Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Grit Under Your Fingernails in New York City

Labor Day has walked away. You need to brush beach sand off your pants and get serious. You sit down at the kitchen table to balance your checkbook, no, c'mon, I said "serious," not "hopeless." You dig in the frig. Armed with something cold and wet, you shoot a glance at the clock. Good. You've got several hours to kill. This is no time for something romantic or soothing. Today, you want to chew some bullets. You head to the sofa with one of the hard-edged babies mentioned below:

Over the course of Lawrence Block's outstanding Matt Scudder series, the ex-cop/unlicensed private eye drags you into one neighborhood bar after another before he bottoms out and sobers up. Then he stays sober with the help of AA, and the books become less dark. You don't need to begin with the first, The Sins of the Fathers, in which Cale Hanniford asks Scudder to look into his daughter's death; instead, you can start with Eight Million Ways to Die (a prostitute finds big trouble when she wants to quit her profession) or the particularly fine When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (Scudder looks back to the 1970s when he was drinking heavily and juggling several investigations for friends). A couple of other good entries in the first half of the series are A Ticket to the Boneyard (a serial killer goes to work on a list) and A Dance at the Slaughterhouse (the rape and murder of a TV producer's wife lead to a Scudder investigation in this excellent but disturbing book). After you've read a few, you might want to read them all. The utilization of New York's underbelly setting, plotting, and cast of characters are first rate.

Lush Life by Richard Price is set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It involves an investigation by an Irish cop and a Dominican female detective into the killing of young Ike Marcus, an unsuccessful actor/café manager, after a night of bar hopping with a couple of friends. Price's dialogue is really something, fresh off the streets. The plot sprawls, but that's okay because it's much more than a police investigation. It's also a look at how Ike's murder affects everyone: the victim's father and friends, the cops who investigate it, and the neighborhood itself. Price grew up in a Bronx housing project and knows New York's neighborhoods well. If you haven't read anything by Price, whose screenplays include Sea of Love and The Color of Money, give him a shot. His riveting book Clockers deals with the crack trade in a fictional city in New Jersey and is also worth a read.

Jerome Charyn wrote an inventive 10-book series featuring Isaac Sidel, an NYPD captain who later becomes deputy police commissioner and the city's mayor. I started reading these books after a guy whose reading tastes I like described them as "very hip, off the wall, and full of jazz-like riffs of words." They won't appeal to everyone; in addition to its surreal quality, the writing almost explodes off the page with vitality. Adult language and sexual content from the git-go. A lot of slang; Charyn likes words. They should be read in order. (You do know about Stop, You're Killing Me! don't you? You can find series order there.) Start with Blue Eyes, the first book in the Isaac Quartet, in which NYPD Detective Manfred Cohen butts heads with his mentor, Deputy Chief Inspector Sidel. In the second, Marilyn the Wild, Charyn examines what led to the events in Blue Eyes.

Jim Fusilli, a Wall Street Journal rock and pop music critic, writes an excellent neo-noir series about a man named Terry Orr, whose life is upended when his wife and son are murdered. Orr obtains his private eye license in order to track down their killer, but he takes other cases, too. In contrast to the violence of this series is the loving relationship Orr has with his daughter Bella. Fusilli captures the music and art scene of modern Manhattan extremely well. Vivid writing, good characterization and plotting. Like Charyn's books, these should be read in order. The debut is Closing Time.

Kathleen Mallory is a girl living on the streets when she comes to the attention of cop Louis Markowitz, who becomes her adoptive father. Mallory grows up to be a computer whiz and joins the NYPD. Her crime-solving methods are unconventional; Mallory has much in common with the criminals she chases. This series by Carol O'Connell opens with the death of Markowitz in Mallory's Oracle. In the next several books, more about Mallory's background is slowly revealed, and they should be read in order for that reason. This is a skillfully written and powerful series with an unusual and fascinating protagonist.

