Fans of Liz Moore’s novels have come to expect disparate narratives from the acclaimed author, whose genre zigzags have ranged over such topics as the birth of virtual reality in 2016’s The Unseen World and the New York music industry in her 2007 debut, The Words of Every Song. So it’s no surprise that Moore’s fourth and latest, Long Bright River, which Riverhead is set to publish in January, moves in yet another new direction and takes the form of a police procedural.
For Moore, stories are inspired by location. About a decade ago, she relocated to Philadelphia from New York City, and when she arrived, she undertook community work in Kensington—a rough neighborhood in the city’s 24th police district, known for being a hotbed of prostitution and opioid addiction. She listened to stories of abuse and struggle, some of which mirrored recurring themes in her own writing—loneliness, the search for family—and slowly, the kernel of Long Bright River formed.
“Any time a writer gets around a fraught situation, it’s difficult to not write about that situation,” Moore says when we chat. “From setting comes mood, characters, and the problem that the characters are facing.” The new scenery spoke to her inner detective.
In Long Bright River, Moore’s protagonist is Mickey Fitzpatrick, a single mother and an officer for the Philadelphia PD who comes from a family decimated by drug addiction: her father was a user who abandoned them, her mother died of an overdose, and her younger sister, Kacey, walks the streets of Kensington, selling sex in order to afford her next fix. Shifting between past and present, Mickey relates the first time she, as a teen, found her sister after she’d overdosed; their years living with their grandmother, Gee; and their eventual falling out. However, Mickey uses her patrols of Kensington to check in on her sister, but after a series of women are murdered in the neighborhood, Kacey goes missing.
Defying her superiors’ commands, Mickey puts her career in danger in order to open her own obsessive investigation. She calls long-ignored family members for tips, ropes in a former partner to assist on stakeouts, slips undercover to interrogate Kacey’s acquaintances, and soon is exposed to the dark underbellies of both Kensington and her own department. While working to save her sister, she comes to suspect that some of her colleagues are corrupt, and that one might even be the culprit.
Mickey’s voice is a powerhouse throughout the novel, yet it was the character of Kacey who first came to Moore. “I was working with a population who had similarities with Kacey,” she says. “She’s certainly not based on one person, but I know a lot of people who are struggling with the same things Kacey is struggling with.”
Once the character felt right, Moore decided to pen a story of two sisters, and this meant inventing someone to act as a foil. The result was Mickey: a rule follower striving for an upright life, convinced of her own moral superiority. “Whenever I’m writing in a first-person voice, I have to identify in certain ways with the character,” Moore explains. Mickey had enough in common with the author that it felt more natural to write in her voice, and the decision to make her the protagonist also made for an easier narrative entry point.
“I never wanted to presume that I could write completely or authentically in the voice of someone who struggled daily with addiction, especially to heroin and opioids,” Moore says. “It kind of became Mickey’s story, even though Kacey was the initial spark of the book.”
Moore connected with several officers in order to flesh out Mickey’s daily routine, including a female officer she contacted via the website Quora. I ask Moore if, due to Long Bright River’s critical view of police corruption, there was any apprehension on the part of the Philadelphia PD to cooperate. She says that any trepidation came early: she requested a ride-along in the 24th district but was denied. In the end, the PPD approved a ride along in the 26th, an adjacent district with a much lower crime rate, where Moore was assigned to a community relations officer trained to respond to questions.
As for researching actual stories of police corruption, Moore had to rely on the accounts voiced by Kensington residents. “The PPD’s files are very difficult to access,” she says. “Internal Affairs is not obliged to disclose a lot of that information to the public.”
Nevertheless, in mid-September, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article exposing the misconduct of 27 terminated PPD officers. In at least one of these reports, the accusations echoed those told to Moore by the men and women of Kensington. “It feels we shouldn’t need that kind of corroborating evidence,” she says, “but at last, there it is.”
Hinged to these accusations is the idea of loss, which threads itself throughout Long Bright River. Kacey’s disappearance is one kind of loss, while Mickey’s isolation from her family is another. There is also the loss of human life at the center of the novel’s mystery. “All sex workers are constantly in peril of losing their lives, especially in settings such as Kensington, which are very informal and transactional,” Moore says. Each deal is motivated by a need for a fix, and addiction acts as yet another form of loss within the novel.
Despite living, teaching, and raising a family in Philadelphia for 10 years, Moore admits that she only recently felt comfortable and knowledgeable enough to set a story there. Part of this has to do with, as Moore describes it, the many different Philadelphias within the city. There is the Philadelphia that is rapidly gentrifying, for better or for worse, and is filled with transplants, like Moore herself. And then there’s the Philadelphia that has been occupied by the same families for generations. “I feel like I’ve been indoctrinated into the culture of Philadelphia,” she says. “We’ll find out if born and bred Philadelphians feel the same way,” she jokes.
Near the end of our talk, Moore says, “As I move through life, and the various stages of life, I’m finding new territory.” Long Bright River is the first of her books written since becoming a parent, and she believes that this new role in life has affected her process and outlook. “I hope that this book is perceived as a realistic family drama with elements of a police procedural, or a literary thriller, and that it appeals to both readers of my past work and potentially new readers who are typically drawn to police procedurals or thrillers.”
Moore says she has always enjoyed novels and films that feature mystery and noir, citing Richard Price’s Lush Life and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone as two favorites, and she sees Long Bright River as the culmination of her years of scattering small secrecies within her novels. “I’ve always appreciated mysteries, and I’ve never attempted to write one before this,” she notes. “I hope that I’ve done an adequate job.”
Benjamin Woodard is a fiction writer and literary critic who lives in Connecticut.