I like getting in on things at their inception. I've missed a few --- McDonald's, IBM, among others --- but I've caught a few at their beginning, too, before anyone really knew about them. They may not have made me materially rich, but spiritually and emotionally I've been amply rewarded. I got that warm glow that can be acquired only by being ahead of the curve when I got about a quarter of the way through BROKEN MACHINES by Michael I. Leahey.
BROKEN MACHINES is the first of what I hope to be a series of novels featuring J. J. Donovan and Dr. Boris Koulomzin, who are partners in a private consulting (as opposed to investigation) firm. They handle matters that no one else wants to get involved with. The delineation of duties is one of the more interesting elements of BROKEN MACHINES: Donovan is close to your stereotypical do-gooder, a slightly rumpled, less than perfect knight who does the heavy lifting, while Koulomzin is a semi-reclusive, eccentric and brilliant researcher with an aversion to sunlight and people in general. The resources and resolve of both men are tested when they become involved with Clifford Brice, a brilliant child whose mother, a drug-addicted prostitute named Ruby, is brutally murdered. The police have a suspect in custody, but Clifford thinks it's the wrong man and wants Donovan and Koulomzin to ferret out the truth.
The men barely begin their investigation when there is a second murder and an attempt on Clifford as well. Donovan's investigation indicates that the focal point of the murders is National Manufacturing Corporation, a down-at-the-heels plant in Brooklyn. Donovan gets himself hired into the business under the pretense of doing some investigative work for Stanley Greenberg, the less-than scrupulous co-owner of National Manufacturing and a businessman who could probably stand some investigation himself. Donovan soon discovers a link between the murderer of Clifford's mother and his investigation for Greenberg --- and it's a connection that puts all of them in mortal danger.
BROKEN MACHINES is an impressive debut on a number of levels. Leahey has constructed a plausible mystery, with characters whom you care about and want to see more of, both in the novel and in the future. What is particularly impressive about BROKEN MACHINES, however, is Leahey's ability to explain complex concepts simply and understandably. In this case, Leahey's discussion of the nuts and bolts of the business of manufacturing is nothing short of amazing. This is a topic that in lesser hands would inspire little more than head-nodding and eye-glazing; Leahey, however, makes these topics come to life. Anyone reading BROKEN MACHINES will be hard pressed to drive by a manufacturing plant without thinking about what goes on within.
Leahey will hopefully see fit to revisit Donovan and Koulomzin soon. If he is given the time and space to continue with these characters, they have the potential to stand with Spenser, Robicheaux, and others of the genre as modern archetypes.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 13, 2000