Saturday, April 14, 2012

Set Your Brain a-Spin: Read Blue Eyes by Jerome Charyn

Have you ever jumped rope with your brain? Juggled with it or bounced it on the floor like a basketball? All these games involve finding a comfortable rhythm. Reading a book by an author who's very creative, playful, and energetic can be a challenge, but once you settle into the book's rhythm, it can be extremely rewarding. Kurt Vonnegut, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace have written books like this. So has a man who's been called the James Joyce of the police novel, Jerome Charyn.

Charyn was born in the Bronx in 1937. By the time he entered Columbia University, he had stuffed his head with comics and movies. Charyn taught at major American universities before teaching film at the American University of Paris, where he is now Distinguished Professor Emeritus. Not only is Charyn an award-winning novelist, he is a tournament table tennis player. After hanging out with his brother, an NYPD homicide detective, Charyn wrote a dazzlingly inventive 10-book crime fiction series set in New York City that has achieved a cult-like status. The series features Isaac Sidel, a Jewish NYPD captain who becomes the city's deputy police commissioner and mayor. It's difficult to describe the books in this surreal series; they really must be experienced, beginning with the first book, written in 1974, Blue Eyes.

Manfred "Shotgun" Coen is the blond, blue-eyed man of the book's title. The son of a Bronx egg shop owner, he was orphaned when his parents stuck their heads in the oven. He's now a divorced homicide detective who lives in NYC, rather than on Long Island like his fellow cops. He loves playing ping pong in his undershorts and gun holster, spicy Cuban food, and magenta socks. (Man, I can't tell you how strange it seems to distill Charyn's jazz score of words into straightforward sentences like this.)

Coen was taken up after his police academy graduation by the police commissioner's whip, Deputy Chief Inspector Isaac Sidel. When gambling charges send Sidel into disgrace, Coen is assigned to find the missing Caroline Child, teenage daughter of a prominent theatrical producer. His assignment dumps him into a battle between Sidel and the Guzmann crime family, who moved their operations from Peru to the Bronx because Papa Guzmann "didn't trust mechanical things," including handguns. Once in the Bronx, Papa opened a candy store where his numbers runners and pickup men busy themselves in the back, while, in the front, Papa dishes up ice cream to tribes of cross-eyed girls "who thumped the stools and wailed with pleasure when Papa brought over a big jar of maraschino cherries." Perhaps Papa's son César, once Coen's closest boyhood friend and now a gambler and whorehouse kingpin, kidnapped Caroline, and she's at work as a prostitute in Peru.

Coen is a good man whose investigation delves into morally ambiguous or immoral places inhabited by weird characters who will make your head spin. Here's a sample: Coen's favorite stool pigeon is Arnold, a club-footed Puerto Rican whose dream is to visit The Dwarf, a notorious lesbian bar frequented by Caroline Child's cousin Odette, a gorgeous pornography queen employed by César Guzmann. Odette has an obsessed bantam-sized fan named Chino Reyes. Reyes is a taxi bandit who steals Arnold's special shoe to wear himself and would like to kill Coen for touching his face.

Watching these bizarre characters interact is a unique experience in crime fiction. It requires a reader to sit back and relax while being pelted with confusing argot, characters' multiple nicknames, and mystifying behavior. Reading Charyn is a bit like distance running: pretty soon you hit "the wall," and then it's wonderfully peaceful floating. I assure you, without special effort, you've learned the slang. Characters' identities have become clear. Their behavior is still crazy, but you can follow it. The plot frolics madly along, and your brain is dancing to its rhythm. If you're looking for a different reading experience that stretches your mind into pretzels, Charyn is definitely your guy.

Now, all 10 Isaac Sidel novels are being re-released as e-books and on-demand by Open Road and Otto Penzler's Mysterious Press:

In addition, Blue Eyes is in development as an adult animated series by HBO/Canal+. Take a look here at the concept pictures:

For the animated series Hard Apple, based on the Isaac Sidel books

If you're lucky enough to speak French, you can read Charyn's graphic novel for the second book in the series, Marilyn the Wild. Here's an article (in French) that gives you a peek at the graphics:

Marylin la dingue de Jerome Charyn et Frédéric Rébéna
Ed. Denoël Graphic


  1. We're abuzz over your thoughtful, comprehensive analysis of Blue Eyes and the whole Jerome Charyn experience. Isaac Sidel is lucky to have Read Me Deadly (maybe it should be called Lively) in his corner. Thank you for this and for so many introductions you've given us to must-read thrillers. - Lenore Riegel

  2. Lenore, thanks. Charyn's Isaac Sidel series is an experience. I'm very happy to see these books released as e-books, and they are absolutely perfect for graphics books and animation. All those colorful characters! I've done a lot of crime fiction reading, and for a couple of jaw-droppingly original series, I recommend Charyn's Isaac Sidel series, set in NYC, and William Marshall's Yellowthread Street series, set in Hong Kong. There's just nothing else like them in the genre.

  3. Whoops, I forgot to mention Chester Himes's series featuring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, set in Harlem. Each of these police procedural series is distinguished by its originality and amazing vividness of the writing.

  4. Georgette, those two series are going into my TBR queue. If you can mention them in the same breath as Jerome Charyn's, they must be awesome. Some of the action in Charyn's novels takes place in Harlem. And Hong Kong always fascinates me. Thanks again. So happy to have my own personal crime thriller "shopper."

  5. Lenore, I think you'll enjoy William Marshall and Chester Himes.

    Marshall's series is cartoonish and completely off the wall, with some sci fi elements. He loves playing with words. Himes's books, set in 1950s and 60s Harlem, absolutely throb with energy, violence, and great characters.

    If I had to characterize these three great writers' police novels in just two words, it would be: Charyn, hip and surreal; Marshall, wild and woolly; Himes, warm and cynical. All are completely original, and all deserve reading.