Capitol Crimes

Washington, D.C. Eyes
And Other Hard-Boiled Fiction

"Outside of the killings, Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country."

-- Mayor Marion Barry

(2001) Most people probably think of espionage or legal thrillers involving politicians when they think of "mysteries" involving DC. However, in the last 15 years, DC has given rise to a strain of hard-boiled fiction
that has little or nothing to do with the elected visitors to the city.

There were some precursors. Steve Bentley, created by Robert Dietrich (aka "E. Howard Hunt"), was a playboy CPA who frequently got involved with murder. Stephen Marlowe's Chester Drum had offices in DC, but the few books I've read in the series took place in foreign locales. And Ross Thomas set several of his books in DC, working that blurry area of overlap between internatonal intrigue and homegrown hard-boiled.

James Grady's Six Days of the Condor (and the movie, which cut the time in half) also fused a spy thriller with that hard-boiled staple, a man on the run. Grady completed his jump to hard-boiled with two books featuring DC PI John Rankin.

Following closely in his footsteps was Leo Haggerty, created by Benjamin M. Schutz. Most of Haggerty's jobs begin in DC's upscale suburbs, but they sometimes take him into the city (once, he calls Grady's Rankin for a bit of info). This series is top-notch. The first, Embrace the Wolf, was nominated for a Shamus, the third, A Tax in Blood, won one. And Kevin has said of the fifth: 'And, in my exceedingly humble opinion, A Fistful of Empty is possibly one of the best PI novels of all time. So, the question is, "What ever happened to this guy?"' Well, he is right here. Mr. Schutz has graciously agreed to drop in on our discusssion this month.

And then along came George Pelecanos. George's Nick Stefanos is not your usual P.I. He probably has far more in common with Goodis's drunken heroes than with Philip Marlowe, who could at least hold his liquor. After three books featuring Nick and Shoedog, a one-off caper novel in the tradition of classic Gold Medals. He then wrote the so-called (though not by him) DC Quartet, which explores DC's history of race and working class life, while continuing to satisfy crime fictions fans. His most recent work is back in contemporary times.

Although less than half of Kenji Jasper's Dark is set in DC, it casts a shadow over the entire book. Only after running away after a violent act does protagonist Thai Williams start to realize how the Shaw neighborhood has imprisoned his mind, shackling his expectations and telling him he can never be anything more than a thug.

And A Murder of Honor is the first in a projected series by Robert Andrews, featuring DC cops Frank Kearney and Jose Phelps.

Douglas E. Winter's Run is a compelling gun-running thriller, much of which is set in Virginia's suburbs.

A secret history of the upscale Bethesda and Potomac, Maryland, suburbs is at the core of Derek Van Arman's Just Killing Time. Although I'm no big fan of the serial killer genre, this book emphasizes the investigation of the psychopathology, not the mythology of killers.

Thanks to Mark Sullivan, official thememaster for Rara-Avis' DC month in December of 2001 and our man in the capitol.

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