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Dark Passages: Real estate noir

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Though I write for this West Coast newspaper, I live in New York City. That means, like a lot of dwellers of the five boroughs, I spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about real estate, whether griping about too-high rents for tiny apartments or the erection of another steel-heavy skyscraper in my neighborhood. Walking underneath scaffolding, zigzagging through hastily constructed passageways and watching the work of those awe-inspiring cranes bring to mind other salient points about the making of buildings: construction delays, unfortunate accidents and financial mismanagement. And all of those ingredients seem a natural for mysteries and thrillers.

Indeed, the inner workings of real estate deals provide juicy plot points for many a crime novel, but somehow writers seem to shy away from making this business their primary focus — or readers don't gravitate toward this particular professional subject. Chevy Stevens' acclaimed new thriller, "Still Missing" (St. Martin's: 364 pp., $25), features a real estate agent, but her psychologically ravaged heroine could have had any career, so long as it provided the necessary pretext for peril.

S.J. Rozan's underrated 2007 standalone novel, "In This Rain" (Delta: 380 pp., $15 paper), did a terrific job delineating the staggering pressure to build a multimillion-dollar tower and the shortcuts and bribes required to make such an endeavor happen. But that book seemed to be the exception to the rule that real estate was a subject best left alone because its complexity wasn't terribly reader-friendly.

Another entry into the minuscule "real estate noir" category, however, might stand the best chance of opening this wonderfully byzantine world to a larger audience, largely because the author frames this world in the context of other career paths well familiar to the crime fiction reader: lawyers, journalists, and cops. "Blind Man's Alley" (Doubleday: 470 pp., $25.95) dives into the skulduggery of commercial real estate dealings with enthusiastic gusto, but it's filtered through Peacock's larger concern about the moral struggles of a cynical young associate who may not have severed the cord of idealism in the pursuit of money.

Manhattan is populated with people like Duncan Riley: upwardly mobile turks with no-name, working-class backgrounds eagerly shed on the altars of Ivy League education and fast-tracked careers in prestigious firms. Duncan's 80-hour-a-week drug — if he's lucky — takes place at the Midtown law outfit of Blake & Wolcott, where a half-million annual clams more than make up for the culture shock of an associate's life: "Law school did virtually nothing to prepare people for the often dreary nature of practicing law, let alone the amorality of big-firm practice. The reality of representing the interests of some of the most powerful people on the planet was quite different from the abstract idea of doing so."

In other words, even the proximity to Harvard's elite ruling class couldn't prepare Duncan for the likes of Simon Roth, a real estate mogul whose wealth and reach have the associate feeling like his nose is pressed to the glass of a rarified strata he can never belong to. And yet Roth's daughter Leah takes more than a passing interest in Duncan, despite differences of class — the American divide still trapped in the closet, unlike race, gender and sexual orientation — and financial rank, for reasons that start out intriguing, turn murky and eventually dangerous.

Because class distinction, at least in New York, cuts several ways. It means Duncan can charge an absurd billable hourly rate for mind-numbing Roth Properties contract work while acting in a pro bono capacity trying to forestall a man and his grandmother's impending eviction from public housing, which also happens to be owned by Roth Properties. It means that when a major accident at a Roth building kills three construction workers, showing "how quickly an entire mass of concrete could turn itself into rubble and fling itself to the ground," the legal mess must be cleaned up, and Roth must be declared the winner. And when the young man in question is picked up on a murder charge, it means that loyalty trumps class (and its relative, professional expertise) as Duncan attempts to figure out whether he can be true to his ambition while entertaining the notion he may have some morals after all.

Adding to Duncan's stress levels and feelings of moral manipulation is Candace Snow, a New York Times investigative reporter with a libel-suit-induced ax to grind against Roth Properties. Though Peacock's grasp of journalism is steeped more in fantasy (or the movies) than his bone-deep knowledge of real-life law, he does have Candace point out an ironic note about being the questioned rather than the questioner: "[T]he idea that someone could poke and prod at her reporting, peer behind the curtain of her professional self, had felt profoundly invasive … After all, nobody ever saw themselves as the bad guy. The human brain didn't permit it."

In narrative due course, Duncan and Candace become allies in a joint quest to discover how far the Roth clan has fallen down the well of corruption and bribery and who exactly has been marked as collateral damage to be swept aside, alive or dead. Peacock zips up and down plot twists like fire escape stairways running through those awesome Manhattan skyscrapers, crosscutting between myriad characters such that their moral failings and questionable connections permeate the air like the stultifying humidity of a city summer, able to dissipate only through explosive thunderstorms.

And with so much blood spilled to create buildings that take up space and sky, no wonder "Blind Man's Alley" has a tragic air about it — one that still contains a steel-plated beam of hope for its chastened, schooled, yet newly hopeful anti-hero.

Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at http://www.sarahweinman.com. Dark Passages appears monthly at latimes.com/books.

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