Risk by Colin Harrison

Risk: A Novel BY Colin Harrison. Picador. Paperback, 192 pages. $13.
The cover of Risk: A Novel

A man dies under mysterious circumstances. A second man is called in to solve the mystery. But the second man fails to heed the implicit warnings left by the first man and soon tumbles into the rabbit hole. He is in grave danger. He solves the crime. Stasis is returned; life, of a sort, goes on. These are the old bones on which Colin Harrison fills out Risk, his marvelously compact seventh novel.

And yet Harrison has only a passing interest in pulp protocol. He seems to use it because it is sturdy and compelling, the same reason Jim Thompson used noir and Paul Auster used the detective novel. But the real subject of Risk, and the six books that came before, is money. Old money, new money, big money. Dirty money.

Risk opens in New York sometime after “the fiscal apocalypse of the century.” The Yankees are slumping, A-Rod has “turned out to be A-Roid,” smart people are investing in gold, and everyone else in Manhattan is cooped up indoors. “The city goes through these cycles,” Harrison writes, “and if you live here long enough you can sense them coming and going. See how the money heats up the city, makes people crazy.”

The book’s narrator is George Young, a forty-something lawyer who has accumulated “dings and bruises and scrapes, just like the banged-up delivery vans you see in Chinatown.” Young specializes in investigating fishy claims for the Manhattan insurance firm Patton, Corbett & Strode; he rakes in enough to afford a roomy apartment on the West Side and lives on a steady diet of wine, sushi, and idle gossip.

On a damp day in April, Young is called to the home of Mrs. Corbett, the widow of firm founder Wilson Corbett. Mrs. Corbett has been laid low with a heart ailment; she is scheduled to undergo surgery but does not expect to come out alive. In the meantime, she wants Young to find out why her son, Roger Corbett, a once-successful businessman with no especial penchant for drink, ended up smacked head-on by a garbage truck outside a swanky SoHo bar.

Young should refuse. He knows it; the reader knows it. A private investigator named Hicks tells him as much: “This isn’t something you need to dip into, okay? Not what it looks like, okay? My advice? Don’t get involved.” But Young accepts and soon finds himself careening through a “great and terrible city, fearful of falling, as so many do.”

He re-creates Corbett’s last days, tracking down Corbett’s former girlfriend, a Czech hand model who keeps her mitts coated in lotions and wrapped tightly in latex. He talks to gangsters, gem assessors, and brooding barkeeps. Everywhere, Young hears the same thing—he and Roger would have liked each other. “You sort of seem like maybe you knew him a little,” Corbett’s ex-wife tells Young. “Even though he never mentioned you.”

As Hicks promised, Young soon finds himself in trouble. By then, it’s too late—he’s invested, emotionally, physically, and mentally. He’s buried in the rabbit hole. Risk was originally serialized in the New York Times Magazine, which accounts for the novel’s exceptionally even pace. The end of every chapter has a cliff-hanger; the beginning of the next, a temporary resolution. What saves the book from slipping into predictability is Harrison’s feel for his characters—each one advances the plot but also serves as a lens on the way money flows through the city. Some are drifters, some are robbers, some are bankers. Few are innocent. “’Everywhere—every street, block, and building—people have labored, lost, won, lived, and died, and rarely is there any acknowledgement of this struggle,” Young thinks at one point. “Look at the lighted office buildings; thousands toiling in them every day, lives expiring minute by minute. I’m one of those people, of course, though I prefer not to dwell on this fact.”

Matthew Shaer writes about books for the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.