Charles Dickens’ detractors blame his often-florid style on the original method in which he published many of his novels, in serialized, paid-by-the-word newspaper installments. Colin Harrison’s seventh novel, Risk, first published in The New York Times Magazine, gives the lie to presumptions about what the serial can do. The form may be due for a reinstatement if it produces more books like this energetic tale of an unlikely private investigator.
An insurance lawyer whose career is solid but unexciting, George Young is summoned to the scene of a several-weeks-old accidental death only at the behest of the widow of his greatest benefactor at the firm. Dissatisfied with the work of a real P.I., Mrs. Corbett already knows her son Roger was struck and killed by a garbage truck outside a SoHo bar; George agrees to help her discover the source of the anguished face he makes in security-camera footage seconds before his death. As George tries to reconstruct Roger’s night, he discovers a deeply unhappy man whose recent divorce and financial troubles prompted him, in the last few weeks of his life, to do some digging on his own.
The simplicity of Harrison’s premise, matching his taut prose, must bend such that an honest man can, within a few moves, stumble into an international conspiracy. It also has to stretch to encompass noirish figures like the femme fatale with a quirk, and the sparkly maguffin. Harrison partially offloads this work on George’s wife, who’s skeptical of the late hours he’s been pulling on the case, but Harrison makes the leap on his own as to why his narrator, a career fraud-spotter who still trusts his fellow man after hours, would put himself in danger without the promise of personal gain. Yet George, as foolish and unselfish as he is, secretly knows the score; volumes written about the economic downturn still don’t measure up to his summary “See how the money heats up the city, makes people crazy.”
Risk feels current without constantly resorting to tricks like cliffhangers and knockout blows; the suspense builds naturally over a four-borough amble whose taker is accustomed to only as much excitement as a $14 bottle of wine and a Yankees game can provide. The finale tucks neatly into George’s exaggerated sense of duty, warping it and simultaneously seeming to reward it. That gesture validates Harrison’s stroll on the dark side.