Serpents in the Cold
I almost skipped reading SERPENTS IN THE COLD. What a mistake that would have been. It is a dark and icy instant classic of crime fiction, chock full to the brim with rough characters who roil through violent and tragic situations of their own creation, and compelling from its opening words to its closing sentences.
The book is set in Boston in January 1951. The metropolitan area is reeling from a series of setbacks, ranging from another losing season for its hockey team and an unsolved Brinks car robbery to an economy that has put many of the city’s inhabitants on the edge of financial disaster. Then there is the winter, the worst in recent memory. It is the cold weather, almost more than the city itself, that serves as a backdrop for the novel. The ground is so frozen that bodies can’t be buried; cars slip and slide out of control; and everything seems stuck in a chilled stasis of doom, death and failure, none more so than the two principal protagonists of the tale.
"SERPENTS IN THE COLD is a magnificent work. The seamless collaboration between authors Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy results in a cinematic narrative that unreels in a riveting manner, leaving an imprint on the reader’s memory that is unlikely to fade any time soon."
The narrative bounces back and forth primarily between two lifetime friends, both losers for different reasons. Cal O’Brien is the better off of the two, though not by much. He returned from combat duty in World War II unbroken though badly bent, suffering from a permanent leg injury and an even more significant alcohol problem. But he is able to eke out a post-war existence by parlaying his experience as a Boston policeman into running a security agency. It is Dante Cooper who is even worse. Dante is a seemingly irredeemable heroin addict whose primary functions seem to focus upon scoring drugs and avoiding angry loan sharks who don’t take kindly to missed payments. He is still reeling from the death of his wife, Margo, when the body of his sister-in-law, Sheila, is discovered. It appears that Sheila is the latest victim of a serial killer who has been targeting prostitutes in the Boston area. Cal and Dante decide to track the culprit themselves, with the (almost) unspoken desire to gain a bit of revenge and justice on Sheila’s behalf.
Their investigation is a long and arduous process, hindered not only by the siren song of substance abuse and a lack of resources but also by discouragement, both official and unofficial, emanating from some of the highest levels of the city’s power structure. There are those with grandiose plans to restore Boston’s grandeur while making a fortune and consolidating power and influence along the way, and the investigation by the driven but hampered pair has the potential to derail those plans. Cal and Dante will not be denied, so that by book’s end, all is ultimately revealed, for better and worse, at great and deadly cost.
SERPENTS IN THE COLD is a magnificent work. The seamless collaboration between authors Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy results in a cinematic narrative that unreels in a riveting manner, leaving an imprint on the reader’s memory that is unlikely to fade any time soon. The darkness of the situations and the explosive violence presented here never eclipses the plot or the unfortunate characters who populate the book. Place this one at the top of your must-read list.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 30, 2015