Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Hard, Hard City by Jim Fusilli


Rating: (Recommended)




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Jim Fusilli reprises private eye, Terry Orr, in his new novel, Hard, Hard City. The city may be a hard place, but Orr is a solid, soft-hearted, professional who endangers his own life as he tries to help a wayward teen. Orr never leaves character, and Fusilli deepens the scope of Orr’s personality in this fourth novel.


Here’s an excerpt from the end of Chapter 3, pp. 57-65:



I drove slowly alongside the craggy retaining wall, and I rolled down the window to take in the briny scent and to see if the ocean mist could reach me over the high rocky divide. Above me, seagulls bobbed and struggled in the blustery winds.

The sun had fallen behind gray clouds, adding to the ghostly ambiance of the gleaming oceanfront lane, serenely quiet in the off-season. For a mo­ment, I felt as if I’d puttered onto an empty Hollywood backlot.

I made a right at Sea Bright, as randmcnally.com told me, and I found Silver Haven, and I moved along, soon passing a stretch of American flags, flapping violently in the wind, on the tapered islands that separated the east- and westbound lanes of the immaculate boulevard. On either side, prominent single-family homes, superbly maintained, tastefully appointed— Victorians, narrow ranches, brick Colonials, bold contemporaries in laven­der and rose—all somehow managed to complement one another, creating a neighborly ambiance, one of quiet, restrained affluence. Pure-white snow coated spacious lawns, and a yellow sign at the road’s side warned of deer.

It certainly was unlike any Jersey shore town I’d ever visited.

My mother, Regina and I spent two weeks each summer in raucous Sea­side Heights, where three fistfights an hour were the norm on the gum­-stained boardwalk, as the barkers hustled bleary-eyed vacationers to their gambling wheels, and the aroma of sizzling sausage and peppers over­whelmed the ocean’s scent. The chatter of the cigarette-smoking sun-bathers concealed the roar of waves breaking against the white sand.

In Silver Haven, the only sound I heard was the putt-putt of my rental car.

At the junior high, where runners in purple hooded sweatshirts and matching sweatpants obediently did laps around a manicured football field, as many as 100 bicycles stood in two long, colorful rows. Not one wore a se­curity chain.

Two municipal workers were taking down a damaged tree limb, and a policewoman waved me around their effort.

I pulled up next to her. “Can you tell me where I can get a bite to eat?” I asked.

“Keep going to the second light, make a left and you’ll find a couple of places,” she replied. She had soft blue eyes and full lips, and her face was pink from the slapping wind. Her name was Maki, according to the gold bar above her badge, and she wore an u-round automatic on her belt.

“I appreciate it,” I said, and reached to roll up the window. “You wouldn’t know how I could find the home of Harlan Powell, would you?”

She tilted her head and rubbed her gloved hands together. “Harlan Powell? No, I don’t believe I know anyone named Harlan Powell.”

I looked up at her, as she peered over the top of the car as if scanning a horizon.

“He’s a player here, isn’t he?” I said.

“What’s that mean?” she asked. “A player?”

I shook my head. “If you haven’t heard of him, and the Exxon guy... No, I guess not.”

I thanked her again, and I drove on, putting her and the workers in the rearview.



He was a big man, broad across the shoulders, thick in the neck and thighs, and his blue topcoat did little to hide his muscularity. As I stepped out of the sandwich shop and into the frigid air, I saw him glaring at me, and then he came off the front of his black Cadillac SUV and walked toward me.

And then, without a word, he punched me in the stomach and I fell hard to the concrete, landing on my knees before tumbling to the side.

The big man put his big shoe against the side of my head and pushed hard enough to let me know how much it would hurt if he went all the way.

“Nobody wants you here,” the big man said, his voice surprisingly smooth.

I gasped for air.

“You’re going to give back what’s ours,” he said, “and then you’re going back where you came from. You got me?”

I couldn’t move, nor could I believe no one was coming to my aid. When I’d walked into the sandwich place, trim White Cedar Street had bustled with shoppers running to the greengrocer’s, dry cleaners, cheese store, the ATM at the bank. The big man made them all disappear.

He stepped off my head, reached down and yanked me to my feet.

I still couldn’t catch my breath, and I noticed he had brass knuckles across the fingers of his bulky right hand. The metal wouldn’t mean much if he went for the midsection again, but it’d crack open my jaw if he snapped a short right at my chin.

