Jeffery Deaver: Why New York City is the Crime Novel Capital
Bestselling thriller writer Jeffery Deaver has set many of his 30 novels in New York City, including his most recent, "The Kill Room," which stars Lincoln Rhyme, Deaver's star quadriplegic detective. As Deaver says, "New York is a cornucopia of crime," with its corrupt bankers, vicious lawyers, crooked politicians, stalwart cops, mobsters, hustlers, hapless terrorists and "notable crazies." But this rich criminal milieu isn't the only thing that drives novelists to set their crime stories in the city that never sleeps: Read on for Deaver's top five reasons New York is the ideal setting for crime fiction.
Sorry, Paris, London, Moscow, Rio, Tokyo . . . You have your charms and your dark sides, but there's no place like New York City for crime writers. Why do I and so many other authors set books there? I've come up with a top five list to answer that question.
Reason 1: New York is a cornucopia of crime
Authors writing stories ripped from the headlines don't have to look very far if they want to set a thriller or murder mystery in New York City.
Don't Wall Street brokers and bankers make the most unscrupulous of villains? And what better locale for a legal thriller?
You have foreign terrorists hoping to wreak havoc on the juiciest target in the western hemisphere. Remember Times Square? Or the none-too-bright jihadists who made their missile parts purchases from undercover agents, rather than using Craigslist? Domestic terrorists too have often picked New York as a site for their statements. A trio of Weathermen accidentally blew themselves up in Greenwich Village in 1970 as they assembled a bomb. Members of the Black Liberation Army assassinated two NYPD officers in 1971. A bomb planted by the FALN exploded outside Fraunces Tavern in 1975, killing four and injuring scores.
On a smaller scale, private eyes are busy all day long, hired by long-legged blondes who want to track down cheating husbands--and vice versa, of course.
And, apologies, Tony and Paulie, but Jersey has nothing on New York City, the town that invented organized crime in America. All respect. I was two minutes away from witnessing the Paul Castellano hit in front of Sparks Steakhouse decades ago, and I dined regularly at Umberto's Clam House where mobster Joey Gallo met his mollusk.
Political thrillers? Though it's a close call, I think New York's record of political shenanigans exceeds even that of Chicago and Philly. All respect. Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall are in the NYC genes.
And when it comes to pure wackos, New York holds its own against even the gold standard: Los Angeles. I believe Hannibal Lecter plied his trade in the mid-Atlantic region, but I always thought he'd make a great Manhattanite, with an orchestra seat subscription to the Met and a weakness for the fava beans at Dean & Deluca. Notable crazies in New York have included serial killer Albert Fish (himself a cannibal), Son of Sam and Lennon's killer Mark David Chapman.
And if your tastes run more to gritty slice-of-life crimes, like those so wonderfully dramatized in "The Wire," you don't have to look far. New York abounds with gangbangers, hustlers, druggies, crack peddlers, winos and Damon Runyon-style operators. And don't forget prostitution--from streetwalkers to high-priced outcall services. Anyone recall the Mayflower Madam?
I feel I'm only scratching the surface here. There are, after all, eight million stories in the Naked City.
But, note: Reason 1 is tempered by Reason 2.
Reason 2: New York isn't very dangerous
Reason 1 is not about the volume of crime in New York; it's about the variety of crime.
In fact, the city has far fewer per capita violent offenses than Cincinnati, Detroit, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Anchorage and many other cities. The homicide rate is the lowest it's ever been.
Why is this important for writers of crime fiction?
Out of self-interest: We devote a good amount of time wherever we set novels, and, call me picky, but I'd rather not get shot or mugged in the process.
I lived in Manhattan for nearly 20 years. I have been to every location I've written about and have never been concerned for my well-being. Those places include the South Bronx, Harlem, Hell's Kitchen (long before gentrification) and East New York in Brooklyn--tough areas all--and I never felt concerned about my personal safety, as opposed to other places I've conducted research, parts of Sao Paulo, Johannesburg and even some neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. and Chicago.
Reason 3: The demographics are a writer's dream
Some thrillers exist in a world untethered to a particular locale; the plots could unfold anywhere. Others are so firmly rooted in a place that it becomes a character itself. The latter is, for me, preferable; we need to see and hear what our characters do, taste what they eat, feel what it's like to walk down streets.
New York gives writers the chance to set their books in vast array of geographically and culturally diverse neighborhoods, bursting with details to add authenticity to the story.
To pick just a few: Bensonhurst, Brooklyn (Hasidic, Irish and Italian); South Slope, Brooklyn (Polish and Czech); Soundview, the Bronx (Dominican); Brighton Beach, Brooklyn (Russian); Tremont, the Bronx, (Caribbean and South and Central American); Upper East Side (a bunch of rich people); University Heights, the Bronx (Latino, Vietnamese and Cambodian); Ridgewood, Queens (Eastern European); Astoria, Queens (Greek).
