Gabriel Cohen


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 Please welcome Gabriel Cohen, June's Edgar Award- nominated featured author!



Fiction titles:

 Red Hook              Boombox      The Graving Dock       Neptune Avenue      The Ninth Step


Back in January 2008, New Mystery Reader conducted an interview with Mr. Cohen after the publication of his new novel, The Graving Dock.  And after reading his latest, The Ninth Step, and thoroughly enjoying it, our staff reviewer Ray Palen thought it would be great to revisit Mr. Cohen and talk about what’s new.  So please welcome Ray Palen and Gabriel Cohen in their interesting and thought provoking interview.


Interview with Gabriel Cohen June 2010:

Ray Palen:  Any significance to the novel being set in the year 2005?

Gabe Cohen: Since the book deals with what happened post-9/11 during the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” I thought it was a good idea to set it at a time that gave a bit of distance and perspective on that horrible day for New York, but was still part of that era. I’m hoping that the Obama administration will help us move into a new one, with the wisdom to see that reacting to terrorism with torture is not only ineffective, but only foments more terrorism, and that turning our backs on our most fundamental principles of humanity and jurisprudence is not the solution.

RP:  Rule of thumb for most writers is to “write what you know”. That being
said, what inspired you to start the Jack Leightner series and were there
any Brooklyn stories that you felt needed telling?

GB:  I’ve never been big on the dictum “write what you know.” For me, the biggest challenge and joy in writing comes from writing what I don’t know, but am curious to find out. When I started my series, for example,  I wondered what it might be like to have a real job where you deal with dead bodies every day. And I’m always curious about the incredible number of different ethnic and national cultures here in Brooklyn, and in the ways in which they manage to co-exist—or don’t.

RP:  Is there anything from your own life in Brooklyn in any of the Leightner

GB:  So far I’ve had a strong personal connection to most of the neighborhoods I’ve written about. Right now I live just a few blocks from the borough’s Little Pakistan, and I’m sad to see how it was decimated by the political climate after 9/11. I feel a connection to Brighton Beach (which I wrote about in Neptune Avenue) because it’s heavily populated by Russians and Ukrainians, which is where my own grandparents came from. I also wrote about Coney Island in that book, because I love the idea of a wild, scruffy, and untamed “amusement” area where ordinary New Yorkers stifled by boring jobs can go and get a special release—it’s kind of the city’s Id. And I feel a deep affinity for Red Hook—there’s something about its roughness and its feistiness and its connection to the water that surrounds New York that moves me in a profound way. I love living in this borough, and I hope that shines through in my novels.

RP:  There has been a lot of coverage for ‘Step Programs’ on TV/film recently.
What was the impetus for choosing the AA Ninth Step for this novel?

  When I was writing the first book in the series, I included a small subplot about the main character accidentally stumbling upon an AA meeting, and being inspired by the amazing way that its members try to openly tell the hard truth about their lives. The ninth of AA’s 12 Steps says that alcoholics should try to make amends to the people they might have harmed in the past, and I thought that would make a good opening for my latest novel. Someone from Jack’s childhood, motivated by the Ninth Step, shows up at his doorstep out of the blue one day and completely changes his understanding of the most significant event of his childhood.

RP:  There is a lot of focus on cultural and religious differences in this
novel - specifically within Brooklyn & NYC.  Do you think Jack Leightner is
able to recognize this cultural diversity or is he merely a peacekeeper in a
city that is out of control?

GB:  One of the things I love about Jack’s job as a detective for Brooklyn South Homicide is that his job constantly brings him to different neighborhoods across half of this huge borough and forces him into contact with people from radically different cultures, ranging from Hassidim to Rastafarians to people who see Brighton Beach as a western extension of Odessa. I think he’s very aware of this diversity because he often has to try and make sense of the cultural differences in order to do his job. But I don’t think that the city is out of control—it’s actually pretty amazing how we have so many cultures living practically on top of each other, with relatively little chaos. In my neighborhood you can find Arabs and Jews living fairly calmly right next to each other, or delis that cater to both Indians and Pakistanis. I think it’s great that people who might hate each other somewhere else in the world can come to this big melting pot and recognize that—as immigrants—they actually have a lot in common. On the other hand, of course, sometimes they don’t get along so nicely, which provides work for the local homicide detectives.

