Serpents in the Cold by Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy

Publisher: Mulholland Books
Pages: 387
Year: 2015 (29 January)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Serpents in the Cold by Thomas O'Malley and Douglas Graham PurdyReview
It is 1951 and winter has gripped the city of Boston in a vice. These are dark times for the city. The post-war years have left the streets in decline, the residents depressed, the politicians as corrupt and violent as the gangsters who control the city’s businesses. Even the streets themselves are up for sale, whole neighbourhoods sold to the highest bidder for demolition, communities destroyed by dirty deals. It is a year since the Great Brink’s Robbery, the largest robbery in US history, its proceeds lost in the unhappy streets. And now in this brutal winter which has locked Boston in ice, a serial killer is loose.

Two children walking their dog along the bay discover the remains of the latest victim, a young woman, her throat slit, her body frozen. In life the woman was Sheila Anderson, the sister-in-law of Dante Cooper, a man trying to reclaim his life from drugs and debt to thugs. Dante’s closest friend, Cal O’Brien, used to be a police detective but now, damaged by his war experiences, he runs a respectable private security business. But now both men have one thing on their minds – justice for Sheila. Going undercover, the two men become vigilantes, digging deep into Boston’s secrets, discovering that there is much more to fear than a serial killer. For every discovery they make, the risks soar and the cost becomes ever more dear.

Serpents in the Cold is a historical mystery that manages to consume the reader, pulling him or her into this dangerous world that is little removed from us in time but is a world away in so many ways. The atmosphere is close and claustrophobic. The city feels almost like an island with everyone trapped inside it. Boston’s criminals flourish in all levels of society. It feels unclean. The ice and the cold are bitterly felt. This is a chilly novel indeed. It’s as if everyone is waiting for the ice to melt so that they can make their escape from this trap that is prowled by conmen, gangsters and murderers. It’s not just the serial killers who kill, though. There’s a strong sense that police are losing control and that they need the help of Cal and Dante to solve these murders but Cal and Dante are not your typical detectives.

This is an extremely noir-y and violent novel, reflecting the violent times. The authors pull no punches. At times it is shocking, building up to a climax that is both edge of the seat and disturbing. Cal is haunted by horrors and they come and go through the pages. For Dante, his nightmares are in the present. The story of his marriage is harrowing and we can understand why it means so much that he find justice for his wife’s sister.

As the novel proceeds, we are guided through Boston’s underworld, introduced to its businessmen and politicians, its thugs, and those who are trying to live an honourable life, caring for families, looking after those worse off. Sheila becomes more and more crucial and, although a murder victim, she has a presence throughout the book. Adding to the atmosphere and the strong presence of Boston itself as a central character, the book contains several contemporary photographs of the city in 1951.

There are no tidy resolutions in Serpents in the Cold. There’s a sense from the very beginning that things are going to get nasty and they don’t disappoint. Holding it all together are the charismatic figures of Dan and Cal, each with their own problems and resolutions, but each bringing hope to the novel through the force of their friendship and their dedication to pursue justice, however dirty it gets.

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