By David Healey
Set in 1933, THE FAIRFAX INCIDENT by Terrence McCauley seems at first to be a traditional noir detective story with a Raymond Chandler-like vibe. However, it soon becomes apparent that Charlie Doherty is an evolved and nuanced private eye. Imbued with a sense of history and complex characters, there’s more than meets the eye at first glance in this novel—much like the case that Doherty takes on.
The novel begins with Doherty interviewing the widow of a wealthy New Yorker who appears to have committed suicide. However, the widow insists that her husband did not shoot himself. Thus begins a case that leads Doherty through a twisty plot filled with politics and intrigue.
The author’s earlier trio of thrillers was actually set in the near future, with some futuristic predictions that have already come to pass. In Sympathy for the Devil, for example, he incorporated the kind of fingerprint recognition technology that exists today but that was more predictive of the future when the book came out.
Now, he’s delving into the past with a series of novels set in the 1930s.
Several real-life events are woven into the story for historical context. In fact, it might be challenging to find a historical setting more interesting than 1930s New York City, rife with Depression-era events and politics. FDR had just taken office to begin what would become a 16-year term in the White House. Mobsters still called the shots in much of the city. There was still great wealth among those who weathered the economic crash. However, there was also terrible poverty described in the Hooverville camps (named for President Herbert Hoover) made up of penniless homeless men.
“There were several Hoovervilles all over New York, with the biggest in Central Park,” McCauley says. “New York was a really different and dangerous place.”
The threatening political dynamic leading up to WWII plays a role in the story. The economic conditions have sparked an American brand of Nazism that is all the more chilling for its historical accuracy.