Jack Leightner, knight errant of the kingdom of Brooklyn

July 9, 2010 at 1:27 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

A middle-aged man, looking beaten down by life, comes to Jack Leightner’s house to tell him this:

“‘You had a brother….I believe his name was Peter. I was the boy who killed him.”

Jack is stunned. For years, the unsolved murder of his younger brother has haunted him and filled him with rage, anguish, and guilt. So – is this the long sought answer? Will it prove a balm to Jack’s bruised conscience? Only partly. The revelation made by Jack’s visitor actually raises more questions than it answers. Rather than providing solace, it becomes the wellspring of yet more pain. And it gets Jack questing once again for answers to this decades-old mystery.

Jack is a detective with the Brooklyn South Homicide Task Force. His profession does not allow him the luxury of extensive brooding over the past. A  killing in the present demands his attention instead. The crime is bizarre: one man struck another forcibly on the head, while both were shopping in a delicatessen on Coney Island Avenue. No sooner have the local police arrived than federal agents descend on the scene, complete with bio hazard suits and dire warnings: This is our case – stay out of it.

What gives with this? Jack is determined to find out. He’s the type of person who, when told to lay off, does just the opposite.

I’ve really come to like Jack Leightner. On a personal level, he’s an interesting mix of tough and tender. His story plays out against a fascinating backdrop: Brooklyn, with its immigrant past and polyglot present. Jack himself is of Russian Jewish heritage (which endeared him to me right away, as my background is the same). This novel also features a well drawn cast of supporting characters. The perpetrator of the crime in the deli is a Pakistani-American named Nadim Hasni. The more we learn of this man, the more obvious it becomes that things are not what they seem.

The events of The Ninth Step take place in 2005. The shadow of 9/11 hangs heavy over  the city. At one point, Jack walks to the end of a fishing pier that juts out into New York Harbor. There, he encounters a memorial sculpture. Inscribed on its base are these words: “Brooklyn Remembers…For Those Lost On September 11, 2001.”

‘He glanced to the north, across the broad harbor. Who could ever have imagined that the Empire State Building would once again rule that distant skyline–that those brash usurpers, the twin towers, might simply disappear?

In the panicky aftermath of the attacks, certain ethnic groups were singled out for special security measures. Here, Jack tells a fellow officer about a neighborhood that until recently was crowded with people of Pakistani origin:

“After the World Trade Center went down, the Feds ordered the community here to do ‘special registration.’ Tons of people got deported, and others skipped to Canada or other places because they were afraid of getting deported. Or arrested.”

The weaving of this and other intriguing strands into the narrative make this novel stand out from the ordinary. At one point, Gabriel Cohen recounts an incident involving a ship called El Estero, moored in New York Harbor in 1943. In the Author’s Note, he comments:

‘It was one of the most astounding examples of human heroism I had ever heard of–so why, I wondered, was it not in every history book?

(Be sure to read the entire Author’s Note. It contains this and other fascinating  details of the research Cohen did for this novel. )

I read and enjoyed Red Hook and The Graving Dock, the first two entries in this series. The Ninth Step (number four) carries Jack Leightner’s story forward with great verve and energy. I am well and truly hooked and can hardly wait for the next  book.

author Gabriel Cohen


  1. Meredith Chancellor said,

    I’ve had The Graving Dock on my to-read list for years, but your review has persuaded me to read all four books in order. I’m just glad I didn’t have to endure the wait time between sequels . . . Should finish Await Your Reply tonight, and then off to the library tomorrow. BTW, I await your review of this novel with a most unusual cast of characters (and your help with pronunciation of the author’s name!) I’m also hoping for a review of The Little Stranger.

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