RP:  What is your family background and where does that play into this novel?

GB:  As I mentioned, my family background figures more directly into Neptune Avenue, the third book in the series. In general, though, as someone of Russian-Jewish background, I think I might have something of a special empathy for the perspective of outsiders who come to New York and try to fit in. And my protagonist Jack Leightner shares that outsider perspective—especially since Jews only make up a small percentage of the NYPD.

RP:  What authors do you read regularly?  Did any inspire your writing style?

GB:  I often think back to Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder series (particularly Eight Million Ways to Die). Those books inspired me to see that a character could really change and develop over the course of a series, instead of just doing the same thing every single book; that real, close observation of this city (or any other setting) could provide an incredibly rich source of stories and moods; and that the books I’m most interested in reading—and writing—are ones that make you care about the characters, rather than just providing clever and breathless plots.

RP:  Is Jack Leightner based on anyone real or is he a composite of characters you’ve read or people you might have known in your own life?

GB:  I would imagine that any character who you care about enough to use as the center of a whole series would contain some elements of your own character—we can use them to work out stuff about life that’s important to us. (e.g. How do we forgive people?; How do we communicate—or not—with family members?) On the other hand, after a while the character starts to develop a real presence in your mind as someone distinct in his own right.

 What happens next for Jack Leightner?  Do you think he received closure at the end of “The Ninth Step” or will he continue to be tormented by his past regrets?

GB:  I’m not really into long series in which the character keeps returning to some seminal incident over and over and over, as if our whole lives could be totally determined by one event. I hope that Jack has received a good measure of closure in this book, and that he’ll be free to move onto new problems and concerns—and yes, probably new regrets.

RP:  With the lack of original work in film and television today, have you
ever considered doing something in that medium with the Leightner series?

GB:  I believe that Jack Leightner would make for a strong and compelling film or TV character and would love to see him up on the screen, but I’m afraid that’s not really up to me! (I had a little Hollywood interest in the first book in the series, Red Hook, but I quickly learned how fickle and ephemeral such interest can be.)

RP:  What do you think the state of American Crime Fiction is today?  With
the passing in recent years of landmark authors like Ed McBain, Donald
Westlake, etc. - will there be a resurgence of this genre or is ‘noir’ a
dying art?

GB:  I might aggravate some people off with my answer to this one, but I don’t think that noir is the heart of crime fiction today. Personally, I’m not big on that world-view:  everybody’s weak or evil, all institutions and public figures are corrupt, everything ends in despair. Where does that get you? It’s not the way I see life, and it doesn’t seem like a great vehicle for learning anything new about the world. It was certainly fun to watch those movies or read those books from the 30s or 40s, but I think there are plenty of authors around now, all over the world, who are using crime fiction as a vehicle for a more nuanced and complex and insightful examination of the human experience. Crime fiction can bring up all sorts of essential and emotionally gripping issues about the ways in which human beings interact with each other, and I don’t see readers ever getting tired of that.

RP:  You still reside in Brooklyn.  Is this a personal choice or do you want
to keep your finger on the pulse of the territory Jack Leightner and co.

GB:  I have definitely made a personal choice to live here in Brooklyn, as a person and as a writer. I love listening to the accents here (how  point becomes pernt, or toilet becomes terlit, and dog can stretch out into a two-syllable word); love being able to get all sorts of incredible international food (a Uighur café in Brighton Beach, anyone?); love the look of the old brownstones and of Prospect Park; love the waterfront; love the history of the writers who have preceded me here (from Henry Miller to Arthur Miller to today’s young hotshots, half of whom seemed to be named Jonathan); and love the fact that there are truly at least two and a half million interesting stories to be discovered here.

NMR: Thanks you Mr.  Cohen, it was great to catch up with you!

