After too many years in Soft-In-The-Middle America, I’m in need of someplace a little more urban, hence this month’s weigh-in between two heavyweights in the heady world of crime fiction: New York and California.
The homogenization of America, with its cookie-cutter shopping malls, each buried under the same electronics store/bland restaurant/coffee shop combo, makes it more and more difficult to find someplace with some character. No wonder more and more thriller writers and crime novelists are turning to more exotic destinations in Europe, Asia and the Middle East for sand and concrete to soak up their bloody plots.
Me, I’m stuck here in America for a while, to my immense dismay. Over the last month, I’ve been on countless airplanes running to coastal cities to see if I can finally stop moving for a while. Admittedly, it’s not boring, but after a while you start to feel like some kind of burnt-out, fractured-psyche, Palahniuk-esque anti-hero, waking up at JFK, at Sea-Tac, at LAX, at Logan.
This week I’m rediscovering my fondness and awe for New York. The place just bleeds with bleak, mottled charm. Right now I’m sitting here at Empire Pizza on Fifth Avenue, absentmindedly picking over the messy remains of a slice with enough grease pooled on it to solve the gas crisis, and digging all the other zombies scarfing down a late-night snack under the blinding fluorescents.
Last night, I stumbled into a scene straight out of The Godfather when I walked smack into the St. Gennaro festival in Little Italy. A bunch of charming, wrinkled geezers were playing the national anthem on their brass horns, the roundhouse NYPD cops with their hands over their hearts solemnly, as a motley crew of lugs with faces like carved wood carried old St. Gennaro himself through the dazzling streets where Italian mamas and papas grilled sausages and flogged cannoli. It was heaven in the middle of a long, hot week in Manhattan.
The difference in vibe between the east coast and the west coast is still startling to me. Take my airplane books for the month, the monumentally underestimated stack of future classics by Charlie Huston.
Par for the course, I started with the weirdest book in the stack, a jazzy fusion of Chandler and Dracula called Already Dead. I’m not usually prone to vampire noir in the vein, so to speak, of Laurell Hamilton’s overly gothy Anita Blake novels (they always smack a bit of soap opera) but Huston’s Joe Pitt is a hell of a character.
Pitt is a snarky, bitterly cynical go-to-guy who performs "favors" at his whim for the various factions and gangs that control the various neighborhoods and boroughs of New York. So far, not that far removed from lugs like Matt Scudder, or even from the scores of mob novels that sprung from the loins of Mario Puzo. Except for the minor detail of Pitt’s need to keep a few pints of O-negative in his fridge and the occasional gig whacking a “shambler,” the undead, brain-eating zombies that pop up from time to time.
Yeah, it sounds ridiculous but Huston buries the fantastic details with such hardcore literary zeal, snapping off black one-liners with a revelatory joy in the genre that getting past the far-fetched elements is no struggle at all and his reimagined Manhattan is a real kick in the imagination. To my delight, the Joe Pitt Casebooks will continue in December with No Dominion, an eagerly awaited follow-up – in paperback, no less. You gotta love Del Rey; they know where their audience lives.
Sitting in the third circle of hell that is Terminal Six at JFK, I’m already jazzing on Huston’s more traditional thrillers after picking up his Henry Thompson trilogy at Murder Ink, the world’s oldest mystery bookstore and home away from home for mystery lovers. The Thompson trilogy seems to be where Huston really started to cut his teeth scribbling his hardcore dialogue and the books just get better and better as they go along.
The books begin with Caught Stealing and continue with Six Bad Things and come to a bitter end with the very recently published A Dangerous Man. If there’s a theme to the books, it would surely be that Things Go Wrong. Hank’s a bartender, a former high school basketball star who’s now fallen far from grace, now a bum straight out of the Bukowski mold. When the kindly loser offers to watch a neighbor’s cat, things go straight to hell. He’s soon beaten to a bloody mess by two Russian thugs and finds himself embroiled in a dirty scheme involving, as Huston says in his very cool website, Pulpnoir.com, “Booze, gunplay, cowboys, surgical-staple-yanking, barroom brawls, rock-n-roll, cat torture, and the San Francisco Giants.”
Back on the sun-kissed shores of California, there’s a different kind of scene going on. It’s like the difference between Chinatown and Mean Streets; you can’t always put your finger on a single differentiator but the two coasts are poles apart in attitude and character.
One of the things I find interesting about both New York and California is that neither city is defined by a single character. Yes, naturally, there are plenty of great crime novelists working every city in America, but some places are hard to think of without the cream of the bunch rising to the top. I’m supposed to be in Boston next week and the only tug-of-war there is between the big fella’s Spenser novels, spun in virtual perpetuity by hizzoner Robert B. Parker, and the blistering novels of Dennis Lehane, who seems to be getting impossibly better with time. Chicago will always be home to Sara Pereksky’s V.I. Warshawski and Detroit owned by Loren D. Estleman’s old-school homeboy Amos Walker.
California seems to be big enough for more diverse bunch of hard cases, though. David Montgomery’s been debating the 10 greatest detective novels over at his Crime Fiction Dossier, and I thought it was interesting that almost half his list is made up of L.A. P.I.’s. Chandler is a lock for California, of course, but a lot of the great contemporary characters are on the list as well, including Robert Crais’ wisecracker Elvis Cole in L.A. Requiem, Michael Connelly’s retired LAPD officer Harry Bosch in his debut, The Black Echo, and Walter Mosley’s magnificent, wounded Easy Rawlins in Devil in a Blue Dress.
Mosley seems to be as good a place as any to stop this month, having just picked up Fear of the Dark, the third book starring the fearful bookseller Paris Minton and his burly protector Fearless Jones. Mosley is one of the most daring writers of his day – for evidence, see his recent sociological treatise Fortunate Son, the psychological cat-and-mouse game in The Man In My Basement, or his upcoming “sexistential novel,” Killing Johnny Fry -- but the Fearless books always seem to bring out the author’s more playful side. Where Easy always carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, there’s something refreshingly honest, funny and charming in the dichotomies between the faint-hearted Paris and his powerful friend.
No winners in the tussle between the two coasts so far. Maybe I’ll flip a coin.
And as they’re prone to say here, that’s a wrap.