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BOOK REVIEW

In ‘A Killer’s Essence,’ a writer at top of his game

By Ed Siegel
September 1, 2011

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Dave Zeltserman has had to put himself in the shoes of any number of disreputable types in his estimable noir novels - hit men, out-of-control cops, old coots who think they’re saving the world by weeding a field. Now, in “A Killer’s Essence,’’ comes the ultimate in empathizing with the dark side. Zeltserman, who lives and dies with the Red Sox, creates a protagonist who - the horror - is a Yankees fan.

Zeltserman, though, proves no masochist, setting the story in 2004. Should you need a reminder, that’s the year the Red Sox came back from a 3-0 deficit against New York to win the pennant and then to take the World Series, reversing the 86-year-old Curse of the Bambino. Why is this important in a murder mystery? Because Brooklyn detective Stan Green is something of a mess. He is approaching his 40s; his wife has divorced him and taken the two kids off to Rhode Island; his boss busts his chops at every opportunity; his new girlfriend is a bimbo named Bambi; his partner is laid up in a hospital; and his son is so angry at him that, under the tutelage of his stepfather, he has become a Red Sox fan. The eventual demise of his beloved Yankees is one more nail in his psychological coffin.

But while it’s fun for formerly long-suffering Red Sox fans to relive the glory days, the 2004 playoffs are the sideshow. The main event is Green’s attempt to unravel three murders in which the bodies have been grotesquely mutilated. Few writers are Zeltserman’s equal in setting up the chessboard with obsessive perps and depressive cops. And it isn’t always easy in the world of noir fiction to tell the difference between the two.

A major arbiter in this tale should be Zachary Lynch, who witnessed one of the murders. The problem is that Lynch suffers from lesions in the brain from a previous trauma, and he sees nothing but horrific hallucinations when looking at certain people.

Just Green’s luck. But if you’re thinking this development is too far-fetched, it turns out to be a superb, perhaps metaphysical metaphor for the evil and sadness in the world. The chapter in which Lynch details his affliction, and tells Green why he sees holes instead of eyes when he looks at the detective, is one of the finest pieces of writing Zeltserman has penned.

And that’s saying something because Zeltserman’s lean but muscular style, so evident in “Killer’’ and “The Caretaker of Lorne Field,’’ is just as sharply honed here. His ability to juggle Green’s story and Lynch’s, develop a riveting murder mystery, and even mix in some Brighton Beach ex-KGB sleazeballs, all in less than 250 pages, is a pretty neat page-turning trick.

Actually, I wish he had taken a little more time to weave in more from the playoff series - or is that just the Red Sox fan in me talking? A couple of other cavils: Green should have been more aware of the danger he was putting his family in by taking on the Russian mob, and - I’m not giving anything away - the penultimate suspect would have made a more satisfying murderer.

Perhaps this is all like complaining that the Red Sox were almost swept by the Yankees in 2004. Ultimately they were a memorable winner. So is “A Killer’s Essence.’’

Ed Siegel, a longtime former theater and television critic for the Globe, can be reached at esiegel122@comcast.net.

A KILLER’S ESSENCE By Dave Zeltserman

Overlook, 240 pp., $23.95