Onion Street by Reed Farrel Coleman – review

Book: Onion Street
Author: Reed Farrel Coleman
Published by: Tyrus Books (April 2013)

If there’s anything I dislike more than sequels it’s prequels. A prequel is like hearing a story from someone who’s a horrible storyteller and forgot to tell you the beginning. When it comes to literature, I’ve always seen prequels as authors telling you the first part of a joke after they’ve told you the punch line. In any case, I try not to read them. However, I broke my own rule for Reed Farrel Coleman’s Onion Street. It paid off.

In Onion Street, Coleman takes readers back to 1967. Moe Prager is a student at Brooklyn College and has no idea what he wants to do with his life. Between classes, parties, and his girlfriend, he doesn’t really mind the aimlessly wandering. However, his directionless journey comes to a screeching halt when his girlfriend Mindy is viciously beaten into a coma and left for dead on the snow-covered streets of Brooklyn. They tell Moe it was a mugging gone wrong, but things don’t add up. The beating took place on the same night he bailed Bobby Friedman, his best friend, out of jail and hours after Mindy told Moe to stay away from Bobby. It was also the same night someone tried to kill Bobby with a car. Moe wants to find out who attacked Mindy and why and who’s trying to kill his best friend.

To get some answers Moe reaches out to his friend Lids, a brilliant guy who went to MIT until he cracked and now pushes drugs around campus and mumbles to himself when nervous. Lids gets Moe some information, but it only leads to more questions and a dead body. Suddenly everything Moe thought he knew starts to crumble. His best friend is holding a secret, his girl is in a coma and the guy that did it is dead, the first one to help him is found on dead from an overdose on the boardwalk in Coney Island, and someone with a very bad temper leaves Moe crumpled in pain and tells him to stay away and stop asking questions. But Moe is already in too deep and he needs to find out how all the pieces fit together before the mystery catches up with him with deadly consequences.

Coleman is a talented storyteller and his straightforward prose make this 300-page novel go by rather quickly. The narrative has a unique structure because it starts with Moe as an old man reminiscing and ends with him as an old man looking forward to the future, so the main narrative, which is most of the book, occupies the middle and is delivered through a memory filter that somehow manages to make the action feel both current and urgent.

One of the things that have made Coleman a household name in crime fiction is his ability to construct complex plots with minimal cracks, and Onion Street is no different. Moe is a young man with no previous experience, but his wits allow him to get to the bottom of things and miss only a few key pieces of the puzzle. Coleman carefully drops hints here and there so that when the big finale finally comes around, everything was in place, even if readers, like Moe, somehow failed to spot something.

The ending seemed to drag a bit and I’m not sure making the entire narrative the result of a trip down memory lane was the best format, but Onion Street still shines because it’s packed with smart writing, a very solid plot, and well-developed characters. The novel drips with the ideological battles of that era and hippie is used as an insult many times, so anyone who has an interest in the 1960s should pick this one up. Also, this is a wonderful homage to New York. From the dirtiest streets of Brooklyn, Coney Island, and Kennedy Airport to Sheepshead Bay, the Five Families, and a neighborhood pizzeria, the city is as much of a character in the story as Bobby and Mindy.

As a bonus, Onion Street is a story about a young man who found himself surrounded by danger and intrigue and how that lead to him becoming a detective, so Moe Prager fans and folks who’ve never read Coleman before can equally enjoy this.

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