This month The Murder Room’s Deborah Valentine explores New York in all its gritty glory, and introduces five authors who chronicle the teeming life of the world’s most exciting city with the greatest of flair and forensic precision.
New York is the city of more. Its ethnic groups are tighter, its dirtiness dirtier, its urbanity more sophisticated, its bonds more intense –if its crime fiction is any true reflection. Which, given the authenticity of these writers, is easy to believe.
A pioneer of women on the police force, not just in stories but in life, was author Dorothy Uhnak, a much-decorated NY cop. Her Detective Christie Opara, in The Bait, is a woman we can recognise, juggling single parenthood and work, who thankfully doesn’t get the stereotypical hassle we might expect from male colleagues in the late ’60s. Opara: she does her job well, she gets respect. She earns it. Especially when, thinking like the copper she is, she sets herself up as the target for a psycho. There’s a rough and tumble affection between colleagues and a touching (if horrifically creepy) understanding of what goes on in the mind of the psycho. A well-developed tension between Christie and her boss keeps you wondering what turns this relationship will take in the subsequent Opara novels, The Witness and The Ledger.
For a complete change of pace her Law & Order is a grand, sprawling saga of three generations in the NYPD; in fact, it could be subtitled ‘The Sociological Evolution of the NYPD’ (yeah, okay, Law & Order is catchier). Beginning in 1937 it follows the O’Malley family, their strained home lives and careers. It is testosterone-rich. It is devoid of sentimentality. It reflects the times, attitudes and language (very un-PC) of each era. From father to son (to brothers, cousins, et al) the force is with them (pun intended), in them. They are all connected to, yet disassociated from, those that went before as pressures mount, times change. There are moral ambiguities aplenty but an overall imperative as the generations mature to do the right thing, even if they aren’t sure how. Raising some interesting questions about corruption, it offers no easy answers. I could rattle on far past my word count about the rich slice of Americana this is but . . . read it. It’s The Godfather in blue.
Ed McBain has a whole carousel of coppers to follow in his 87th Precinct novels. In Fiddlers, his last in the series, interspersed between the lives, loves and banter of the boys in blue is the story of the perpetrator of a chain of murders. Not the usual victims, not chopped-up women or gangland hits, but older people –some even elderly, some even respectable. Dogged teamwork teases out connections leading to a man with nothing to lose. Righting the wrongs of a lifetime, he finds something to live for only when it’s too late. A great read for lovers of the police procedural.
In Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among the Tombstones, this instalment of PI Matthew Scudder’s case file has a curiously warm heart amidst truly stomach-churning crimes. Scudder is hired to investigate the abduction and murder of a drug trafficker’s wife. A departure from the usual bogey-man that ‘drug trafficker’implies, we get a full dose of the man’s grief and confusion. Off the sauce and keeping up his AA meetings, Scudder also has some personal issues he’s been avoiding, and the gruesome murders trigger reevaluations of his own as the body count mounts. The climax of this book is so tense –I mean, there’s so many unlikely people you’re rooting for –I chain-smoked throughout. Terrific.
Greenwich Village is depicted with fond precision in Everything You Have Is Mine by Sandra Scoppettone. Her Lauren Laurano is a former FBI agent turned PI. More than a trip to boho-land, this is a time capsule from the 1990s when AIDS was decimating the gay community. Laurano is a lesbian, there’s an apocalypse among her friends, her clients heterosexuals scarred by ’60s promiscuity, and she has to deal with a whole raft of people who could not tell the truth if their lives depended on it (which they do). Like Block, there’s warmth here despite a proliferation of rape and murder. And Scoppettone concocts some wonderful descriptions. A personal favourite: ‘a body like a ’40s radio’.
Moving uptown with Linda Fairstein’s assistant DA in charge of sex crimes, Alexandra Cooper, we encounter a police/DA procedural that’s a different kettle of fish altogether, with the advent of the paraphernalia of contemporary technology. Fairstein herself is a former prosecutor and this comes across in the detail. She has a great ability to seamlessly weave literary and historical references into the mix. In Entombed, a body is found bricked up in a former residence of Edgar Allan Poe, echoing a murder in his own works. As more murders collect, so do the ties to Poe. In Lethal Legacy what appears at first a sex crime leads directly to the NY Public Library, and murder.
Wealthy and rather unpleasant trustees, rare books and maps that disappear or pop up where they shouldn’t, and families with more money than morals are all thrown in Cooper’s path as she works with her favourite detectives (and visits the best restaurants). There’s just so much interesting stuff in here about books and maps relating directly to the plot, it makes for fascinating reading. A book for bibliophiles.
New York’s crime fiction is as diverse as the city itself and makes you want to visit again and again.
If only from the safety of your armchair.
Deborah Valentine is a British author, editor and screenwriter, who has lived in London for many years after moving there from California. Her crime novels feature former California sheriff Kevin Bryce and his artist girlfriend, Katharine Craig, and chart their turbulent romance amid murder and mayhem. Unorthodox Methods is the first in the series, followed by A Collector of Photographs, and the Ireland-based Fine Distinctions. In addition to the Kevin Bryce series, Deborah Valentine has been the editor of a number of niche journals, and is a prolific writer of articles, screenplays and novels with a supernatural theme. Find out more on Deborah’s website.