Usually, it’s pretty easy to ignore the glass wall that separates America’s rich and poor. Through an elaborate system of etiquette and authority, the division of the classes remains at once observed and discounted, with people of all stripes trudging through the same cities, even the same rooms, and the divergent logic of their lives going politely unremarked.
Colin Harrison’s novels—among them, Manhattan Nocturne (1996), The Havana Room (2004), and now The Finder—shatter that glass wall. Men and women are sucked from the normal patterns of their days and sent traveling in worlds utterly different from, yet strangely adjacent to, the ones they have known. In The Havana Room, a wealthy lawyer loses his fortune and drifts into a network of hustlers. In Manhattan Nocturne, a boisterous newspaperman slips into a demimonde of sex and death.
The Finder opens with an assassination tailored to the era of corporate globalism. Two Mexican cleaning women are unwinding after a long day of labor when a septic truck lumbers up beside their car and drowns them in raw sewage. Why? A skittish executive at Good Pharma, the giant pharmaceutical concern in whose offices they toil, is merely sending a message to the owners of CorpServe, the cleaning service that employs them, that the espionage on behalf of Chinese investors has been discovered and must end. It is an extravagant gesture, true, and possibly even a misunderstood order, but as all parties involved comprehend, the lives of migrant workers are cheap, and there is indeed copious money at stake.
The true target of the crime, however, escapes the scene. The women’s boss, a Chinese woman named Jin Li, witnesses the spectacle from the nearby brush and quickly grasps its hortatory purpose. She flees, and behind her, a handful of interested parties—her brother, her ex-boyfriend, various un-savory henchmen—leap onto the trail.
What follows is a tour of New York’s myriad underworlds, from the aeries of Wall Street Masters of the Universe to the stinking lairs of obese check cashers in outer Brooklyn to the narrow road shoulders of the FDR Drive. Along the way, we are treated to murders, romances, small-scale venalities, and occasional kindnesses, in a cityscape abounding with beautiful women, broken men, and any number of pulpy plot turns.
As in Harrison’s past novels, Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs are the launching pad for imaginative ruminations on global capital and its discontents. The author moves past the commonly deployed entomological and immunological metaphors—a butterfly flapping its wings in Hong Kong starting a tornado in Kansas, America sneezing and the world catching cold, etc.—and into associations of a distinctly more scatological nature. From the opening septic kill, to a search in a shit-filled tunnel, to a rectal exam in the middle of a penthouse cocktail party, the novel flaunts an underlying excretory symbolism, not so delicately suggesting that the movement of money brings a rank cloud in its wake and that somewhere in the bowels of finance, violent digestion is at all times under way.
Of course, it’s the bad guys who make the biggest impression. Here, the baddest of them all is the owner of Vic’s Victorious Sewerage, Victor Rigetti, a small-time thug with serial-killer tendencies who turns corporate espionage into flesh-and-blood violence. He’s a pervert and a racist, and yet there’s something winning about him nonetheless. He’s smart, for one thing, with understandable class rage, and the dream he harbors of owning a gas station on Flatbush is pleasantly modest. Even when he’s flogging someone’s face with a golf club, you at least respect that he does his own dirty work.
Inhabiting the next level of evil are Chen, Jin Li’s conniving brother—the mastermind behind the transnational information-stealing scam that frames the book’s action—and alongside him Bill Martz, a ruthless Wall Street billionaire with a trophy wife. From opposite sides of the pit, they attempt to manipulate the share price of Good Pharma for their own gain, until eventually they’re forced together to stage a “lift,” a complicated insider-trading operation meant to inflate the company’s ticker value. Their crimes are more sophisticated than those of Victor, but in the end, the men don’t really seem any more civilized than the murderous shit monger across town.
Almost by definition, the least interesting player is the hero, Ray Grant Jr., the eponymous Finder, whose nascent love for Jin Li leads him to derring-do and whose essential goodness is signaled by his status as a former NYC fireman. His charms are highly conventional: excellent lover, dutiful caretaker of his dying father, great upper-body strength. The outcome of his quest for Jin Li is never remotely in question, and by the time the book’s cinematic plotline drives to a showdown in Victor’s medieval basement, the reader might be rooting for the wrong guy. The fight scene, classic damsel-in-distress stuff, is perfunctory.
Numerous other scenes in the book are pushed to the point of distortion, too. It’s hard to understand, for instance, why Ray cadges a dose of his father’s morphine in the middle of his finding mission, except for the fact that it complicates matters. And a convenient backstory linking Victor and Ray Grant Sr. is hard to swallow. For that matter, the premise that leads the book—foreign investors gaming Wall Street by randomly pilfering documents off people’s desks—would seem less farfetched were any successful such operation described.
But these are quibbles with what otherwise stands as a cerebral, satisfying, and thoroughly energetic thriller. As one would hope, The Finder never loses momentum, and it offers plenty in the way of fresh disillusionment, newfangled greed, and general cynicism for the reader to absorb. With real glee, the Harrison lifts the lid of our shared global economy and plunges us into the dark plumbing underneath.
Jon Raymond is the author of the novel The Half-Life (Bloomsbury, 2004) and an editor of Plazm magazine.