n the trail of A Cold Case As decent and democratic and objective as you think yourself to be and probably are, when you watched the movie A Few Good Men and heard Jack Nicholson as the tough Marine colonel shout, "You can't handle the truth!" you may have felt a small, silent, shameful twinge of agreement. We often want someone to make our problems go away without being told the truth about the messy, not-necessarily-legal ways they were dealt with.

An unspoken understanding of this nature forms part of the background of A Cold Case by Philip Gourevitch, whose previous book We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda won the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award. Gourevitch has produced another potential award-winner in this slim account of the solving of a 27-year-old double murder in New York City.

In relating his part of the story to the author, Andy Rosenzweig, chief investigator for the Manhattan district attorney, acknowledges without noticeable bitterness this flexible standard toward truth on the part of the public. However, people who know Rosenzweig tell the author that it was a message from another movie High Noon, in which an upright lawman is abandoned by a spineless citizenry that has most influenced the investigator: This is a twilight world in which the two sides of the law are not always distinct and for which Rosenzweig, though an honorable cop, always felt an affinity.

To call the murder in question here an unsolved crime is not totally accurate: Everyone knew who shot and killed Richie Glennon and Pete McGinn on February 18, 1970, at McGinn's apartment after having tangled with the pair earlier in the evening at the restaurant McGinn owned. The murderer was Frankie Koehler, a man with an extensive criminal past, including an earlier homicide in 1945 when he was only 15 years old. After the slayings, Koehler simply disappeared.

Rosenzweig knew both victims and liked Glennon especially. He had not been in on the original investigation and was reminded of the case by a chance incident in January 1997. He began to look into it and discovered that somewhere along the line the case had been closed because Koehler had been presumed for no good reason, as it turns out dead.

Rosenzweig got permission to reopen the "cold case." Gourevitch recounts some neat deduction and legwork until Koehler was tracked down in California, living under another name. The story has about it more than a whiff of Dashiell Hammett (a quotation from one of whose stories serves as an epigraph), the Hammett of the grim, relentless harshness of life.

It is not revealing too much to say that Koehler was captured on a return trip to New York, because half of the book is about Koehler's confession and defense. In some respects this is the most fascinating part of the story. In the videotaped confession, which Gourevitch says "has come to be regarded at the D.

A.'s office as one of the classic portraits of a criminal personality," Koehler "is not confessing so much as taking credit for his crimes." More than once Koehler speaks of his "desire to be understood not only as a murderer but also a sparer of life." Koehler's attorney, Murray Richman, a mob lawyer who revels in his lowlife connections, is a piece of work himself. Richman likes criminals for their "simplicity" and believes that "murderers are the straightest guys in the world." In a way, he makes the reader think of John Mortimer's British barrister, Horace Rumpole, who also has a fondness for his clients, except that Richman's criminal contacts are considerably more dangerous and less charming than Rumpole's "villains." Koehler's defense consisted primarily of a war of nerves between Richman and the prosecutors, who were worried about the problems an old case presented. Richman held out for the lowest sentence he could get. As for Koehler, in the letters he wrote while being held on Rikers Island he "seemed to believe the lashes of his own conscience were all the punishment he needed." When Gourevitch went to California to see where Koehler had lived, he found that the murderer was remembered fondly by those who had known him. When he went to visit Rosenzweig, who had retired to run a bookstore in Rhode Island 12 days before Koehler's sentencing, he found him working, unofficially, on another case.

The only thing wrong with this book is that it is over too quickly. We hunger to know even more about these intriguing characters.

Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.

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