Review: Pulse by Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey’s Pulse is a novel set in Boston in 1976 where two detectives are assigned to a murder very much different from those normally found on the city’s tough streets.
After 2016’s Brighton, Michael Harvey returns to Boston, albeit a very different one, in his extraordinary new crime novel. To say Pulse has an unusual twist would be an understatement, though. Boston in 1976 was a very different place. Well, sort of. You’ll notice as the novel moves along that Harvey is well aware of exactly how much the past can parallel the present. Racial protests and riots were the norm as the city tried to desegregate by required busing of students between white and black areas of the city. 16-year-old Daniel Fitzsimmons, who attends Latin School, has seen tensions spill over between his school and the adjacent English. But, Daniel has other things on his mind, namely the new apartment that he just moved into. Only $50 a month. Yep, he’s only 16, but he and his brother, Harry, who attends Harvard and is a star athlete, have been on their own for a while after their mother was killed in a car accident when Daniel was very young. He’s been staying with Harry in Cambridge, but if anyone gets wind of that address, he wouldn’t be able to attend Latin School for free anymore. A guy named Simon Lane, who claims to be a Harvard physics prof, is his new landlord; Simon seems like an odd duck, but generally harmless.
Simon winked as he packed the bowl and lit it with a wooden match. When he had it going to his satisfaction, he sat back again and took a couple of puffs. “Beautiful draw.” His mumbles were lost in a layer of smoke and the scent of ripe berries. Daniel didn’t mind a bit and allowed his mind to float. There was a banging on the stairs below and then it grew quiet again. Simon’s voice cut through the fog.
“What were we talking about?”
“Do you have a specialty?”
“Most of my work’s in the field of quantum mechanics.”
“The study of subatomic particles.”
Simon pulled the pipe from his mouth and pointed the stem at Daniel. “They teach you that at Latin School?”
“I read it somewhere.”
“I study the quantum state. Specifically, I focus on a phenomenon known as entanglement. Ever heard of that?”
“Einstein first flagged it in the 1930s. Called it ‘spooky.’”
“Is it? Spooky, I mean?”
Daniel is happy with his new place, which is much nicer than it seems it should be, given that it lies directly above the Rathskeller, a dingy live music venue dubbed “The Rat.” He’s also hopeful that his friendship with the lovely Grace Nguyen might just turn into something more.
Speaking of something more… Daniel isn’t your ordinary 16-year-old. In fact, since he awakened from the coma that he fell into after his mother’s death (he was in the car with her when it crashed), he’s been able to do some very, very strange things. He can get inside people’s heads. He can “push” them. Not necessarily to do something against their will, but just enough to influence them a bit. And that’s not all he can do. Simon Lane might call it entanglement, but Daniel just knows it sets him apart.
One night, while on a run, Daniel gets a terrible feeling that Harry is in trouble, and he’s right. In fact, at that moment, Harry is being stabbed to death in an alley, and Daniel is sure that he knows who the killer is. Harry, in his last moments, knows that Daniel is coming.
And he knew, just as sure as he knew he was on the point of his own death, that Daniel was close by, that Daniel was coming, that they’d never really be apart again. Harry called out his brother’s name as he closed his eyes and breathed his last, falling forward into the web of seamless light, into the warmth, enveloping, embracing, taking him home. A place he’d never been before. A place from which he’d never leave.
Homicide detectives William Barkley “Bark” Jones, who is black, and his partner Tommy Collins, who is white, catch the case, and the pressure to solve the brutal murder of a white Harvard football star is intense. Bark is my favorite kind of detective: innately good yet not immune to the dark aspects of his job, or the dark impulses of his coworkers; troubled—in Bark’s case, he’s nearly suicidal after the accidental death of his wife; and tough as nails. Bark and Tommy are close, as partners are—specifically, partners that owe each other their lives—but Tommy takes “troubled” to a whole new level. He claims to love his wife and twin daughters fiercely, and in the case of his daughters it’s the firm truth, but he’s not above smacking Katie around occasionally, although some of that could be attributed to his affinity for coke and other such street spoils. He also calls women “bitch(es)” regularly, which is charming. I kept picturing a particularly cunning, slyly vicious ferret as a stand-in for Tommy. He has his moment, though. Harvey wisely resists the urge to make him a one-dimensional crooked cop, and in some ways, Tommy can even be seen as tragic. Drugs and money (or the promise of great piles of it) can take people to some pretty dark places.
As Bark and Tommy chase up leads, Bark begins to realize they’re onto something very strange, and he can’t quite get a handle on Daniel. It’s all here: murder, corrupt cops, a gritty 70s Boston in turmoil. But then Harvey throws such a huge curveball your head will spin. The interconnectedness of all things is a big theme, and there are some scenes (keep your eye out for the one with Daniel and the dogs—trust me, you’ll know it) that will make the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Harvey has a firm grip on time and place, and one-dimensional characters just aren’t in his toolbox.
Harvey is a bona fide noir poet, and there are some scenes that I was just itching to include here but they just would have given away too much, because Daniel’s powers—and the mystery behind them—are what makes this book truly special. There is one early scene involving Bark that will give you a spoiler-free idea of this (and a taste of Harvey’s fantastic writing):
The woman slid her hand along Barkley’s wrist and gripped it, sending a hot wire up his arm and pulling him in. Her face was Western, smooth and unlined, cheeks touched with powder that smelled like the notes spinning off an old jazz record on a phonograph in a picture hanging on a wall. Then she unhooded her eyes. And Barkley’s world exploded.
Don’t let any of the physics talk scare you away. It enhances the narrative and makes you question what is real (or what could be real) and what is “other.” The whole book, even the very realistic action sequences, has an otherworldly feel, and as bad as things get, behind everything Daniel does is his intense love for his brother. The last quarter had my jaw on the floor and the last page broke my heart.