The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   129

City of the Dead

by Herbert Lieberman

Simon and Schuster, 1976

A Pathological Lear

Well, that was a lesson in judging books by their covers.

I picked this up at a charity sale for (I think) a quarter, thinking, based on its cover, that it was a horror novel: "bizarre and unspeakable terrors ... incredibly grotesque events that were to entrap him in a nightmare that made even the reviewers gasp", comparisons to The Omen, etc. (The fact that it was in the section marked "Horror" contributed to this impression.) It is full of grotesque, nightmarish events, but it is not, in the conventional sense of the word, a horror novel.

What it is, is the story of the life of Paul Konig, Chief Medical Examiner of New York City, from April 12, 1974 to April 21, 1974. Konig is --- with some reason --- a proud man, proud of his professional skill as a forensic pathologist, of his honesty and integrity as a public servant, of his beloved but presently estranged daughter. Of the course of those nine days, Konig's pride will drive him to complete personal and professional melt-down. His pride forces him to compromise himself, to lie about his forensic findings, to humiliate himself, to give up his position, drives him to a nervous breakdown and ultimately, tragically, costs him his daughter. The combination of this version of the story of King Lear with a straightforward mystery plot, in which Konig solves a baffling and gruesome multiple homicide, has no right to work, but it does, and even makes the Lear story more effective.

The book is set about a months after I was born, and was published before I was two. It's striking, reading it now, just how many attitudes have changed, and how much, e.g., toward homosexuals. Part of this is that --- at least now --- the novel conveys a persistent, oppressive sense that not just Konig but the larger world is going to Hell in a hand-basket. The New York City in which most of the novel takes place is seedy, tawdry, broken, physically and morally alike:

He has taken that route many times in the past five months. Always choosing to walk, no matter how weary, rather than ride. Drawn there irresistibly, as if on some invisible leash. Prowling streets. Eyes searching out shadowy alleys, doorways reeking of urine, trying to pierce through the dirty brown brick of turn-of-the-century tenement buildings fallen on hard times. Wanting to see past the people on the stoops to the dark, noisome halls beyond, whence malicious strangers often lurked, and on into the tiny, inhuman cubicles with the trapped, hapless occupants huddled in the dark, fetid corners. Somewhere in that squalid maze, he is certain, his lost child cowers.
To say that Lieberman brings this decaying, corrupted city to life would be the very opposite of the truth --- but he does make it real.

About Lieberman, I know only the following: he wrote a number of other novels, none of which are in print; his name sometimes appears as "Herbert H. Lieberman" and he was a novelist of considerable skill and power, who should be not forgotten in the twenty-five-cent box.

356 pp.

Fiction / Mysteries / North America

Reprinted as a paperback (New York: Pocket Books, 1977). Apparently in print in Britain (London: Arrow, 1990, ISBN 0099140802).

21 November 2003