You Belong to Me
By Colin Harrison
Sarah Crichton Books (FSG)
322 pages, $27
Every book-reviewing cliche about a good thriller is not just true about Colin Harrison's latest novel, but literally true.
It really is riveting in the sense that you are not likely to move from your location once you start it. It really is a page-turner, and those pages turn fast. And It really does grab you from the first sentence and never let go. (The last time I found myself reading this compulsively into the wee hours was while burning through Tana French's famously addictive Dublin Murder Squad series.)
In "You Belong to Me," his eighth novel, Harrison unfurls the story of Paul Reeves, a middle-aged Manhattan immigration lawyer who collects antique maps of New York City. This may sound dull, but consider his luxury-apartment neighbors: an Iranian-American mogul and his young wife who is an essay in blonde perfection. When she cheats on Ahmed with her old flame, a former U.S. Army Ranger, the labyrinthine plot is put in motion.
An epic car chase, several highly descriptive bedroom scenes, and a whole lot of bad guys dying ugly deaths are, of course, requisite parts of the thriller genre.
Harrison readily provides all of this, sometimes with an exuberant style that brings Tom Wolfe to mind, as when he describes Fitness Ultimatum in Queens. a bench-pressing gym where the clientele is "highly specialized" and does not include: "married women, educated women; divorced women; older women; single professional women; teenage girls who did not like to have their makeup run; any female between the ages of 14 and 60 who was in any way reasonably attractive...men who did not like work boots; men who are sickened by the smell of gasoline."
But he doesn't just propel the plot forward. A book editor himself, Harrison (who is married to the well-known memoirist Kathryn Harrison) can really write. He draws his characters skillfully and with a weary knowledge of human weakness. And his eye for the details of Big Apple life is as accurate as any architect's blueprint -- or the notes of any Upper East Side shrink.
He gets all the details. For instance, when Ahmed goes to a seedy Eighth Avenue office building to meet with some dubious characters about disposing of his marital problem. "he immediately felt nervous inside the building, with its agonizingly slow elevator and scuffed hallways, the walls painted over many times, the doors closed and labeled with suspiciously vague corporate names: TekWing Electronics, 5!5!5! Import Co., M. Bro Enterprises."
Conjuring the city with the practiced ease of a fairgrounds sketch artist, Harrison moves us from the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station with its ancient waiters, to the spookily desolate long-term parking lots of Queens, to a Park Avenue blow-out bar where well-heeled women sip lemon-infused water as they fork over $200 to have their hair washed and dried.
His protagonist's obsession with maps gives the novel itself a grounding in specific block-by-block real estate. And in the end, the elaborate plot is cleverly resolved with the trade of one map for another. Let's just say the two couldn't be much more different from each other.
By then, the cast has grown exponentially to include low-life contract killers, Brooklyn hipster-artists, high-end physicians wielding Xanax prescriptions, and Reeves's slightly desperate girlfriend, Rachel, who just wants to get married and pregnant -- in reverse order, if that's what it takes.
But Harrison handles it all neatly, pulling every wayward thread into place. By novel's end, there is the hint of redemption for those who may deserve another chance, and death (or long imprisonment) for those who certainly don't.
All very satisfying, and highly recommended. Unless you really need your sleep.
Margaret Sullivan is a media columnist for the Washington Post. She was previously the New York Times Public Editor and the Editor in Chief of the Buffalo News.