“You won’t squeeze us,” he said, staring hard into my eyes. “We don’t pay.”

Dizzy from pain, I wasn’t strong enough to go back at him. Not yet.

Under close-cropped dirty-blond hair, the big man’s wide head seemed more square than oval, and the veins in his broad neck pulsed as he held on to my collar. “Give,” he said.

“You— You got the wrong guy,” I said, wheezing.

“You want to see Harlan,” he said, “you see me.”

“Yeah,” I replied, “Harlan. Harlan Powell.”

“Give,” he repeated.

A middle-aged woman, thin, light-blond, in a red parka, cast a quick, stealthy glance at the big man. Head down, she hurried into a vest-pocket appliance store.

“My wallet,” I said. Tiny lights danced before my eyes.

He nodded and I dipped awkwardly into my back pocket.

He studied the card I handed him.

Across White Cedar, a young man, prematurely gray, watched from be­hind the bay window of an insurance office.

“I’m no thief,” I said.

“You’re saying you didn’t break into the car?”

I shook my head. “Car?”

He let go, shoved me.

I regained my footing and I studied him, and I couldn’t find a weak spot, at least not one I could work now with my bare hands.

I wiped off the side of my head. Blood trickled from my ear.

He reached into his topcoat and shoved my business card into his shirt pocket.

“What do you want?” he said.

“I’m looking for Allie,” I told him.

He looked at me. Then he showed me the butt of the gun in his topcoat pocket.

He snapped his head toward the Darth Vader Caddy. “Get in,” he growled.



He made me put on the seat belt, and then he walked away from the car and he pressed a button on his cell phone. The conversation was brief, and it looked to me like the big thug was taking orders. He nodded a few times, said yes again and again, and then he shut down the little phone and came back to me, though not before shifting his gun to his left side, away from where I could reach it.

The blood from the gash on my ear trickled down my neck.

“Where are we going?” I asked as he turned over the engine. “Shut up,” he explained.

He drove toward Route 36 with the brass knuckles across his fist, and he breathed through his nose as if he was ready to explode in anger at the slightest provocation.

“We going to Powell’s?”

Without looking, he threw a right jab in my direction, but I ducked it with little effort, despite the restraining belt and the ache in my gut.

“I told you to shut up,” he said.

The big man was slow, and whoever he spoke to on the phone had rat­tled him. I filed that away, along with the image of him dropping his left when he threw the hard right at me on White Cedar. I knew I’d be seeing him again and only one of us was going to like it.

Ten minutes later, we pulled into the Exxon station I’d visited on my way into town. Parked on the side of the building, near the empty garage bay, was a white four-door Mercedes with gold trim and Jersey plates. Its engine was running, and steam rose from its tailpipe.

“Get out,” he said.

I went out into the cold, sneakers on the cracked blacktop, and he came up behind me and nudged me toward the station’s door.

In the seat behind the desk where Ezra Exxon had been was a man, about my age, who had to be Harlan Powell. Flabby across the midsection, with a second chin, he looked like the kind of guy who spent most of his day on his ass, and drove the golf cart right up to the clubhouse door. His pricey clothes were immaculate: A thick mustard-yellow sweater covered an ocean-blue silk shirt, and he wore navy-blue wool slacks. Despite the rock salt that had coated the streets since November, his soft black alliga­tor loafers were spotless over sheer socks.

But not even the smell of old gasoline could hide the stench of arro­gance that rose from him. Here was a man who’d spent a lot of time being impressed with himself.

“Tell your muscle he had his last free shot,” I said, looking into his drowsy blue eyes.

Powell didn’t break a smile. I could tell he thought of himself as a tough guy, despite the paunch, and maybe he’d earned the attitude: He had a deep, crude scar above his left brow, and his wide nose looked like it had been cracked long ago, about the time something cut him near the eye. And though his hands were smooth, he had broad knuckles that suggested he may have had to use his fists before he figured out how to do it with brains.

“Cut your ear, did he?” Powell said, peering at the little wound on the side of my head.

Then he looked over my shoulder at the thug behind me. “Lou,” he said, with a snap of his head. “In the back.”

The big man went toward the bay without comment or protest. I watched as he squeezed his body through the door frame and edged past the white van.