(For review of The Ninth Step)



Gabriel Cohen Interview from January 2008 with Stephanie Padilla For New Mystery Reader

1.  There was quite a bit of time between the release of your first novel Red Hook, featuring Detective Jack Leightner of the Brooklyn South Homicide Task Force, and your follow up title The Graving Dock; why the long stretch between books? (AS

I published another novel in between, called Boombox, and I wrote a nonfiction book (coming out in March) and some journalism, plus I got married (and divorced). Now I’m I’m finishing up a third Jack Leightner novel, so life’s been pretty busy.


2. With The Graving Dock set shortly after 9/11, yet written much later, was it difficult for you to recreate the time and place?

Not really. I lived through that crazy, terrible time here in New York, and the memories of what the city felt like are indelible. I remember climbing up on my roof that morning and seeing a huge column of smoke rising up where the towers once stood; I remember walking through the streets with a handkerchief pressed against my mouth to block the falling ash, as I tried to find a hospital where I could donate blood. I didn’t want to make that day the center of the book, but I did want to include a bit of the feeling of what the city was like afterward. I think mysteries are largely about mortality, which we normally don’t like to think much about, but that event forced everyone to think about it, at the same time—and it forced the city to temporarily come together in some very interesting ways.


3.  In both of your Leightner titles New York and its environs, including its people, pace, and uniqueness, all play a very important role.  So when you started out writing this series, was it the place and time that you built the story around first, or Jack himself?

I love writing about the feel of Brooklyn, and its speech patterns, incredible ethnic diversity, and feistiness all play a big part in the books, but I really started with the character. I thought that it would be interesting to write about someone with such a weird job—homicide detective—and I did my best to create a real human being. I wanted to get away from the usual hard-drinking, constantly wisecracking, tough-guy detective—I was more interested in things like what kind of a parent or what kind of a lover someone who dealt with dead people all day might turn out to be.


4. Do you think Jack would be a different guy if he lived in say Miami?

Well, he would probably have a more colorful wardrobe. I like reading books in which character and place work together in interesting ways—like the Dexter series, which has a real Miami feel to it. I don’t know if Jack would be a different guy if he lived there, but I like the idea of dropping him in a radically different place like that and seeing how his Brooklyn instincts would help or hinder him.


5.  Readers will no doubt be impressed with your realistic portrayal of the world of cops; your dialogue and inside look at investigating being especially convincing.  Did you have to hang out with these guys to get such an in depth perspective?

Thanks for the compliment. I know some good crime writers who don’t sweat the research, but to me, it’s a big part of the fun of writing, and I feel really honored when I meet a cop who says I got things right. I have interviewed homicide detectives and regular precinct detectives, and I also did a 13-week Citizens Police Academy training course, which was very helpful. I think that there’s a richness that comes from learning specific details about how someone’s job really works, whether it be police procedure or even glove making (which Phillip Roth managed to make so fascinating in American Pastoral).  For The Graving Dock, for example, I learned about the wild job of the NYPD scuba divers, who might have to search the totally murky bottom of one of New York’s rivers for a specific tossed gun. One of them said, “One time, we came up with four wrong guns in forty-five minutes.” It’s hard to make up stuff like that.


6.  Now, of course, these aren't the only books you've written—it also seems you took the time in between to write an entirely different type of fiction with your novel Boombox; why the different direction?

Actually, I don’t think it’s that much of a different direction. Boombox is about the friction between four different Brooklyn neighbors after one of them—a teenager—buys a huge sound system and starts broadcasting gangster rap into the center of their shared courtyard. There’s a killing in it, though there’s no mystery about who did it. I think the basic questions are actually the same:  what makes people behave the way they do, and why is it so difficult for us to get along? All of my books, including the new nonfiction one, which is called Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: a Buddhist Path Through Divorce, are essentially mystery stories.


7. After writing a stand alone fiction novel and two related fiction novels, have you found it to be more interesting and challenging to write something different, or do you find it more gratifying to return to familiar places and faces?

