Cities, suburbs, small towns, the middle of nowhere — crime can and does happen anywhere there are people, because when law and desire conflict, sometimes desire comes out ahead. And when it comes to hard-boiled and noir writing, this holds true as well. Sam Spade operated in San Francisco, while Philip Marlowe worked down the coast in L.A. But Hammett’s Continental Op was willing to find trouble in a mining town in Big Sky country, and my friend John Carenen lets his Thomas O’Shea discover darkness and light in the Corn Belt.
All the same, when I was younger — in my teens and early twenties — I wouldn’t really have thought of the places I lived as the stuff of those kinds of stories. Unfortunately, life has taught me a different lesson, but so have some other writers, and I’d like to mention a couple of them today.
I don’t know how old I was when Dad introduced me to Jonathan Valin’s Harry Stoner series. As commonly happens, I read them out of order — I didn’t know it was a series when I started, but even when I do know, I tend to think of the first one I encounter as a standalone. After all, if I don’t like it, there’s a reasonable chance it will be a standalone, for me, anyway. So the first of the Stoner novels I read was (I think) Day of Wrath, the fourth in the series. It was a good, solid story, but I also remember thinking, “Hey, this is Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky — maybe not the parts I frequent, but I know this place.” Harry would eat in chili parlors, drive a street where a former girlfriend did a radio show, and deal with criminals in a nowhere-near-gentrified Newport, KY.
For me, it was like a moment I’ve run across in several musicians’ bios. Guys like John Lennon and others of his generation talked about seeing Blackboard Jungle in the theaters and being both shocked and elated to see their demographic and bits of their subcultures on the screen. In a way, it was confirmation that they and their world were interesting and had importance. The Stoner novels let me know that Cincinnati could be more than Zenith.
Valin has moved away from fiction over the last couple of decades, choosing instead to write about his passion for audiophile-level stereo equipment (a passion kindled in part by his novel The Music Lovers, a rare, lighthearted Stoner novel.) Still, I’ve exchanged a couple of e-mails with him in recent years, by way of thanks for showing me how I could set Broken Glass Waltzes in the neighborhoods I knew.
Likewise, I was thrilled to discover Steven Womack’s Harry James Denton novels a few years later (What’s with all these PIs named Harry? It’s a good blue-collar name, I guess, suitable for the working class ethos that distinguishes the hard-boiled PI from the classical detective.). These I took in order because I happened to have finished my migration to crime fiction when the first one came out in 1993. These novels are set in the city of my birth — Nashville, TN — and while they never quite make it into roman a clef territory, the city itself, with its neighborhoods, streets that change names every few blocks, and bizarre juxtaposition of Christian fundamentalism and showbiz sin, plays a role as large and as vivid as Chandler’s L.A. Like Valin, Womack is now doing other work, but the six Denton novels (which I’m currently re-reading) are energetic and exciting, and even leave me a little homesick from time to time.
As I said, when I wrote Broken Glass Waltzes, I was trying in part to write about the city, music scene, and people with which and with whom I had spent some of my life. I’m thankful to folks like Valin and Womack for helping me see how I could do that.