In his 1954 James Bond novel Live and Let Die, Ian Fleming observed that owning a large number of books tends to go hand in hand with “serious criminal tendencies.” Bibliophiles may object to the thought, but over the long run of history, collectors of many things—paintings, postage stamps, golf courses—have been implicated in all sorts of crimes connected with the objects of their obsession.
It’s from that fact that Colin Harrison’s new novel, You Belong to Me, his eighth work of fiction, takes off. Paul Reeves is an immigration attorney by day, but that drudgery is just a life-support system for a lust for old maps of New York, maps that commemorate extinct places that “had been long lost to time and to all living memory.”
As the novel, whose very title speaks of possessiveness, opens, Paul is at an auction, eager to own one particular map that, on the face of it, he probably can’t afford—and might just be willing to do whatever it takes to possess it. At his side is his beautiful neighbor, the former Jenny Hayes, who has come along to pass the time. Jenny is married to an Iranian-American entrepreneur for whom the future seems nothing but golden.
But when a strapping stranger of military bearing bursts onto the auction floor and hustles Jenny away, a sprawling back story opens, one that embraces small-town dreaming, inequality, and the unintended consequences of America’s foreign wars.
High-toned on one page, dark and dirty on the next, Harrison’s yarn takes readers on a careening tour of a New York that the tourist brochures certainly don’t advertise—venues, that is to say, that are in no honest person’s personal atlas. “The story sprang initially from my own bone-deep obsession with old maps of New York City (the archaic typefaces, the crooked lanes, the tangible paper and ink),” Harrison says. “And then I fell prey to my ongoing narrative preoccupations with the rushing city of today, the men and women in it, dangerous individuals, sex, money, desire—the whole New York City enchilada.”
Add to that the element of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the class wars out in rural America, and the story broadens well beyond the Big Apple. Much of this goes without much more than a hint in Harrison’s story, in part because, he says, so many good books have been written that he wanted only to allude to the experience of combat.
The soldier in his story is a man without fear, and if he’s not exactly without sin, he’s better morally than most of Harrison’s characters. Still, says Harrison, “I like them all, even the worst of them. All are deeply flawed, yes, none purely honest or good. A few are dangerous, one way or another.” He adds, “I would say most of my characters are like most of us.”
Harrison’s story has all the elements of the classic whodunit, with modern lashings of sex and violence, but it’s also written to a high literary standard, much more Dennis Lehane than Mickey Spillane. Harrison admits to a broad range of influences, citing William Styron’s 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice as a model of structure while also noting “the verbal pyrotechnics of Tom Wolfe’s books” and “Alan Furst’s lean, dark plots.”
Whether we’ll see more of Paul Reeves, who makes a perfect antihero for modern-day New York, in future books Harrison won’t say, apart from a nicely noncommittal, “You never know.” He’s already at work on his next commemoration of the seamy underside of Gotham, all the while keeping up his work as editor-in-chief at a trade publishing house in the city. “The conflict is in finding time and energy for both,” Harrison says. “One learns in both jobs to keep the narrative moving.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.