“You’re looking for my son?”

I nodded.

I reached across and grabbed a fat roll of paper towels that sat atop an old, grease-stained phone book.

“And why’s that?” Powell said.

“People are worried,” I said, as I dabbed the coarse paper against my ear.

“I’m not.”

“And there’s a problem with some cash. From John McPorter’s—”

“He’s soft in the head, you know,” he said, cutting me off. “Living in that rat hole, praying. . .“

“Yeah, but somebody took his $47!.” A door slammed somewhere deep in the garage bay.

“You notice that the worse it is for some people the more they believe in God?” he mused. “Stupid, right?”

“Maybe that’s why they can’t wait to get to heaven,” I said.

“Heaven? You’re kidding, right? Wait, don’t tell me you believe in that shit.” He looked at the crease in his pants, flicked away a yellow thread. “Here, up there, downstairs—you are what you are, and all you’ve got com­ing to you is what you went out and got.”

“However you got it. . .“

“Damn right,” he said.

An after-the-fact philosophy, spoken by a man trying to justify his mis­behavior.

He asked, “And you think Allie took his money?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“My son never wanted for a dime in his life,” Powell asserted.

“OK, so maybe he can tell me who might’ve done it.”

“Probably some other nut who believes all that bullshit.”

I said, “Could be.” Another thud from somewhere inside the garage.

“Or maybe there was something else in the safe.”

I didn’t reply.

“Was there?”

“I don’t know,” I said. This creep was more concerned about what Mc-Porter had locked away than he was about his own son.

“Who hired you?” he asked.

“Some other nut who believes all that bullshit,” I told him.

He laughed as he looked me over. “He can’t be paying you much.”

I tossed the bloody wad of paper on the dirty floor.

“A guy like you is not going to get too far. Not down here,” he said. “No­body is going to give you the time of day. See, nobody wants you here.”

I gathered that he meant Silver Haven, and not a run-down old gas sta­tion, and it was clear he considered Silver Haven a special place to be.

For Harlan Powell, it was a long, long way from Freehold.

He pushed himself out of the chair. “I’ll tell you what. You keep looking for Allie—”

“So you don’t know where he is?”

“What I’m saying is you make sure he doesn’t get dragged into this thing, and I’ll—”

An echoing crash from inside the bay cut off Powell’s pitch. I looked to the open door, and a dented oil barrel wobbled as it rolled across the floor, coming to a halt when it hit the van.

When I turned back to Powell, he had his money clip in his hand, and a spread of $20 bills and a few fifties.

“I’ll run a tab,” I told him.

“What do you guys get? A hundred a day?”

“Something like that. Maybe more.”

He was several inches shorter than I am and I’d bet years of standing behind the brute he called Lou had taken the edge off his game. Not that I could afford to try him now.

He was making things more interesting by the minute, by the sentence.

“You go after top dollar,” he added. “It figures. You’re all the same.”

I figured he meant all humans, not just private detectives. This guy hated everybody but himself.

As he slid his bankroll back into his slacks pocket, he shouted for his goon. Seconds later, Ezra Exxon stumbled into the room, with the big man behind him.

Ezra’s nose was bleeding, and his left eye was puffed and purple, and a knot was growing on his left temple, and his little jacket had been tussled and torn.

The big man looked at his sledgehammer right hand, flexed it a couple of times.

Ezra should be grateful Lou hadn’t used the brass.

Powell gestured with his head toward the door, and the big man went out to the SUV.

Cold wind swept into the room.

“Clumsy Ezra,” Powell muttered. Then he looked at me. “See what happens when you don’t cooperate? You find you had some kind of accident. Stumble, fall.”

The big man’s tires squealed as he ripped from the gas station. “Ezra,” Powell said, “drive Terry Orr back to his Pinto.” Ezra nodded.

Powell went to his white Mercedes.

“Clean up,” I said to Ezra. “I’ll wait.”

I stepped outside, hoping the fresh air would wash away the stench. Not of oil, or industry, but of Powell and his crude play.


Fusilli’s dialogue provides most of the exposition, and Hard, Hard City describes the relationship between children and parents with a deftness that’s memorable. If you’ve never read Fusilli before, Hard, Hard City is a fine way to start.


Steve Hopkins, January 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the February 2005 issue of Executive Times


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