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
As official thememaster for Rara-Avis' DC month
in December of 2001, Mark
Sullivan, our man in the capitol, had a few words to say
about the city's crime fiction:
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
There were some precursors. Steve
Bentley, created by Robert Dietrich (AKA E Howard
Hunt), was a Playboy CPA who often 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
James Grady's Six Days of the Condor (and the
movie, which cut the time in half) also fused a spy thriller with
that hardboiled 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 PI. He probably has far more in common with Goodis's drunken
heroes than with Phillip 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, George
wrote the so-called (but 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
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 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 the recently-published 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 for permission to use this piece.
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