I enjoyed doing something different—especially the nonfiction book, which combined memoir and self-help and presented some fresh writing challenges—but I also like the idea of a series. It can be an exciting art form, as long as you view it as a chance to deepen characters and give them an evolving story, rather than just telling the same story over and over (which is what happens when a series goes stale). Some TV series have done really well with that unique opportunity, shows like The Wire or The Sopranos. That concept goes back to the time of writers like Balzac, who got excited about the chance to develop the interplay within a whole rich world of characters, and to really explore a place and time.


8.  You've also wrote a bit of non-fiction. How does the challenge and satisfaction of this type of writing compare to fiction, if at all?

There are definitely some similarities. Ultimately, you have to keep the reader interested and eager to turn the page, so I try to use some fiction techniques, like building a story arc, creating suspense, and painting vivid scenes. In my upcoming nonfiction book about divorce, there’s even a murder. (Don’t worry, it didn’t involve my ex-wife.) I also faced some new challenges, like trying to write about my marriage in an honest way, yet also trying to protecting her privacy and to be fair. When I think that the new book might possibly help someone lessen the pain of a tough divorce, or even help them save a rocky marriage, that’s pretty exciting.


9.  Your bio indicates that you've had a variety of careers, ranging from teaching and writing, to musician, to waiter.  When you were a child, did you have any dreams and hopes of doing any of these things?

Well, I certainly never dreamt of being a waiter! But I’ve always done whatever freelance jobs might leave me with the time and the energy to write. (Back in my 20s I did harbor some hopes of becoming a rock star, and I pursued that dream for five years as the lead singer and guitarist for an indie band called Valley of Kings. We put out an album and did some touring, but then I realized that I probably didn’t have the voice or songwriting chops to really make it.) Sometimes I regret that I didn’t pursue the book writing consistently from an early age—but then again, I often find that my wacky, diverse work history has provided me with interesting things to write about. In Boombox, for example, I was able to give some of my jobs to my characters. One of them discovers what it’s like to work as a restaurant dishwasher (my first job); another works in a high echelon of a big corporate office—something I witnessed, oddly enough, during a stint working in catering.


10. If you could make this one wish come true, what would you most like your readers to get out of your books? 

Crime stories follow a pattern:  they introduce chaos into society, in the form of a disruptive event such as a murder, and then they move toward putting everything back into order. There’s a certain simple satisfaction in that raising and then calming of tension and anxiety—the evil killer gets caught or killed—but if that’s all a book is about, you might forget it a day or two later. And life doesn’t really work that way, since we’re all moving toward an ending (death) that actually feels very confusing and mysterious. I like to think that a crime novel can do more than just resolve tension, that it can be an opportunity to explore some deeper questions, like Why do people do bad things to each other? (Greed and cruelty are just symptoms—you have to probe deeper to get to the underlying cause.) How can humans come to grip with their mortality? Why is a successful romantic relationship so difficult to sustain? I believe readers want more than just a flashy story—they want to care about the characters, to travel through a story with them and emerge having had some kind of challenging and moving and cathartic experience. That’s the job, as I see it.


11. And finally, are readers going to be lucky enough to see a return of Jack Leightner, and if so, what might he be facing for the next go around?  

I’m under contract for a third Jack Leightner novel, called Neptune Avenue. This one deals with a police shooting in Red Hook, ex-pat Russian life in Brighton Beach, a murderer of young women in Crown Heights, and a sexy romance for Jack. There are definitely a number of strands in this one, and I’m enjoying discovering how I can weave them together.



Gabriel Cohen’s debut novel Red Hook was nominated for the Edgar award for Best First Novel, and he is also the author of the novels The Graving Dock and Boombox. His nonfiction book Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce will be published in March. He has written for The New York Times and Time Out New York, and taught writing at New York University. He has worked as an inner-city schoolteacher, a rock’n’roll musician, a waiter, a researcher, a script reader, and a composer for film soundtracks, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

For more info on Gabriel Cohen, please visit his site at: