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Twenty-seven years to solve a murder

Author follows 'A Cold Case'

Philip Gourevitch
Decades-long unsolved murders and a chance meeting inspired Philip Gourevitch to research and write "A Cold Case."  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- Andy Rosenzweig was a good cop. In three decades as one of New York's Finest, the last few years as chief investigator for the Manhattan District Attorney's office, he'd almost always gotten his man. He was clean -- not the easiest thing where he came up, in a rough precinct riddled with guys on the take -- and he was thorough.

That's why the murders of Richie Glennon and Pete McGinn bothered him. The main suspect in the 1970 crime, a self-styled James Cagneyesque hoodlum named Frank Koehler, had vanished. Many people -- among them members of the police department -- thought he was dead. But there was something wrong; the case had been closed too easily, too quickly, after Koehler's disappearance. So, when Rosenzweig was reminded of the crime in 1997, it nagged at him.

RESOURCES Review: 'A Cold Case'

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It nagged at Philip Gourevitch too, even though he heard the story two years later, well after Koehler had been apprehended for the double homicide. Gourevitch, a staff writer for The New Yorker, had met Rosenzweig by chance just before the cop planned to retire. He seemed an interesting character: thoughtful, well-read, he was planning to move to Rhode Island with his wife and open a bookstore. A perfect subject for a short "Talk of the Town" item, it seemed.

But, says Gourevitch, "I couldn't get the story out of my mind." And so a small tidbit became his latest book, "A Cold Case" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

"Something about the way the story spanned three decades, the way it brought a mid-century milieu to the end of the century, caught me," he says in a phone interview from New York. "[And] the music of the language ... all the characters spoke in a way that was purely New York."

Meticulous detective work

Andy Rosenzweig
New York detective Andy Rosenzweig in a Manhattan diner. The 30-year police veteran put a great deal of time and shoe leather into solving the 1970 McGinn-Glennon murder.  

Told in spare, crisp prose, "A Cold Case" chronicles the meticulous way Rosenzweig and his colleagues finally nabbed Koehler. The job wasn't the stuff of glossy detective shows. Rosenzweig worked the phones, talked to friends, took lots of notes. At one point, he knocked on a door in suburban Toms River, New Jersey, ready to arrest the occupant; the alleged suspect turned out to be the wrong guy.

Finally, the group tracked Koehler to Benicia, California, a Napa Valley town not far from San Francisco. But he wasn't there, either -- Koehler had heard of the pursuit and hopped an Amtrak train to New York.

In a tense scene straight of a gangster movie, Gourevitch describes Rosenzweig and his friends getting a tip that the train is to arrive within the hour. High-tailing it over to Penn Station, the train chugging into the platform, Rosenzweig and his men took up positions along the escalators leading into the terminal. One of them locked eyes with a man none had seen in almost 30 years.

The man was Frank Koehler, who gave himself up immediately. Good thing, too: he was carrying a semi-automatic handgun loaded with hollow-point bullets.

Gourevitch interviewed Koehler for "A Cold Case," and found him unrepentant.

"He's a villain who doesn't need to be vilified. He does it himself," Gourevitch says. "He wanted to be a very good bad guy."

Frank Koehler
Frank Koehler in his 1962 parole photograph, left; in the FBI's computer-aged portrait, above; and on the day of is arrest, July 30, 1997.  

Ironically, in California Koehler was a pretty good good guy -- a well-liked eccentric who was the unofficial mayor of Benicia. People who read the book, Gourevitch says, wonder why the writer doesn't cut Koehler any slack for reforming. But Gourevitch didn't see much evidence of reformation, he says.

"After all those 27 years, he turns up in New York, carrying a loaded gun, and says he would use it on [the police]. He describes the murders with relish and immediacy. ... It's more fascinating that there's a contradiction, but one side doesn't exculpate the other."

'It had final coherence'

For Gourevitch, 39, the challenge in writing "A Cold Case" was to capture that immediacy -- the language, the sound, the feeling of a New York gone by. Though it prompted him to adopt a restrained, deliberate style, he said it helped that the characters -- Rosenzweig, Koehler, a lawyer named Murray Richman -- gave him much to work with.

"The extent to which the characters were intelligent about themselves, capable of describing their own motivation and bring insight to their lives, was rewarding," he says.

book cover

Best known for his previous book, 1998's "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families," about the Rwanda genocide, Gourevitch says "A Cold Case" had little in common with that work.

"I was very drawn to the fact that this was as perfect a story as there is in the world. It had final coherence," he says. "Rwanda I had to pull together greatly."

Both Rosenzweig, now running that bookstore in Rhode Island (and keeping an eye on the odd case), and Koehler have read the book and approve. The latter has complained about his portrayal, says Gourevitch, but his small-time mobster's ego seems fulfilled: "He's happy [that it's] there."

As for the author, now at work on a long piece for The New Yorker, he's pleased as well.

"It was one of those stories that was a treat to write," he says. "[It was nice to] be serving it, rather than struggling."

• Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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