Book Review: Long Bright River

Spoilers!

My copy of the book after using my fingernail to scrape off the annoying 50-cent yard sale sticker on the cover.

I’m not sure how to word this, so I’ll say it plainly: Some crime fiction writing is just better than other crime fiction writing. More specifically, the best crime fiction writers construct their plots, characters, and dialogue with such an authenticity that I feel immersed within the story in a way that isn’t quite the case with other crime stories (even if I still enjoy those, too!). Such books crackle with authenticity in such an electrifying way that it renders the book something beyond its genre trappings. The reason I find it hard to word it is because it is more a feeling than anything I can clearly convey; it is more akin to something I will recognize (or not recognize) once I’m reading.

That is how I felt while reading Liz Moore’s 2020 novel, Long Bright River the last couple of days. The reason I even grabbed for the book at a yard sale I found it at was because Dennis Lehane, another great crime writer, blurbed it on the back cover. I don’t want to compare Moore to Lehane because Moore is wholly her own writer. She brings something to the crime genre that only her voice could: That of overlooked, downtrodden, misunderstood, and abused women — often by the very people vested with the power to protect them — who are barely surviving, if they do at all, and are considered the dregs of a society that passed them by decades previously. I’m referring to the city left behind decades prior, and where the events of Moore’s book takes place, Kensington, a neighborhood in Philadelphia. The once booming factory town has since shuddered with “abandos” (rows of abandoned houses) and is known for being a depository of gun violence and rampant drug use.

It is in this backdrop where we meet Mickey, a Philadelphia police officer, who has a pre-kindergarten son, Thomas, and a year-ish younger sister, Kacey. The two are products of young, drug-addicted parents, one of whom, the mother, died of an overdose, and the father disappeared from their lives. So, Gee, their awful grandmother, raised them. Around 16, Kacey gets into drugs and sex. Mickey, the more seemingly straight-laced sister with dreams of going to college to escape Kensington and being a history teacher, was actually being groomed from the age of 14 by a Philadelphia police officer who is supposed to be her mentor, Simon Cleare. Gee put Mickey and Kacey in the PLA, the Police Athletic League, an after-school program led by officers for teens to help keep them out of trouble. Instead, Cleare groomed Mickey by making her feel special, valued, and doted upon.

The book oscillates between learning about that history with Mickey and Kacey, and the present day where Mickey is a cop, and Kacey is presumably missing. Even though they haven’t talked in years, and when they encounter each other through Mickey’s work — Kacey still using drugs, and working as prostitute — they ignore each other, Mickey still cares about her well-being. So, she’s asking after her, trying to figure out what is going on. Ever since she first found Kacey near-death after an overdose when Kacey was only 16, Mickey always worries that when a young woman dies in her District, it will be Kacey. As it happens, young women are being killed in her District by an unknown perpetrator, only raising Mickey’s concern for Kacey and the urgency with which she wants to find her.

We later to come to learn three pivotal things: 1.) Thomas is actually Kacey’s child, who was the product of Simon raping Kacey, which led to Mickey calling Kacey a liar, and then Thomas was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome since Kacey was still using — Mickey then used her lawyer to take Thomas from her and raise him herself; 2.) Their mother wasn’t an addict when pregnant with Mickey, only with Kacey, so Kacey, as she states, was “addicted since birth.” I think that is an important piece of the puzzle for why Kacey has an addiction; and 3.) Their dad is still alive, and not only has he been sober for years, but he has been trying to find them and reconcile, but was deterred by Gee and an inability to find them. Okay, how about a fourth? Kacey wasn’t “missing.” She was with the dad and undergoing methadone treatment while pregnant with a new child. Kacey was intentionally hiding from Mickey.

As for the killer, well, I have to admit, I was all-in on it being either Simon or Truman, Mickey’s decade-long partner, who was put out of commission by an ambush assault to his knee. The former needs no explanation for why I would expect him, and Truman had a lot of circumstantial speculation that fit (the ambush being retaliation, and he knew all of the information that would set Mickey up to be investigated by Internal Affairs, as she later was). Neither were the killer, although, again, Simon was not only a child predator, but was a drug-user himself, and was promoted to the rank of detective within the PPD. No, the killer turned out to be Mickey’s replacement partner for a spell, who was getting a cut of the drug deals going on in Kensington, and as it turned out, killing the women. In fact, there was an exchange between Mickey and him where he seemed to be derogatory toward the prostitutes they passed, and it ticked Mickey off.

There is a great moment of reflection toward the end of the book where Mickey is talking about the killer cop, who she obviously acknowledges is the worst of the worst. But the ones who worry her are perhaps even more are the higher-ups in the police department, who while they aren’t killers, will look the other way while other cops abuse and take advantage of women, or partake themselves. Not only will there never be accountability or justice rendered on such cops, but they usually get promoted and leave with nice pensions and a sterling reputation. I agree, Mickey.

Mickey lacks an emotional affectation — she finds it weird to hear, “I love you,” from Thomas, for example — and has a stubborn inability to trust people, including one of Thomas’s friend’s mother, who seemed genuinely nice, and her landlord, who would become a great resource as a babysitter to Thomas. She also finds it straining her capability, if impossible, to apologize, like to Truman for not visiting him on medical leave, or after she thinks he’s the killer. But it is understandable. She was the victim of abuse, even though she shudders at thinking of herself as an abuse victim (like a lot groomed children, for the longest time, she believed she came on to him). Because of that, she never has quite reckoned with what happened to her. However, whatever her failings, she’s depicted in the past and the present as intelligent. So, if there was any criticism of the book I had, it’s that despite how often we are led to believe Mickey is intelligent, we are never quite shown that! I can’t even recall a scene where she was particularly smart, including the climactic scene with the killer. But maybe that was intentional in some respects? Because she was acting reckless to find her sister? I’m not sure.

This book is about addiction and abuse, and often the ways in which those overlap, but it’s also about sisterhood (in more ways than just by blood), like how Kacey, despite being the younger of the two, was the one always defending, even violently, Mickey. The book is also about motherhood, and in some ways, how Mickey through an addiction of her own to pride instead of drugs, makes her more like her mother than she wants to admit, she reflects. And the books is about what we owe those we tend to write off because they are “irredeemable” addicts: Human dignity. I don’t think recognizing the humanity of someone in the throes of addiction is a form of enabling; it is humanizing. They need help, not handcuffs. They need treatment, not prison. And sometimes, they need a sister to listen and care. Mickey needed a lot of growth in her own right to learn as much.

In her Acknowledgements, Moore gave thanks to the many women, organizations, and books that informed her thinking, research, and writing for the book. Again, that goes back why this book feels so authentic. Because it is telling these stories, not with some grandiose point to be made, but with humanity. With love. Job well-done, Moore.

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