The Graving Dock, by Gabriel Cohen

April 6, 2008 at 7:33 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

And now, come with me, Dear Reader, to an exotic land, a destination much talked of but little visited by outsiders, a place with an almost iconic status in the minds of many, a storied land with a fascinating history. Come with me to…Brooklyn? You bet!

I read Gabriel Cohen’s Red Hook, featuring Jack Lightner, when it came out in 2001. I remember being deeply impressed by that novel and eagerly anticipating the next entry in what promised to be a world class series. Then, for six years – nothing. Finally, at the tag end of 2007, we got Book Number Two, The Graving Dock. It fulfills the promise of Red Hook and then some.

Jack Lightner is a detective with South Brooklyn Homicide. Divorced, with a son in his early twenties, Jack is deeply in love with Michelle Wilber. In fact, he is all set to propose to her the old fashioned way, on bended knee and with a eye-popping diamond in hand. What happens with this proposal is one of the crucial narrative threads coursing through this novel.

The other involves the case Jack is working. This has its beginning when two men fishing off a pier in Brooklyn spot something strange floating toward them. It’s a rough-hewn box shaped like a small coffin. Inside is the body of a ten-year-old boy.

You may gather from the way I began this review that for me, Brooklyn is pretty much unknown country. Yes – I am one of those people for whom “New York City” has almost always meant Manhattan – and midtown Manhattan at that. But there are four other burroughs, people! They have their own history, their own landmarks, and certainly, they’re worth seeing. This is especially true of Brooklyn. These two books have really made me want to remedy my seriously deficient knowledge of The Big Apple.

The action of The Graving Dock takes place in the winter following the destruction of the World Trade Center. When Jack Lightner and his fellow Brooklynites look across the water, they must struggle to believe their eyes and to come to terms with that gigantic absence at the tip of Lower Manhattan. And the denizens of the borough are still very much on edge.

Gabriel Cohen is not just concerned with the nerve-jangling present, though. Jack Lightner was born and raised in the Red Hook neighborhood, and its past, and the past of other Brooklyn neighborhoods is vividly and nostalgically evoked in this novel:

The old dive was down near the East River, stuck like a barnacle to the edge of Swanky Brooklyn Heights. Jack had always joked to himself that if he was ever searching for Popeye, this was where he’d start. The old sailor would feel at home here, with the life preservers hanging overhead, models of ships on the walls, dusty semaphore flags. Old photos and newspaper clippings recalled the waterfront’s World War Two heyday, when hundreds of craftsmen built great navy ships and thousands of sailors roamed this shore.

A graving dock, by the way, is a dry dock where the area of a ship that is below the waterline can be repaired and maintained. A harrowing action sequence takes place in one of these toward the end of the book.

Todd Shipyard Graving Dock, Red Hook, Brooklyn

[The Todd Shipyard Graving Dock, Red Hook, Brooklyn]


  1. The Drood Review of Mystery « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] both atmospherically and plot-wise.” Here here! It took a while for the sequel to appear, but The Graving Dock has more than fulfilled the promise bodied forth in Red […]

  2. Jack Leightner, knight errant of the kingdom of Brooklyn « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] read and enjoyed Red Hook and The Graving Dock, the first two entries in this series. The Ninth Step carries Jack Leightner’s story forward […]

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