I still haven't recovered from Charlie Huston's The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. That book, full of nasty and weird people and revolting yet funny scenes, is an excellent read if you're not easily grossed out or offended. It's not set in New York. But Huston's series featuring an alcoholic ex-baseball player named Henry Thompson, who now tends bar, is set in Manhattan. Huston (no relation to John Huston) is a screenwriter who knows how to plot and write dialogue. His Thompson books (Caught Stealing is the first; if you're an animal lover, you might want to skim the cat-torture scene like I did) are irreverent, full of black humor, and very gritty neo-noir.

Parker is a coldly logical master thief working in New York City in a dark series by Donald E. Westlake writing as Richard Stark. It's difficult to create a violent, amoral character a reader would dread meeting and yet make that reader root for him; however, Stark manages this very well. The plotting is absolutely terrific. The best way to read these is the first three (The Hunter, later filmed as Point Blank with Lee Marvin; The Man with the Getaway Face; and The Outfit), and then you can skip around. (Be sure to check Stop, You're Killing Me! because some of the Parker books were also published under other titles.) Butcher's Moon, published in 1974, serves as somewhat of a finale in that characters from the preceding 15 books team up with the relentless Parker to retrieve heist money he lost in Slayground. Plots from previous books are mentioned, so be aware you'll read some spoilers. Don't miss Butcher's Moon, though, because it's a great read. Parker returns in 1997's Comeback, another excellent book. If you're only familiar with Westlake's comic caper series featuring Dortmunder, an inept burglar, you'll recognize this writer's amazing versatility after reading his Parker books.

Chester Himes (1909-1984) was imprisoned for armed robbery, and while in the joint he read Dashiell Hammett. In the 1950s, he moved to Paris, where he was appreciated more than he was in the United States. Himes wrote a stunningly original, dramatic, and violent series starring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, two ornery black NYPD detectives in Harlem. The books are full of gallows humor and warmth. Harlem leaps from the pages. Start with the 1958 French Grand Prix de Littérature Policère-winning A Rage in Harlem (originally published as For Love of Imabelle), in which a naive man named Jackson becomes involved with con men and counterfeiting. Some others: The Real Cool Killers (Coffin Ed's daughter steps into this supposedly open-and-shut case), All Shot Up (a heist involving a furious car chase in a storm and crooks dressed as cops)The Big Gold Dream (Alberta Wright dies at a revival meeting, and Coffin Ed and Grave Digger join the scramble to find her money), and Cotton Comes to Harlem (a scam involving a bogus preacher and a back-to-Africa movement demands investigation; the 1965 book was later made into a movie). Be warned, these books are not a sedate walk with a butler to the conservatory where you trip over a well-mannered corpse, but a wild and crazy ride with two hard-nosed cops through the streets and back alleys of Harlem.

The books above are some suggestions for obliterating end-of-summer drowsiness and preparing you for the specific rigors of fall: doing homework, raking leaves, watching football, or making a Halloween costume. Then, too, lolling on the sofa, reading about sleuths pounding NYC sidewalks while buses belch and taxis squeal around corners, is very satisfying. One can't leap immediately from summer relaxation into fall's tend-to-business mode, you know.

I'm sure you have some ideas about gritty books set in New York (Mickey Spillane, anyone?), and I'd love to hear them. At some other time, I'll talk about noir or Ed McBain's superb 87th Precinct books set in fictional Isola, New York, but right now I need another cold one.


  1. Nice chapeau! Is that your cat? Have to agree, back to school is a good time to chew some bullets. Interesting blog, I'll check in again.

  2. Jen, thanks for your comment.

    I posted the picture because it looks like the baleful kitten is wearing a football helmet and is about to go out for a pass. (Although knowing cats, he's probably more likely to run to the sidelines for a nice grooming. Not a good team player.)

    I disapprove of making animals wear clothing (those little outfits on tiny dogs make me cringe), so now I can feel guilty looking at the picture I posted. That's a subject for a future blog: guilt aka one of Patricia Highsmith's favorite themes.

    Please do check in with us again!