Volume 32, No. 1, Spring 2016
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Don’t Care if It’s Chinatown or on Riverside by Margo Kinberg
- How the New York Tabloids Helped Me Become a Mystery Author by R.G. Belsky
- What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? by Maggie Barbieri
- So Many Places… by Carol Lea Benjamin
- All Around the Town by Lawrence Block
- Revisiting Molly Murphy’s New York by Rhys Bowen
- A Borough with Noir in Its Soul by Philip Cioffari
- My New York Story (and Stories) by Alafair Burke
- Strange, and True, in NYC by Gabriel Cohen
- A Thousand New Yorks by Reed Farrel Coleman
- Writing the Cozy Noir by Cleo Coyle
- Full-Contact Living in NYC by Julia Dahl
- The Year of Living New Yorkishly by Dan Fesperman
- Achieving New York by Jim Fusilli
- New York Means Neighborhoods by Alison Gaylin
- New York, New York: A Promised Land by Kathleen Gerard
- Escape to New York by Patricia Gulley
- Dark City by David Hansard
- A Tough Lady Sleuth in 1940s Manhattan by Heather Haven
- A Wide Canvas by Larry Karp
- Midtown West by Charles Kipps
- In Search of Old New York City by Allan Levine
- The Stuff They Skipped in History Class by Lawrence H. Levy
- Accidental New York by Katia Lief
- From NYPD Street Cop to Author by John Mackie
- Dancing and Death with the Rockettes by Mary McHugh
- Maan Meyers and New York by Maan Meyers
- My New York Office by Chris Pavone
- Why I Love New York: It’s So Easy to Research by Roberta Rogow
- From the Perspective of a Native New Yorker by M. Glenda Rosen
- The New Jerusalem by Carrie Smith
- Très Brooklyn by Triss Stein
- New York 1950s Noir by David Taylor
- My Harlem Renaissance by Persia Walker
- Turning New York Life into Fiction by Reba White Williams
- The Calculus of a New York Setting by Brian Wiprud
- Six Hundred Dollars to Spare by Erica Wright
- New York: A Shapeshifter You Can’t Keep Up With by Elizabeth Zelvin
- Mystery in Retrospect: Reviews by Lesa Holstine, L.J. Roberts and Jasmine Simeone
- Children’s Hour: New York City by Gay Toltl Kinman
- In Short: A Hell of a Mystery Town by Marvin Lachman
- Crime Seen: The Naked City by Kate Derie
- New York’s Finest: the Top Ten Series Characters by Jim Doherty
- From the Editor’s Desk by Janet Rudolph
In July of 1985, my Frequent Companion and I moved to a big old house in Fort Myers Beach, Florida. I went to work right away on the book version of my seminar, “Write For Your Life,” wrote a couple of short stories and a couple of my monthly columns for Writer’s Digest, even as we both settled into a life that was very different from the one we’d been living in New York’s Greenwich Village.
And I found myself wondering what sort of fiction I’d produce in this new venue. Where would I set it?
Except for two years in the mid-1960s in Buffalo, and two more in Racine, Wisconsin, I’d spent all my writing life in or near New York City—and that’s where I’d set most of my work. My several series characters were all New Yorkers, by birth or adoption. Evan Tanner’s adventures took him all over the world, but when he wasn’t sneaking across borders and fomenting revolutions, he lived in a walk-up apartment on West 105th Street, just a ten-minute walk from Columbia University, for whose less industrious students he ghosted term papers and theses. Chip Harrison worked in Leo Haig’s Chelsea backhouse, and slept in a furnished room not far away. Bernie Rhodenbarr, an Ohioan by birth, was another denizen of the Upper West Side, residing on West End Avenue and 70th Street; his neighbor, Mrs. Hesch, whose door he’d obligingly open whenever she misplaced her keys, thought highly of him because he lived an irreproachable life on the West Side while stealing from those momzers on the East Side.
And Matthew Scudder, of course, had a hotel room at the Northwestern, on 57th Street at Ninth Avenue. (This was many books before he and Elaine moved into the Parc Vendôme, just across the street.)
But I wasn’t living in New York anymore. When I walked out my back door in the morning I was on a sandy beach with the Gulf of Mexico in front of me. If this was home from now on, wouldn’t it be natural for me to set my future fiction here? Florida, to be sure, had inspired the crime fiction of no end of writers, and many of them, like me, were Floridians by adoption. Surely the genre had room in it for another Florida writer.
I reflected on all of this, and a thought intruded. It won’t work, a voice assured me. Because you lack an intuitive understanding of who the people are down here, or what their lives are like. You can live here in Paradise, that’ll be okay, but you’d probably be best advised to go on setting your stories in New York.
