Thriller, with Humans
At the beginning of Colin Harrison’s thoroughly absorbing thriller Manhattan Nocturne, the novel’s narrator, a New York newspaper columnist named Porter Wren with a cynical specialization in human interest stories about criminals and victims, describes the prodigiously wealthy owner of his newspaper this way:
And there, dropped into the middle of a huge sofa, was the great man himself, Hobbs, conveying a herring with his swollen fingers through the air into his ever-spittled, never-sated lips. As the oily dead fish approached, the thick eyebrows lifted first, as if part of a complex mechanism that subsequently opened his gaping maw to reveal yellow, crowded teeth that seemed too long, like a horse’s, yet stumpy and worn down from decades of chewing, and then, a further horror: his thick gray tongue—illicitly large, swollen with toxins, lying heavily upon the lower lip.
This is a remarkably ugly description, not so much of the newspaper tycoon himself—though perhaps he should have known better than to eat in front of a writer—but inadvertently and indirectly of Wren, or rather that part of Wren that sees other human beings as nothing more than slabs of animated meat. It is a measure of how much trouble Wren gets into over the course of this compelling story that, by the end, he begins to see the troubles of others as something other than fodder for a disposable daily column. He even develops genuine sympathy for Hobbs, himself the long-ago victim of a terrible crime—and, as a result, the reader begins to feel sympathy for Wren.
As both a chronicler of the miseries of others and as a middle-class muddler himself, Porter Wren—both his first and last names are indicative of his status in Manhattan’s unforgiving hierarchy—might never have met the owner of the newspaper he toils for, but the two are indirectly brought together by a damaged beauty named Caroline, the widow of a hugely talented film director who disappeared mysteriously.
Before his death, the director was responsible for two illicitly filmed voyeur videos—one of which shows Hobbs and Caroline involved in one of the saddest and strangest sexual encounters ever conceived. This tape is a terrible embarrassment to Hobbs, and when he learns of Wren’s own involvement with Caroline, he puts the screws to the columnist to get it back. In the process, Wren discovers the second video, which demonstrates the violent and unexpected aftermath of the first one, and explains the filmmaker’s disappearance.
As soon as Wren becomes involved in the tug of war between Caroline and Hobbs over the sex tape, his life begins to spin out of control—he’s Maced and beaten, his life and livelihood are threatened, his home is invaded, his little boy is shot, and worst of all, he comes face to face with the cavalier way in which, for no good reason other than a little nookie, he’s put his family at risk.
But the instigator of all of this trouble, Caroline, isn’t merely another in a long line of literary femmes fatale—she is rendered, admirably, as a fully dimensional human being, with both a terrible past (the story she tells about the horse she was “given” when she was a little girl is truly heartbreaking) and a mundane future.
Manhattan Nocturne, just re-released in paperback 12 years after its original publication, is one of those novels that focus on the fate of a relatively ordinary person who gets sucked into something bigger than himself, the implications of which aren’t clear until the very end. And yet, this “something bigger,” as the two videos demonstrate, is nothing more than the smallest and commonest of human emotions—vanity, jealousy, and shame. When, near the end of the novel, Hobbs and Wren meet to discuss the incriminating tape over luncheon at an exclusive restaurant, Wren sees him as “vulnerable and anxious just like anyone else,” and doesn’t even go out of his way to make him look bad for ordering, and eating, a plate of shrimp.
It isn’t just that, at this point in the story, Hobbs is no longer putting the screws to Wren—it’s that Wren, who has spend his entire life writing human interest stories, has himself finally become human.
Early in the novel, Porter Wren notes that “we live in a time in which all horror has been commodified into entertainment.” This isn’t only Wren speaking, one suspects, but Harrison himself. In a few of his other novels—in particular, one called Afterburn—his propulsive narratives were marred by gratuitous and pruriently detailed descriptions of torture. But in Manhattan Nocturne, both he and his protagonist seem to have learned that even the grittiest of thrillers can be improved by genuine human interest.