June 24, 2018
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Unsettling thriller a solid debut

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

THE CUTTING, by James Hayman, 2009, Minotaur Books, New York City, 326 pages, hardcover, $24.95.

Sam Spade had San Francisco.

Spenser has Boston.

Mma Ramotswe has all of Botswana.

Now, McCabe has Portland — as in Maine.

Maybe it’s the other way around. Portland has McCabe.

It’s hard to tell sometimes whether a detective in a mystery novel owns the setting or it owns the detective. What really matters is that the location becomes such an integral part of the character that it is inseparable from the gumshoe, P.I. or self-educated investigator who always, eventually, solves the crime.

Author James Hayman, a New Yorker who moved to Maine’s largest city in August 2001 after a career on Madison Avenue, has brought Portland to life in his first novel “The Cutting.” Hayman’s lead character is Portland Police Detective Sgt. Michael McCabe, a man who fled big-city evil only to have it follow him.

Like many a good crime thriller, “The Cutting” opens with a snapshot of the killer’s childhood in the prologue and switches to the victim in the opening chapter. That is where Hayman begins his intimate and telling portrait of the city.

“Fog can be a sudden thing on the Maine coast,” it reads. “On even the clearest morning, swirling gray mists sometimes appear in an instant, covering the earth with an opacity that makes it hard to see even one’s own feet on the ground. On this particular September morning, it descended at 5:30, about the time Lucinda Cassidy and her companion Fritz, a small dog of indeterminate pedigree, arrived at the cemetery on Vaughan Street to begin their four-mile run along the streets of Portland’s West End and the path that borders the city’s Western Promenade.”

Cassidy and Fritz disappear in that fog. McCabe, who works for the Crimes Against People unit, and his partner, Maggie Savage, are assigned to investigate and determine if their disappearance could be linked to the murder of a high school soccer player. Her naked body, minus the heart, is found in “a small industrial wasteland slated for development.”

Hayman’s pacing is perfect. He sends the detective hurtling after the killer but also allows McCabe to stop just often enough for readers to learn how deeply damaged the man is. At his core, the policeman, like the victims for whom he seeks justice, is fragile. It is his stubborn tenacity, his young daughter and his artist girlfriend that keep him going.

“The Cutting” is an unsettling thriller, not because Portland and the state have a history of madmen killing strangers on a rampage. What’s frightening is that Hayman makes it seem possible, even probable.

The author appeared July 11 at the Thriller Fest in New York on a panel of debut authors hosted by David Baldacci. Maine authors Tess Gerritsen, who writes medical mysteries, and Julia Spencer-Fleming, whose detective is an Episcopal priest, wrote jacket blurbs praising “The Cutting.”

That means Hayman will and should be published again. The author, his detective and the city both call home are a welcome addition to the mystery-detective-thriller genre. Soon, McCabe will be to Portland what Spenser is to The Hub.

It will be interesting to see how Hayman weaves the immigrant community that now is a vital element of the city’s identity into a mystery and the way McCabe unravels it. Recent events surely offer more than enough inspiration, as does what can be seen after the fog burns off and the Portland emerges.

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