The Night Watchman by Richard Zimler

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Reviewed by T.V. LoCicero

The Mysterious Worlds of Henrique Monroe 

This is the ninth novel by Richard Zimler, an American-born writer who spent his first thirty-four years in the U.S., moved to Portugal in 1990 and then began writing and publishing his novels. The majority of them have historical settings with Jewish characters and themes. So this “psychological mystery,” as it’s been dubbed by critics, incorporating a police procedural, with only one Jewish character and set in Lisbon in the summer of 2012, is definitely a departure for the author. For the reader, The Night Watchman will also be a departure, since Chief Inspector Henrique (Hank) Monroe is certainly not your typical police investigator. He is, I’d venture to say, quite unlike anyone who has ever plied the gumshoe trade in the heavily-populated world of the fictional detective.

Zimler’s piece on his novel in the previous issue of SNB offers a good summary, so I’ll say only that the story centers on the murder of a wealthy 59-year-old businessman, husband and father in his own Lisbon mansion. As the details of the crime unfold, they involve both the intimate facts of the victim’s personal life and his business and professional connections.

So beyond the fact that he works for the Lisbon Public Security Police but was born and partly raised in rural Colorado, what’s different about Hank Monroe? For openers, he is something of an emotional mess, the polar opposite of the stoic, hard-bitten cop. As he tells us about his interrogation of a suspect who quickly admits to being a wife-murderer, Hank worries about offending the guy or hurting his feelings. And as he moves on to the murder investigation that will consume him (and us) for the rest of the book, we learn that:

  • he is at times so emotionally overwrought that he needs to pop Valium and fails to grasp basic information on the job;
  • he religiously wears a bolo tie that his brother Ernie says will keep him safe;
  • in the midst of this high-profile murder probe, he might just take a day off to spend time with his young sons and Ernie while not bothering to keep his cell phone on;
  • while examining a crime scene he often disappears into a kind of fugue state, in which he becomes extremely aggressive, exploring seemingly wild guesses and hunches that usually result in an intuitive leap that will move the case forward;
  • he is prone to give an unsuspecting witness an angry, scolding lecture on civic responsibility;
  • the word “funeral” can give him a headache;
  • the reader may unravel a crucial mystery in the case well before Hank does;
  • and in the aftermath of a crisis he wakes up one day totally unaware that he has solved the case.

Given all the fraught emotion and quirks, the reader might well wonder how this man could have lasted eighteen years as a cop. But Zimler has the story-telling skills to convince us by weaving together three fully realized worlds that make up Hank’s life. First, of course, is his professional work and the murder case in front of him. That he is so keenly empathetic and clued into the feelings of those around him is clearly one of the reasons he’s such a good detective. But as we come to learn, there are others that connect directly with his other two worlds: the troubled childhood he shared with his younger brother Ernie, and the current domestic scene he negotiates with his wife Ana, his young sons and with Ernie as well.

There are deep mysteries and fears to be dealt with in each of these three worlds, and Hank does so in fits and starts, until crises in each combine to move the story to its conclusion. And in the end there is a fourth world depicted as well: the troubled reality of present day Portugal with its economic travails and, in Zimler’s view, its moral despair. Together these interconnected worlds of the novel make it more than an unorthodox police drama or even a multi-faceted psychological mystery. They carry it beyond genre.

Of course, the detective, whether private or police, has become an enormously popular archetype for all the rest of us who are trying to solve the puzzles of our existence, to uncover and make sense of the salient facts scattered around us that might give meaning to our lives. But ultimately what makes this book so compelling is its passionate exploration of one man’s crowded, tormented psyche, as he struggles to solve not only the murder case he’s been assigned, but the confounding yet crucial mysteries of his own identity.

There are some moments of self-indulgence and an occasional carelessness with facts that a vigilant editor should have caught, but even so, this is a novel whose passion sweeps you up and carries you past any quibbles or concerns. By its end, much of the mystery in all of Hank’s personal worlds is resolved, but as often happens in life, the demands of justice have not been fully satisfied. Hank seems to be embarking on a new career path, and Zimler appears to have left himself the option of continuing his story in a novel to come. Here’s one reader who hopes he takes the chance.

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T V LoCicero’s author website is here.

Richard Zimler has written a Guest Post about his Portugal here.

Richard Zimler, The Night Watchman (Constable & Robison, 2014), 422pp.

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