Long Bright River
By Liz Moore
Read June 2020
Moore opens this book with a chapter called “List” which is simply that—a list of 52 people that ends with ”Our father. Our mother.” The reader figures out quickly this is a list of people who have died of an overdose of an opioid—synthetic or heroin—and that many of the names in the list are very familiar to (or are family of) the narrator. This chapter is nearly identically repeated as the next to last chapter. In between are chapters titled “Then” and “Now”. This rather long (492pages) book needs, or at least takes, a lot of pages to cover both the police procedural story that’s in the present and the family story that wraps around the characters and provides context for the present.
As the “Now” opens, cop Mickey has found a dead woman while on duty and is relieved it’s not her sister Kacey who she hasn’t seen for a few months. Kacey is an addict in the neighborhood in which the girls grew up and which Mickey currently patrols. Like many others in the neighborhood, Kacey lives in various abandoned buildings in the area and supports her habit through prostitution. Mickey isn’t happy that the death of this unidentified woman isn’t being investigated with vigor. Over time, additional women are found dead and it’s clear a serial killer is in operating in the area.
The “Then” entries amplify the girls’ diverging stories. Mickey Fitzgerald and Kacey are two sisters who grew up in the Kennsington neighborhood of Philadelphia with their grandmother, Gee, after their mother dies of an overdose and their father has disappeared, presumably also dead (the opening “list” includes “our father”). Mickey is the older sister and was generally introverted in high school. Although she showed promise for college education, Gee wouldn’t support application for financial aid and strongly discouraged Mickey from attending to avoid the realization that she wasn’t one of “them”, those in economic strata above theirs. Mickey’s mentor in a community police program suggested law enforcement for a job/career. She follows this guidance and becomes a beat cop in the Kennsington neighborhood, although her earnings allow her to move into a better area. Younger sister Kacey was more outgoing which morphs into “wild”. She gets into drugs early, starts heroin by age 16, is kicked out of the house by Gee shortly thereafter and essentially begins a life on the streets. Mickey chooses to stay in the Kennington assignment, in part, to be able to keep a watch on Kacey.
Moore uses her research of this real area to paint a rather dark picture of life of many in the neighborhood – living in various abandoned buildings in the once prosperous industrial area, trying to get clean but regularly failing, trying to manage their habit with various forms of opiates at various prices, turning tricks to get their fixes, trying to look out for each other but being limited in their capacity to do so when the next fix becomes mandatory.
Mickey has avoided this life but is surrounded by it daily and her life is far from easy. She is a single mother. Her job had allowed her to buy a small house she cherished but sold to move into a small apartment when her son’s father cut off child support which paid for his good preschool and daycare situation. She seems to have few, if any, friends. She engages her previous police partner, currently on medical disability, to help her with her off-the-books investigation, but the relationship is strained. She is hiding her son from his delinquent father. She has limited relationship with her family. In a “Then” section, she attends Thanksgiving at a cousin’s for the first time in many years, without prior announcement, and is more tolerated than welcomed. She’s being investigated at work for being away from the job several times without explanation (she was doing her own personal investigation of Kacey and the serial killer). She’s not connecting well with her boss. Her babysitter is unreliable. Her hours are increasingly irregular as she pursues looking for Kacey. Nothing is going very well for her. But her situation is clearly better than Kacey’s.
The structure and style of the book kept this reader involved in this dark drama. There are a number of plot twists that keep the reader a little off-balance which maintains the engagement. Moore handles action well. Simultaneously Moore has the reader considering this complex family and trying, like Mickey, to understand why the sisters’ paths are so divergent. Mickey reminds Kacey that they had essentially the same childhood as their age difference is only two years—what led to the different choices they made? Moore doesn’t supply the answer for these sisters or for others in their situation. While the main mysteries are resolved, the ending leaves all of the characters in very uncertain but very real situations which keep the book firmly rooted in reality. Job well done, Liz Moore.