That probably should have told me something, and maybe it did, although the message took a while to sink in. And I might have gotten it earlier—the first week in our new home, say. The very first morning I woke up, went outside to the beach, turned left, and took a glorious leisurely walk on the sand for perhaps half an hour, then turned around and came home. The following morning I turned right instead of left, had another splendid walk on the beach for about as long, then came back.
The third morning I went outside, looked to the left, looked to the right, and realized there was no place to go.
Nothing against Florida, but it never really worked for us, and after two years we closed the house and tried life without a fixed address. We saw a lot of the country, stayed in no end of budget motels, gave our hegira the illusion of purpose by seeking out towns named Buffalo—and were always on the lookout for our next home.
Which of course turned out to be New York. We moved back on St. Patrick’s Day, 1990, and have been here ever since.
I wasn’t born here. I grew up upstate, in Buffalo. (And set a couple of books there—Sheldon Lord’s first work of midcentury erotica, Carla, and a piece of serious mainstream fiction, Jill Emerson’s A Week as Andrea Benstock. And more recently, Buffalo has been the home of Martin H. Ehrengraf, the criminous criminal lawyer whose tales are collected in Defender of the Innocent.)
My dad was originally from New York, and when I was ten years old the two of us took the train to Grand Central, put up at the Hotel Commodore, and spent a magical weekend that included a Broadway show (“Where’s Charlie?”), a TV broadcast (“The Ed Sullivan Show”), a ride on the Third Avenue El all the way down to the Bowery, a visit to the Statue of Liberty and the top of the Empire State Building.
I probably became a New Yorker that weekend. Seven or eight years later I was living here as an Antioch student on a co-op job in the mailroom at Pines Publications, living at 54 Barrow Street in the Village. One Sunday morning I wrote a story about a young man living by his wits, working short cons and mail fraud; a year or so later it became my first sale when Manhunt bought it and published it as “You Can’t Lose.”
By then I was back in New York, working for Scott Meredith. (I’ve written at length about those days, for Mystery Scene, the columns since collected in The Crime of Our Lives.) I spent my days reading amateur efforts and my evenings writing stories of my own. Then I went back to college, and when the school concluded I’d be happier somewhere else, I went back to Buffalo for a while and then moved once again to New York.
There was some to-ing and fro-ing, more than you need to keep track of, but New York City was always my home, whether or not I happened to be living there. I think that’s been true from the beginning, from that first visit with my dad in 1948.
People have occasionally noted the New Yorkiness of my work, and it’s frequently observed that the city is a virtual character in the books. That may be a stretch, but it’s certainly a significant presence.
For many years, I had it in mind to write a big New York novel, a sprawling multiple-viewpoint confection that would encompass as much of the city as I could get into it. I even had a title, Small Town, that came from a line of John Gunther’s. But a title and an epigraph, while promising, does not mean that the ensuing book will write itself—and for years on end, that was as far as it went.
Then in the late spring or early summer of 2001, I got enough of a handle on the book to start writing it, and it went pretty well. Characters and situations came to life, and I must have had, oh, perhaps 25,000 words written. And then some clowns flew a couple of planes into the World Trade Center, and the world turned upside-down.
I couldn’t think about writing anything for months, and when I did reflect on Small Town, I figured it was dead in the water. The city had changed—hell, the world had changed, but nowhere more utterly than here. It was pre-9/11 in my book, and post-9/11 outside my window, and my big New York novel looked to be stillborn.
And then a little more time passed, and I looked at what I had written, and figured out what to do. I was able to use much of what I’d written, and folded it into a story set in the ashes of 9/11. It’s not mine to say if it works or not. It was well received, by and large, and some readers cite it as a favorite book of mine, but I never got negative reader mail like I did with Small Town, all because of the book’s sexual content. It was longtime readers who were most apt to be outraged; here they were hoping for another cheery mystery with a congenial burglar and his tailless cat, and what they got was art dealer Susan Pomerance…
Never mind. I love this city, and I guess it shows. Now and then I hear from a reader who’s taken a self-directed Scudder tour of the city. Before Jimmy died and the joint closed, they used to show up at Armstrong’s saloon to get their pictures taken with the man himself. They can find the Parc Vendôme readily enough, and sometimes they stay at the gussied up Hudson Hotel, which has replaced the fictional Northwestern. They can light candles at St. Paul the Apostle and grab a bite at the Morning Star or the Flame. But they’ll look in vain for Elaine’s antique shop, or Paris Green, or Grogan’s Open House, where Mick Ballou and Matt would talk the hours away…
Lawrence Block has been writing crime, mystery, and suspense fiction for more than half a century. He has published in excess (oh, wretched excess!) of 100 books, and no end of short stories. LB is a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America. LB and his wife Lynne are enthusiastic New Yorkers and relentless world travelers.
