Philip Gourevitch: A Cold Case

Philip Gourevitch
A Cold Case
Farrar, Straus & Giroux  

ON FEBRUARY 18, 1970, small-time hood Frankie Koehler enjoyed one of his customary evenings on the town by getting drunk and inciting a fight with two acquaintances who had made the mistake of suggesting that perhaps Koehler was wrong to cuckold an imprisoned friend. Koehler disagreed, and concluded the argument by shooting and killing them both. Then he disappeared for nearly three decades. Despite several Koehler sightings around town, the police declared the file closed in 1992.

New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch discovered the case as Koehler went to trial, and it's not hard to imagine what attracted him to the tale. Previously the author of a shattering study of the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, Gourevitch must have been intrigued by what he saw as a smaller-scale way to get at similar questions of good and evil, justice and remorse. Gourevitch begins with the reopening of the investigation, brought about through the diligence of his hero, Andy Rosenzweig, a straight-arrow detective who had become angry at the department's lazy disposal of its files. We watch through Rosenzweig's eyes as investigators interview relatives and lovers, pursuing a number of red herrings before finally tracking Koehler to the hippie outpost of Benicia, California. There, the tough guy, raised in Hell's Kitchen to snarl like Jimmy Cagney, had become a beloved small-town character. Nabbed on his return to Penn Station in 1997, Koehler was armed and ready to take down several of what he would doubtless have called "coppers." Only the merest chance, he tells Gourevitch--a providential conversation aboard the train that briefly endowed him with respect for human life--seems to have precluded a fatal shootout.

Rosenzweig, whom Gourevitch clearly idolizes, tells a good story, and his humane world-weariness makes you root for whatever facsimile of justice he can achieve. A philosophical representative of official authority, he came up through the ranks in the Serpico Seventies, neither going on the take nor simply sleeping through his time on the job--both pursuits in which his early partners excelled. As such, this case could make for riveting true-crime ethnography, especially in its documentation of the seismic differences between Koehler's localized underworld and the multinational, multiracial megaviolence of its modern inheritors.

Yet although Gourevitch seems to have had almost total access inside both police station and prison, the dance between Koehler (whose head we barely enter) and Rosenzweig passes so quickly that the book rushes to an end without saying much of anything. Last time out, Gourevitch dug so deeply into horror that I was begging for the book to end. This time, Gourevitch never pushes beyond the engaging stories that made up his original pair of magazine articles. Is Koehler a psychopath? Will we ever see his like again? For that matter, will we see Rosenzweig's? (When last encountered, he's opening a bookstore but can't quite resist helping out the local police.) Was justice done? Fluidly and elegantly observed, A Cold Case flirts with the significance of such questions, then goes on the lam.

 
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