A Philadelphia Crime Novel that’s much more.

Long Bright RiverLong Bright River by Liz Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received an advanced reader copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway that I entered because I enjoyed Heft a few years ago. I was excited to find the novel to be set in Philly because I lived in a suburb which I tend to describe as located in the crotch of the city, wedged between the vastly different worlds of Irish working class Northeast Philly and the liberal and wealthier Germantown and Mt. Airy neighborhoods and just north of impoverished North Philly. When I worked there I also was a therapist in a private practice that was an EAP for the Philadelphia Police Department. All of that made a novel that centers on the lives of two sisters from a poor Irish family in the Kensington neighborhood, one of whom has fallen prey to the opioid crisis and the other of whom works as a patrol officer on the streets of the same neighborhood, a really intriguing read for me.

The book is half crime novel and half the story of a family threatened by poverty, death, drugs and hopeless. It takes a hard look at the ways a police force and its members can be a source of hope, support and rescue at the same time that its other members can use the power of the badge to prey on people who have few resources with which to defend themselves. It explores the challenges families in such neighborhoods face in trying to save children from the cycles of desperation that surround them. I think the two elements of the book are surprisingly well-balanced and interwoven, and both have plenty of twists and turns that unfold satisfyingly as the book develops.

The book is almost 500 pages long, but moves quickly and engagingly, alternating chapters set in a current crisis–police officer Mickey has not seen her sister in weeks and women have been turning up dead in the neighborhood–and those which slowly reveal details of the family history and the complex relationships among family members. Most of the prose is clean and effective, which made me forgive the one sentence which really didn’t work. The relationships are multidimensional and believable, the situations tense, and the neighborhoods of Philadelphia captured in all their complexity. I am curious about how the sense of place would read to people who don’t know the city, since the places and people described were already very rich and real to me from my years in the area. I would also love to know how realistically it would read from the streets of Kensington. One thing clear in the book is that people like me, upper-middle class, with an elite education, would not be expected by the members of Mickey’s O’Brien family to be a reliable source of understanding or support. It is, in some ways, a fiercely insular community. I love that this book did not flinch from living squarely in a neighborhood much of Philly would like to (and for the most part, does) ignore, except to capitalize on opportunities for gentrification. And I really hope Moore, gets it right, because I think we all need the humanizing face that she puts on Kensington and neighborhoods like it. Moore’s depiction of life in the PPD rang true for me, based on my years talking to men and women working on the force, and knowing personally some women in law enforcement in other cities. Women in law enforcement walk a precarious line in many ways, and I think Moore captures the way this might play out for one specific woman with her specific background.

I strongly recommend the book, particularly if you want a crime novel that is significantly more than simply genre fiction.

View all my reviews

About Beth Parks Aronson

I am Director of the Lamar University Psychology Clinic and run the clinical track of the Applied Psychology Masters Program. Previously, I was a psychologist in private practice in Jenkintown, PA where I specialized in anxiety disorders and working with people living with chronic and life-threatening illnesses. I am a little addicted to good literature. Ok, a lot addicted.
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