When I was inspired to write Murphy’s Law, the first book in the (now sixteen books long) Molly Murphy series, I wanted to write about Ellis Island and the immigrant experience. Of course when Molly is released from Ellis Island and steps ashore in Manhattan I was struck with the realization that I knew almost nothing about New York in 1901 and I was doomed to doing research on every page for the rest of my life.
Well, that is more or less how it’s turned out to be, but the word is not doomed, it is excited. I have found the research to be one of the most rewarding parts of writing the books. Often when one writes historical novels the research is all from secondary sources. However I was delighted to find that Molly’s New York is alive and well. I wandered the streets of the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village where much of my stories takes place and I chose a real home for Molly on Patchin Place—a delightful backwater of a street off Greenwich Avenue. It’s where I’d like to live if I lived in New York. And a few years ago I got an email from a professor at Rutgers who said, “I want you to know that I am living in Molly’s house.” He sent me pictures of restoration he had done both inside and out. And then the other residents started sending me newspaper cuttings and invited me to their Christmas party. How cool is that!
To start with I did a lot of walking. Molly was poor. She’d save the trolley fare and walk. I received emails saying “Molly could never have walked from a to b,” and I replied, “I did it!” Being on those streets brings her world to life. Because the exciting thing is that parts of New York have not changed. Walk up Mulberry and Hester and Essex and the tenement buildings are those of the early 1900s. Mott Street and Chinatown are rather more touristy but still much as they were. Some of the shops still bear their original names. Greenwich Village is still a jumble of streets, defying the orderly grid of the rest of the city. Some streets even have the original granite paving blocks. And then there are the taverns still going strong. Pete’s Tavern on Fifth Avenue where you sit in the original high backed booths with long ago initials carved into them. Of course Molly wouldn’t ever have sat there. Women were not allowed in taverns at the time!
I still go back to walk the streets sometimes. Can one glimpse the Hudson from here? Hear the toots of tugs on the East River from this spot? And occasionally I am given a fantastic gift, like the time I stumbled upon the festival of San Genaro in Little Italy. Mulberry Street was strung across with lights, lined with booths, lit with hissing kerosene lanterns and emanating all kinds of good smells—frying sausages and donuts, steaming clam chowder, fragrant spaghetti sauce. The crowd was channeled between the booths, and the noise level, bouncing back from those five story high tenement buildings, was tremendous. I stopped and thought “This is how it was.” I could easily picture the push carts, vendors shouting out their wares, children squealing, hurdy-gurdies playing. Then halfway up Mulberry I came upon something that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. A tent with the words “Freak Show. Come and see the Snake Woman, 50 cents.” And I thought—“My God, I’ve been taken back.”
Every time I visit New York I discover something new. I have adventures. I’ve been locked into the garden in Gramercy Park, I’ve drunk tea in the most pretentious tea room in the world with a menu sixteen pages long. Of course I visit the New-York Historical Society, the map room at the library, the tenement museum, the police museum, all of which have gone out of their way to be helpful to me. And then there are the photographs: 1900 was the age of the Brownie camera. Ordinary people could take snapshots for the first time. So I have collections of photos of New York exteriors and interiors. I can find pretty much any street I’m writing about and see what advertisement was on the billboard, what was the name of the tailor’s shop. It is so satisfying to get even the little things right. Research every day? You bet. Where did Molly buy her hair ribbon? Where would she have met someone for coffee? Little things, not important to the plot, but it matters to someone that I got it right.
My reward is that I get letters from New Yorkers, from those born in Greenwich Village who thank me for taking them back to their childhood. “My grandmother used to buy her bread at that bakery on Greenwich Avenue,” one wrote. That’s when I know that I got it right. If it matters to someone, it matters to me
Now, after sixteen books, I have filled in most of the pieces of the puzzle that was old New York City. I could take you on a good walking tour of Molly’s New York.
Rhys Bowen writes two New York Times bestselling historical series: the Molly Murphy novels, set in early 1900s New York City and the lighter Royal Spyness novels, featuring a penniless minor royal in 1930s England. Both series have won awards including the Agatha, Anthony and Macavity.
I was a book editor for a large chunk of my working life, with positions at Doubleday and HarperCollins, Clarkson Potter and Artisan. In the middle of that, in 1999, I found myself in an untenable job. So I decided to try working as a freelancer from home, in a small apartment above a wine shop in a dilapidated West Village house that had been built in the early nineteenth century for some sort of tradesman—a blacksmith maybe, a cobbler, someone with a workshop on the ground floor and living quarters above, horses out back. Inexplicably, our thermostat was affixed to a wall downstairs in the wine shop, tucked behind the rosés. I’d go down there wearing pajamas to adjust the heat right before 11:00 p.m., when the shopkeepers would lock the door, turn up the music, and get high. We could see through a wide gap between the old floorboards. We could smell it too; smoke, of course, rises.
