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Web of connections in murder

After grappling with the enormity of the Rwandan genocide in his first critically acclaimed book, one might ask what more Philip Gourevitch needed to say on the subject of murder.

How could an unsolved double-homicide about which there was little public interest provide the same raw material for inquiry that Gourevitch had discovered while reporting on the systematic massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis by their Hutu countrymen?

It can't. The material of A Cold Case is not as nightmarish, not as philosophically disorienting as what occurred in Rwanda in 1994. As Gourevitch writes in We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, "I can see that it happened, I can be told how, and after nearly three years of looking around Rwanda and listening to Rwandans, I can tell you how, and I will. But the horror of it _ the idiocy, the waste, the sheer wrongness _ remains uncircumscribable."

Scale alone precludes the use of horror to describe how in 1970 Frank Koehler, a New York gangster and convicted murderer, shot and killed two men with whom he had fought earlier in a bar. Gourevitch knows the boundaries of this case and he doesn't try to push his story beyond them. The murders of Richie Glennon and Pete McGinn were covered sufficiently at the time, but they were likely not the most remarkable of the thousand or so killings in New York that year.

But the great value of Gourevitch's tale lies not in the explanation of how the murders occurred (the shootings were not the product of a governmental policy of extermination). Rather it is Gourevitch's evocation of the two men at the center of the case _ Andy Rosenzweig, the investigator for the prosecutor's office who resurrects the case, and Koehler, the semi-retired killer _ that elevates this from a standard police procedural to a meaningful study of the codes by which crime and justice are performed in a large American city.

Rosenzweig grew up in the Bronx, the son of a Polish-born cabdriver and a secretary. He became a New York police officer in the 60s when corruption was sufficiently pervasive for former Mayor William O'Dwyer to make light of it publicly. There were many cops too lazy to shake-down criminals who would routinely park their squad cars in dark corners of the city and sleep through their shift. "Cooping," it was called and Rosenzweig despised it.

Koehler grew up poor on the West Side of Manhattan where he gained a reputation for robbery and violence at a young age. When he was 16 he killed another boy whom he believed had cheated him out of a diamond ring they had stolen. The diamond turned out to be paste, but Koehler insisted the killing was justified on principle.

Connecting the two men, in a way that bespeaks New York City's curious intimacy, is one of the victims. Glennon was an acquaintance of Rosenzweig's growing up in the Bronx. "He was one of those pure New York characters who truly walked the fence between the good guys and the bad guys." He had been a boxer, a restaurant owner and "a shylock," a loan shark, during his life.

Glennon was enough of an acquaintance of Koehler's that Koehler had over time formed a hatred of him. It was this hatred, irrational but ironclad, that Koehler later explained to Rosenzweig made killing Glennon a near certainty after the bar fight.

Driving by the location of one of Glennon's restaurants 27 years after the murder, pricked Rosenzweig to find the killer of a case that had been closed, wrongly, years earlier. He felt, he said, an obligation to Glennon who had been present during his "formative years."

The web of connections among these three principal players (as well as the gangster-loving defense attorney who represents Koehler in the murder case) recalls a line from Gourevitch's Rwanda work. "These dead and their killers had been neighbors, schoolmates, colleagues, sometimes friends, even in-laws."

It was this web of connections that set Rosenzweig on Koehler's trail. It was similar connections that prompted Gourevitch's cousin, David, to introduce him to Rosenzweig in 1999 after Rosenzweig had captured Koehler. And it was Gourevitch's subsequent connection with Koehler as writer and subject that leads to what is perhaps this slim book's surprising pay-off: a convicted murderer's meditation on sin and redemption.

Gourevitch has proven something with A Cold Case. Handled intelligently, there are no meaningless murders.

Bill Duryea is a Times staff writer.


By Philip Gourevitch

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22, 182 pp