Reviewed by Kathryn Flatt.
Gregg Cebrzynski’s The Coffin Haulers is a mystery set in Chicago in 1974. Attractive, young, Polish immigrant, Aneta Chelmek, goes out to buy a newspaper as she does every Sunday. A few hours later, she is found brutally murdered. The police quickly determine it’s another gang killing, a simple mugging in an area where Polish and Italian immigrants are being edged out by Latino gangs.
Private detective Joey Boloccini doesn’t agree with the official conclusion. Joey grew up in the Little Village neighborhood and sees the investigation as a chance to take his detective business to the next level by solving a real crime. But there are secrets being kept among these working class people, and many of Joey’s friends and neighbors are not what they seem. They have blurred the lines between right and wrong, and Joey will have to do the same in order to bring Aneta’s killer to justice.
The Coffin Haulers is an excellent story that sank a hook into me from the beginning with the murder victim’s last days and then reeled me in with explorations of the lives of the people around her. Personal histories reveal suspects and their motives in an intricate plot with a sustained theme of justifying one’s acts in the name of survival and the search for the promised “good life” in America. Each character is distinctly drawn, evolving into a “real” person, allowing the reader to begin puzzling over which of them committed murder even before the private detective enters the picture. Very little verbiage is spent on describing the looks of each character, and yet they appear in the mind so clearly. As the story neared its climax, I experienced the feeling that all authors hope to inspire in a reader: I just couldn’t put it down.
Mr. Cebrzynski excels at creating succinct word pictures, such as, “The rain pipes were mottled with so many holes that they sprayed water like a showerhead whenever it rained.” He also deftly employs wry humor, as in a quote from Joey to his history-loving friend: “You’re better than me. I don’t even know when the Fourth of July is.” There are thought provoking philosophical views from the characters as well, observations about life and religious beliefs that demonstrate how their ends-justify-the-means rationalization operates.
The only flaw related to editing: i.e., some dialog passages did not employ quotation marks while others did. While it didn’t generate any particular confusion about what was going on, the proofreader part of my brain took notice.
The Coffin Haulers is an affecting and memorable read. Mr. Cebrzynski grew up in Chicago’s Little Village, and The Coffin Haulers resonates with a deep connection to its heritage. Setting the story in the 1970s was also a nice touch since I remember the era well and fondly. Only after reading the book did I realize it is his second novel, and I am now eager to read the first Joey “Boloney” Boloccini novel, The Champagne Ladies.
I thoroughly recommend The Coffin Haulers to any reader, regardless of their favorite genre. I found it a terrific mystery surrounding characters that will stay with me for a long time.