I wasn’t terribly productive in that apartment. We had a cute puppy (is there any other sort?) to distract me. I was—still am—an avid cook, and could easily spend an entire day making dinner, cassoulet or paella or rigatoni alla Bolognese. I also like to change the color of my walls: between manuscript drafts, I often repaint a room. I recreationally rearrange furniture, I rearrange bookshelves, I rearrange nearly anything; I’m a rearranger. Which to the untrained eye is indistinguishable from a procrastinator. There are many pseudo-productive things that I’ll gladly do rather than whatever it is that constitutes my paying job.
So my experiment with the freelancer lifestyle wasn’t a resounding success. Plus it didn’t constitute any forward momentum for a career. So after just a few months I returned to office life, and then spent the better part of the next decade commuting to one publishing house or another, exchanging job titles, editor to senior editor, executive editor to associate publisher.
Then I quit.
We had little kids at home with a babysitter, a chaotic environment, absolutely no way I could do any work in that Tribeca loft. I halfheartedly investigated renting an office—a shared situation, photocopier in the hall—but all the options looked so expensive, and so depressing. At the other end of the commitment spectrum, coffee shops didn’t seem like a viable full-time solution. I was ghostwriting a couple of books, and I needed to be able to work all day and occasionally go to the bathroom without dragging my coat and computer and paperwork and research with me.
Some people suggested I join a private club, of which there are a lot in New York. Many are college-affiliated, clustered near Grand Central Terminal for the convenience of Westchester and Connecticut commuters, with billiards tables and quiet bars, rooms upstairs to spend the night between depositions, Brooks Brothers around the corner. Then there are the social clubs in converted robber-baron mansions on the Upper East Side, where present-day robber barons can discuss private jets and asset protection (which I learned recently is one of the things you can call tax dodging when you’re the one doing the dodging) with impunity. None of these seemed like places where I’d be admitted, much less fit in.
Instead I joined a downtown club for people in the arts and media, a New York outpost of a London operation that had been started as an alternative to the stuffy clubs whose memberships are birthrights. There’s a swimming pool on the roof, a screening room, a spa, none of which I use, almost ever. That’s not why I’m here.
I’ve been a full-time writer for nearly a decade, during which my children have gotten older (obviously) and more reasonable (thankfully), and their school day has lengthened (immensely). We’ve moved a few times—including to Luxembourg and back—and our current Greenwich Village apartment has a big office that I share with one of the kids, the top shelves for my reference books and household files, the bottom ones for Lego arrangements and shoeboxes filled with baseball cards.
In this apartment, I have the physical and temporal space to work. But, as ever, I also have rooms that could be repainted, complex dinners I could cook, and a (new) puppy who’s always willing to go for a walk. I still have plenty to do in this apartment besides write. What I don’t have here is an excess of ambition.
I’m not what you’d call a prolific novelist, not unless you happen to be someone with a Donna Tartt pace. There are plenty of crime-fiction writers who reliably produce a novel every year, but me, it looks like I’m on an every-other-year plan, at best. For practical purposes, this means that my publisher doesn’t build one of my novels into every year’s schedule, which in turn means that for most of the process I essentially don’t have a deadline, which further means that on any given day, I don’t necessarily have to work. What’s the rush?
On the other hand, life is short, isn’t it? We’re all on an ultimate deadline.
So every morning, in every type of weather, in every mood, I leave the apartment. I walk fifteen minutes to this club, where I usually arrive by 9:00 a.m., sometimes as early as 8:00. I sit at a communal table in big room that’s very similar to a hotel lobby, where waiters bring coffee to people like me, people pecking at laptops, or sitting on sofas in small meetings. Sometimes there are tremendously famous people around—movie stars, musical artists, household names. Sometimes there are friends of mine; occasionally I meet new people. Sometimes it’s fun, which is a nice bonus. But it’s not why I’m here.
I’m here every day for the energy, the ambition, to be surrounded by all these people whose presence isn’t required in any office but who nevertheless get dressed and get out and get things done—making movies and designing websites and writing novels, everyone on some deadline or another, even the entirely self-imposed sort. It’s contagious, this energy, created by all these ambitious people who’ve come from every corner of the world to pursue their dreams. That’s one of the main things I love about New York City, and something I missed sorely for the time when I didn’t live here.
This city is not always an easy place to live. But I don’t think easy is the point of life. I guess that’s why I’m still here.
Chris Pavone is author of the New York Times bestsellers The Accident (Crown, 2014) and The Expats (Crown, 2012), which won both the Edgar and Anthony awards for best first novel. His third novel, The Travelers (Crown, March 2016) has already been optioned by DreamWorks. Chris has lived his entire life in New York City, except for college upstate at Cornell and a stint as an expat in Luxembourg.