Harlem, Chinatown and Little Italy speak for themselves, though they bring up another aspect of the city: Flux. When I moved to Manhattan in the mid '70s, the 12 people who lived in SoHo--artists, of course--had to hike blocks to find groceries. Now, the artists have in large part migrated to more modest and affordable 'hoods and the area might be confused, if you squint, for a clone of Beverly Hills and Chevy Chase, Maryland. Little Italy has been invaded by Chinatown, and Chinatown by hipsters. How neighborhoods are born, grow, morph and die is a great hook for a crime novel itself. And who doesn't love to hate real estate developers?
Few ethnicities are not represented in the city. There's a Swedish population (if you want to set a Stieg Larssen-style book in New York), Norwegian (if you're a Jo Nesbo fan) and Scottish (Ian Rankin, of course). Or create your own subgenre--maybe a whodunit about a Hmong detective cracking a case of a Tobago-Dutch mob conspiring to corner the Hunts Point produce market. Anyplace else, it'd be far-fetched; set it in New York, and you'll probably win the Edgar.
New York offers an endless supply of professions, avocations and activities in which to set your story. Writers can create mayhem in the worlds of finance, medicine, education, real estate, jewelry, law, advertising, fashion, publishing (not that I ever would), fine art, music of all genres, theater, construction, food processing, shipping . . . I mean, New York has a light-fixture district! A sewing-machine district! Plots are already occurring to me.
Reason 4: Heroes
You've got plenty of options for a protagonist in a New York City thriller, and the police department comes to mind first. The NYPD is the largest force in the country, with around 35,000 officers--larger than many standing national armies. You can make your hero a street cop or a detective and assign him or her one of many specialties: homicide, narcotics, kidnapping, terrorism, white collar crime, computers, surveillance, intelligence, organized crime, K9, Emergency Service (SWAT) and--my own soft spot--forensics. The NYPD has even used psychics, I've heard.
Or choose as your central character someone from one of the other crime-fighting organizations you'll find in the city: New York State Police, the FBI, ATF, Homeland Security, Treasury and the SEC.
Maybe a private eye could anchor your book. Or a lawyer: a public defender saving the innocent (or seemingly) or a prosecutor putting away bad guys (ditto). Or even a Wall Street lawyer with a conscience going up against the system (George Clooney in the wonderful "Michael Clayton").
My New York protagonists have included fire marshals, paralegals, attorneys lofty and attorneys low, NYPD detectives, ATF agents, forensic scientists, bomb squad experts, illusionists and musicians.
Reason 5: Everybody talks to you
If anyone thinks that a novelist's standards for accuracy are lower than those of a journalist, read a thriller writer's fan mail some time. "Dear Mr. Deaver. Loved your book. However, in chapter seven you refer to the killer mounting his machine gun to a tripod with a 1/4" wing nut; as you know that model used only 3/8" nuts."
And you know what? He was right and I was wrong.
One of the best ways to make sure that our novels are accurate is to get out into the field and talk to people who know more than you do. In New York, I never ran into anyone who wasn't willing to share their knowledge with me. I spoke to legal experts, shipping magnates, journalists, doctors, educators, military personnel, cab drivers. Much of the authenticity in my books comes from facts imparted by law enforcement personnel, all of whom have been surprisingly candid and generous with their time. Many times I'll just strike up a conversation with somebody in a coffee shop, sitting in the park or working at a pushcart and get the 411 on the neighborhood.
I'm not saying that folks in other cities aren't cooperative, but I can say that New Yorkers open up like flipping a switch. I invariably end up with 10 times more material than I need. Better that, of course, than the other way around. (The wing nut problem, again.)
I have to confess, however, there's one downside about setting a book in Manhattan. As someone who (insanely) owned, parked and drove an automobile in New York City, I'd give this advice: If you want to write a car chase--and it has to happen at more than five miles an hour--set your novel in the outer boroughs or, better yet, San Francisco.
A former journalist, folksinger and attorney, Jeffery Deaver is an international number-one bestselling author. His novels have appeared on bestseller lists around the world, including The New York Times, The Times of London, Italy's Corriere della Sera, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Los Angeles Times. His books are sold in 150 countries and translated into 25 languages. Deaver also wrote an album of country-western songs for his most recent novel "XO," and three of his books--"A Maiden's Grave," "The Bone Collector" and "The Devil's Teardrop"--were made into films. You can visit his website at www.JefferyDeaver.com.