ONION STREET is labeled “A Moe Prager Mystery,” and indeed it is. But the book takes us back, way back, to what those of us who read comic books by the fistful in our misspent youth would refer to as a “secret origin,” now revealed. For long-time fans of Prager and creator Reed Farrel Coleman, the novel sheds a new and welcome dimension on a long-admired and much-beloved protagonist.
The story begins in the present, with Prager coming off of an extremely debilitating bout with intestinal cancer and attending the funeral of Bobby Friedman, his oldest friend. There is a quiet, unspoken lesson here --- it is not always the sickest who are the first to go --- but the solemnity of the occasion launches Prager into a reminiscence that functions as a prequel, one that reveals how Prager, who is currently a private investigator, initially became a member of the NYPD. The setting is Brooklyn in 1967, when society in general and Prager’s close-knit neighborhood in particular are reeling under the twin triggers of political protest and societal change. Prager is presented as a somewhat aimless college student whose world is rocked when Mindy, his semi-girlfriend, is found on the street in a coma as the result of a severe beating.
"While presenting an interesting and complex mystery, it is at heart a character study of Prager. At the same time, it provides a sharp and clearly defined literary snapshot of a tumultuous era --- the mid-20th century --- which, some 50 years later, remains a fertile ground for study and exploration."
The incident gives Prager a focus he has lacked previously, aimed at finding who did this. Surprisingly, the perp is seemingly tied to Bobby Friedman. The somewhat complex trail leads Prager through a cast of interesting characters, from a crew of somewhat obnoxious student radicals to the mob to a concentration camp survivor who is either deranged or deceptive or somewhere in between. The mystery is as much a “whydunit” as a “whodunit” as Prager, aided by a drug dealer with a stratospheric IQ and absolutely no sense, tries to bring justice to Mindy and her parents.
Coleman, following the adage that the child is father to the man, reveals much that previously had been unanswered about Prager’s background, as events in ONION STREET foreshadow happenings and aspects of Prager’s life and personality that have been dropped like breadcrumbs throughout the books in the series.
It has been announced/rumored that with the next Prager book, Coleman will write a finis to the series. If so, then this book is well-placed as a prequel, given that it is a pause in the ongoing happenings of the present and at the same time may set up the events that are to come. While presenting an interesting and complex mystery, ONION STREET is at heart a character study of Prager. At the same time, it provides a sharp and clearly defined literary snapshot of a tumultuous era --- the mid-20th century --- which, some 50 years later, remains fertile ground for study and exploration.
The element that I enjoyed most about the book was the manner in which it presented its host of street characters, all of whom had real-life counterparts in the life of anyone who was of age during the 1960s and retains sufficient brain cells to remember their friends and acquaintances. ONION STREET is worth reading for that reason alone.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 24, 2013