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Murder Most Foul

A COLD CASE By Philip Gourevitch; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 200 pp., $22

July 22, 2001|BARRY SIEGEL | Barry Siegel is the author of "Actual Innocence" and "The Perfect Witness." He is a national correspondent for The Times

One night in 1970, after too many drinks at a Manhattan restaurant, a snappily dressed Mob-connected hoodlum named Frank Koehler brawled with the restaurant's owner, Pete McGinn, and his friend, Richie Glennon, "a man of many hustles" who also owned a bistro. Hours later, at McGinn's apartment, Koehler shot both men to death, then disappeared into the night, on the run, a free man.

Twenty-seven years passed. Andy Rosenzweig, chief of investigations for the Manhattan D.A., was driving up 1st Avenue in lunch-hour traffic, on his way to a hospital for a stress test, when at the corner of 69th Street a memory jolted him: This was where Richie Glennon's restaurant had once stood. Rosenzweig had known and liked Glennon; Glennon had attended Rosenzweig's wedding, and Rosenzweig had attended Glennon's wake.

Rosenzweig felt a sense of debt. Glennon's girlfriend had never married; McGinn had been survived by a wife and four young children. Who speaks for the dead, Rosenzweig wondered. Who but him?

So begins Philip Gourevitch's fascinating if finally limited journey into a forgotten case and a vanished world. "A Cold Case," expanded from a much-admired New Yorker article, quite properly eschews the pumped-up narrative tension of a true-crime thriller, for its aim is elsewhere. What this brief book offers instead, set against an evocative portrait of gangland New York in the 1960s, is a dual character study of the cop and the criminal, the lawman and the outlaw.

Rosenzweig, the type of detective who annoys other cops because he won't loaf or take payoffs, spent his career working in an exasperating system that often undermined and tested his faith. When "the drink is in him," he is given to singing the theme song from "High Noon," a movie that is among his life's great inspirations, a movie whose hero does what he does because "I got to."

Koehler, by contrast, grew up on the tenement streets of Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen, his parents teenagers, his father in and out of jail, his earliest lesson being "not to show any fear and always make the first move." At age 15, he killed a companion over a pearl that turned out to be $1.60 worth of paste. Later he hobnobbed with Goodfellas-type gangsters at places like the Copacabana and Toots Shors. Jimmy Cagney was Koehler's passion; he watched his gangster movies "as if they were documentaries."

The renewed hunt for Koehler finally takes Rosenzweig's agents to Benicia, a tranquil California hamlet just south of the Napa Valley, where it turns out Koehler has been all along, a beloved and ubiquitous character known as "New York Frankie" and the "Mayor of Downtown." Flushed out, Koehler at 68 makes a run for it on an Amtrak train headed for New York. Cornered at Penn Station, he contemplates mowing down cops with the semiautomatic he's packing, but figures, "What's the point now? I'm old .... I met some nice people on the train."

Gourevitch is mesmerized by Koehler's videotaped confession, "one of the classic portraits of a criminal personality." His "smoke gruffened pure old New York" voice reveals Koehler to be "a refugee of sorts from the white hoodlum milieu of another time and from a city that no longer really exists." Even more intriguing than his voice is his attitude: "Far from being on the defensive, he appears almost to relish bearing witness against himself--not confessing so much as taking credit for his crimes." What matters to Koehler most--even in his later years, which may or may not have been so innocent--"is his power to decide who lives and who dies

In focusing on why a man murders and how he feels about it, Gourevitch revisits on a smaller scale the theme of his much-honored book about genocide in Rwanda, "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families." He does so with a fine understated style and a keen eye for detail. Yet halfway through, after Koehler's capture and confession, "A Cold Case" begins to take on the distinct feel of a padded magazine article.

Gourevitch stops weaving his research into a narrative and begins to serve up interviews raw. The people he visits are used as commentators on Koehler, telling us how to regard him, this after we've already been quite effectively shown. There comes an extended digression involving Koehler's colorful defense attorney, borrowed from another of Gourevitch's New Yorker articles. There comes also a tone that sounds unnecessarily judgmental.

Gourevitch is offended by Koehler, as well he might be, but that response precludes empathy and ambiguity, the storyteller's great tools. Perhaps it's for this reason that we get only a passing and unconsidered glimpse at what surely is among this tale's most resonant elements: Frankie Koehler's life, and possible transformation, in Benicia.

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