marks on her cheeks and around her eyes.”

When Nina discovers that the corpses of two other wife-beaters besides Ronald Steevers as likely murder victims, she suspects foul play. Susan had tried to escape him in a battered woman’s shelter in Jackson Heights called Artemis. Could a vigilante squad have been responsible for the three killings? She wanted to see if someone was targeting the men who torment their wives or partners, especially those like the ex-cop Steevers. He threatened Susan with murder and if the cops couldn’t protect her, someone else might step in. Michael Elias’s description of Jackson Heights will give you an idea of how committed he was to depicting its social realities:

Five minutes later we are on 32nd Avenue, in Jackson Heights. Rows of narrow two-story post-war houses with shingle roofs, aluminum siding, various heights of chain link fence, a car in every driveway, and a chicken in every pot. The neighborhood has had its ups and downs but the people who bought houses from each other in a succession of ethnic convolutions, from white GI’s returning from WWII to black families that followed sold them to East Indians who sold them to Jamaicans. Where there were once Koreans, there are now Pakistanis. The only people who haven’t discovered the neighborhood are millennials who will arrive later when they realize they can’t afford Brooklyn. There is something about these houses that makes people responsible to them. They are always in fresh paint with tidy front gardens, and satellite dishes on the roof.

As Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Nina Karim is a woman possessed. To gain entry to Artemis, she had to look the part. She had to have the same physical damage that Susan Steevers displayed. Unlike a movie, a makeup artist could not fake the look. So, Nina picks a fight with another female cop in her precinct house tough enough to kick her ass. Chapter one begins with these words: “I have two black eyes, possibly a broken nose, scrapes and abrasions over my face. I also have a loose molar and a cut lip that doesn’t seem to want to stop bleeding. A meat tenderizer hammer wrapped in a dishtowel added three purple bruises to my thighs.”

She also will go to great lengths to find her father’s killer. Despite taking great pains to cover her tracks to the upstate New York town where he works as a prison guard, she is ready to face the consequences—even prison.

The two strands of this exciting and deeply political novel get tied together in a chapter in which the fanatical anti-abortionist who killed Nina’s father gains access to the shelter, tricks Nina into ingesting a drug that leaves her paralyzed, and coldly announces that she will be knifed to death. Without exaggerating, I can say that this chapter rivals the climactic chapter in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” when Lisbeth Salander rescues Mikael Blomkvist. The Swedish billionaire and neo-Nazi Martin Vanger, who has been raping and killing young women for decades, is about to torture and kill the writer for having uncovered his crimes.

Just over thirty years ago, I met Michael Elias at a party hosted by Frank Cavestani and Laura Kronenberg in Hollywood hills. The booze and the coke were flowing that night, just as you would expect. Frank and Laura were working as screenwriters at the time but not nearly so successful as Michael, who had an incredible career writing for marquee comedies both on television and in the movies. His credits included writing for “All in the Family” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” two of the most lauded TV shows. He also wrote the screenplays for “The Frisco Kid” and “The Jerk,” two films that make recent comedies look sad by comparison.

Given this background, you’d think the first words out of Michael’s mouth would have been a wisecrack. Instead, it was something to the effect of “capitalism is destroying this country.” It turns out that in all the years that he was writing great comedy, he pondered the tragic fate of capitalist America.

Coming out of retirement, he began writing novels in 2013. Set in Peru, his “The Last Conquistador” was a mixture of science-fiction and anti-colonialism. I suspect that it is fabulous. Besides writing novels, Michael has also begun to explore his past in short stories and plays.

Like Nina Karim, he was the son of a doctor in upstate New York who some might have stigmatized as an “enemy of the people.” But his father didn’t do abortions. His sin was in believing that the USSR was a country capable of doing good things for its people. A short story titled “The Fall of Communism” begins:

In the photograph we are a Norman Rockwell father and son going off to march in an Armistice Day parade dressed in the uniforms of two great American institutions. I hold the Star rank in The Boy Scouts of America and my father is a Captain in the United States Army. We have ribbons, medals and badges, but in truth we are communist spies and saboteurs. We are fifth columnists who take orders directly from Moscow, determined to see the violent overthrow of the United States that will result in a worker’s paradise in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. This glorious American holiday in late November will also be a day of revenge.

It was a strange culture that produced Michael Elias, my dear friend Laura Kronenberg, and me. The local hotels were owned by men and women who might have been Communist Party members earlier in their life but saw the Catskills as a place to have fun while sneaking in the politics of their youth. The Avon Lodge, just twenty minutes down the road from my home, hired Sid Caesar in the 1930s where he worked as a tummler, a guy paid to keep people laughing. When he wasn’t trying out material that he would use later on in a groundbreaking television show that included Woody Allen and Carl Reiner as writers, he acted in Clifford Odets plays that the staff put on.

Michael has fond memories of a hotel called Chester’s Zumbarg that I only knew by reputation. It was a haven for lefties and for 1950s hipsters looking for company. In his great play “A Catskill Sonata,” he summons up its past. You can see the perfect marriage between his comic gifts and his social conscience in this excerpt:

DAVE: Actually, [Arthur] Godfrey and I…actually CBS and I…how to say this…

RAE: You quit?

DAVE: Actually, it was more of a mutual thing. The producers fired me and I went along with their decision.

RAE: What about Godfrey? What did he say?

DAVE: He feels terrible. His assistant gave me the message personally.

ERNIE: When did this happen?

DAVE: A couple of weeks ago. Costello called me into his office, said my wife gave money to the Communist Party. So that’s where it went, I said. I told him Madeline and I have a deal. She doesn’t try to convert me to Marxism and I don’t make her watch your putrid show. Which, naturally, didn’t go over too well. But, as you know, my policy is to be brave as long as the situation is hopeless.

ERNIE: Can you get another show?

DAVE: They made it clear that I am not employable in television. Wait. Maybe I could repair them. If only I knew how they worked.

RAE: I’m sorry, Dave.

DAVE: It’s not all bad. Now that I’m blacklisted I don’t have to subscribe to The Daily Worker.

RAE: Can’t you write for Godfrey under another name?

DAVE: I don’t write that much. I mainly whisper clever things in Arthur’s ear between songs. No, I’m dead. Wait. There is one thing: I could turn in my friends. Give their names to the FBI. That would get my job back. I could become head writer. It won’t work. I don’t have any friends. Okay, I know a couple of comics who don’t care about my politics. I’ll survive. I’ll have to keep this from my dope dealer. He’s a rabid anti-Communist.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.