Boston in 1951 was not a pretty place. Before the tech boom, before the “Massachusetts Miracle,” the city was another crumbling postindustrial northeastern metro, rife with violence, poverty, and the kind of tribal loyalties that would have been recognizable centuries earlier in many lands.
That’s the Boston where authors Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy set their debut collaboration, “Serpents in the Cold.” A noir crime novel, even down to its classic postwar setting, “Serpents in the Cold” revels in the grit and ugliness of the streets. To make the setting even worse, it’s winter, and no matter how the ancient radiators ping and hiss, nobody ever seems to get warm.
Not that Dante Cooper cares much about the weather. Dante, one of the book’s two protagonists, is a junkie. We meet him as he shoots up in the bathroom of a Scollay Square bar, moments before local thugs break in. Dante has been losing himself in reveries of his late wife, but he owes too much money to be allowed to fix in peace, and the tough guys have come to collect.
Luckily, his friend Cal O’Brien interrupts before they can do too much damage. Cal has been looking for Dante to deliver some bad news: Dante’s sister-in-law Sheila has been found murdered and left frozen in the shoreline muck of Dorchester Bay.
Cal has demons of his own. Wounded in World War II, he’s developed a drinking problem that got him kicked off the police department. When not drowning his memories or the pain of his maimed leg, he’s been working security, a job that keeps him in touch not only with his former colleagues on the force but also with the local gangsters and, sometimes, even their masters higher up the food chain.
That Dante and Cal will try to solve Sheila’s murder is a given. Although Cal tries to explain to his friend that this is a matter for the police, Dante’s plea hits home. “To them she’s just a Jane Doe, a whore,” he says. “She was family, Cal. I wouldn’t ask you if I had a choice.”
What follows is also almost as inevitable for a book of this style. Sheila had been involved with a local gangster, but the violence — and the corruption — goes higher. The body count rises as the two makeshift heroes battle bad guys and their addictions in their search for a rough kind of justice.
While it is predictable and at times quite slow, “Serpents in the Cold” is a throwback that mostly satisfies. While the authors can’t best George V. Higgins, they’re clearly aiming for “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”-style realism — there’s even a Bruins theme running throughout. What makes the book work is the detail and specificity. The triple-deckers of Dorchester are still there, and anyone who has lived in this area for a while knows the “faint odors of chocolate and burnt fudge . . . from the Necco candy factory.”
The authors also excel at the language of their characters. Introducing a priest, for example, Cal’s internal monologue incorporates a Celtic rhythm. “He’d known Father Nolan since he was a boy and Father Nolan a young man just off the boat and strutting about the Avenue.” It’s a throwaway line, a bit of history, but in it, readers can hear the young priest, and how the largely Irish-American neighborhood must have spoken about him at the time.
Through it all, these descriptions are laden with the dark foreboding that typifies hard-boiled crime fiction. Nothing is innocent, and nobody is what he or she seems. Introducing one character, Dante thinks, “he had the look of a man who found many uses for razor blades besides shaving.” Such passages may bog down the action of this would-be thriller at times, but they are also what set this book apart, bringing a dirty old world back to life.
Clea Simon is the author of 16 mysteries. She can be reached at cleasimon.com.