When crime disappears, what’s a crime novelist supposed to write about? This question weighed on the minds of crime writers Lee Child, Reggie Nadelson, and George Dawes Green during a 2009 discussion on WNYC, New York’s flagship public radio station. Invited to chat about “New York City Thrillers,” the three novelists found themselves instead musing about how the city had become less thrilling over the years. “[A] benevolent, peaceful place,” Child noted about New York, with a touch of sadness. Nadelson, who came of age in the city during the rough-and-tumble 1970s, quipped in her distinctive gravelly voice, “It’s hard to find a crime these days.” Child chimed back in, “It feels like a different city.” In 1991, New York City was America’s inglorious murder capital with an astonishing 2,245 homicides that single year. But by 2009, the city was almost two decades into the longest and steepest documented crime decline in US history. “The problem with New York is that it’s become such a sweet city,” Green said, offering the most backhanded compliment one could give New York.
The truth is that the new New York is as crime-ridden as ever, yet the nature of its crimes has changed. The sensationalistic, omnipresent, and seemingly random violence that once defined New York in the American imagination is much less a part of daily life, but new crimes have shifted to the forefront of everyone’s mind: obscene levels of inequality, record homelessness, mom-and-pop stores bankrupted by soaring rents, and greater levels of racial, ethnic, and class displacement from gentrification sweeping like wildfire over one neighborhood after another. The “sweet city” is still sour.
At the roundtable, Nadelson remarked that “What’s interesting about there not being so much outright crime,” is that “it has opened up the door for a lot of us to do more interesting things.” Low crime rates and “late capitalism” (as scholars more optimistically minded than me are fond of labelling it) haven’t killed the genre. Twenty-first century New York crime fiction is alive and well as the “revitalized” city dies in new ways. These days “[t]he crime doesn’t happen when you step out of the bank…. The crime happens while you’re in the bank,” Child quipped. If while staring bug-eyed at your direct-deposit slip or the balance on your underwater mortgage, you felt you had been robbed, then, like any good literary detective, you needed to follow the money. That’s what recent crime novels continue to do: trace the trail back to the moneyed interests—the finance and real-estate industries—that are making a killing.
Here are five twenty-first-century novels that map the new stories of crime in New York City, what I call “the gentrification plot.”
Ernesto Quiñonez’s Chango’s Fire (2004): As a novelist, Ernesto Quiñonez has staked his claim to Spanish Harlem, the largely Puerto Rican neighborhood that in the 1960s and 70s was synonymous for many people with arson, urban blight, and delinquency. Quiñonez’s writing is haunted by Spanish Harlem’s history as a neighborhood redlined into the ground and abandoned as a smoldering ruin. His own apartment building was torched one early Saturday morning—smoke wafting up under the front door like a genie—as he sat watching cartoons while his parents slept. All around young Quiñonez was evidence of kids who didn’t make it out safely when their own apartments also went up in flames: “faceless, noseless” children “gauzed up” like “mummies” and hidden behind bedroom doors. Where others saw decay and hopelessness, Quiñonez saw stories in a neighborhood that was “as valid material for literature as Joyce’s Dublin.” By the early 2000s, when Chango’s Fire is set, Spanish Harlem was the leading edge of gentrification, one of the last neighborhoods in Manhattan where a fixer-upper townhouse was still under a million-five, a real bargain. The novel tells the story of a by-the-boot-straps young Latino apartment owner named Julio who is burned by gentrification’s F.I.R.E. industries (finance, insurance, and real estate) while still healing from the searing memories of Spanish Harlem’s earlier fires. Julio rehabs apartments during the day for the neighborhood’s newcomers and at night lights empty houses on fire as part of an insurance fraud racket run by a low-level Italian mobster. Burning the proverbial candle at both ends is the only way that he can afford his own mortgage in the neighborhood where prices are going through the roof. Quiñonez narrativizes Latinx downward mobility, yet in the end symbolically offsets, however unequally, Julio’s material losses with his spiritual transformations through Santeria and his deeper immersion in his community’s stories of survival.
Reggie Nadelson’s Red Hook (2005): Part of her long-running series starring Artie Cohen, Nadelson’s novel unfolds in the gritty and oil-slathered industrial waterfront neighborhood of the title. Red Hook’s luridly colorful name seems almost too good to be true from the crime novelist’s perspective. Yet it is derived not from the area’s reputation for blood and gore—though it saw plenty of violence in the 1970s and 80s—but from the color of the soil and the Dutch word “hoek” for “point” or “corner.” The wind-blown, isolated neighborhood of rusted cranes, dilapidated docks, and unrivaled views of the Statue of Liberty is newly overrun in Nadelson’s novel with so-called urban pioneers fixing up rowhouses and hipster artisans blithely selling handmade kites for 500 bucks a pop in the shadow of the largest housing complex in Brooklyn. Nadelson deploys the crime genre to narrate a violent transition from the “old industrial city” with its rotting piers and empty factories to a “brand new city” with marinas, glass condos, and art galleries. When one of the main characters ends up floating dead in the still-polluted water after his head is bashed in, his death is treated as an accident. “Better for real estate,” a developer in the novel cynically contends. Detective Artie Cohen ultimately agrees with him and promises to keep his lips sealed, thus exemplifying the interlocking forces of policing and real-estate development in the postindustrial city.
Henry Chang’s Chinatown Beat (2006): Henry Chang has called his Jack Yu series, launched with Chinatown Beat, “less conventional mysteries than studies in Chinese-American culture.” Indeed, his novels proffer thick descriptions of Manhattan’s Chinatown in the mid-to-late 1990s, an extraordinarily complex neighborhood of multiple dialects, searing class tensions, political divisions traceable to the Chinese civil war between the nationalists of the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China, and rival tongs gunning each other down for control of territory. Mixed in with Chang’s bloody storylines of intra-ethnic factionalism are the everyday working-class Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans struggling to make do and dream of a better life. In the Jack Yu series, the NYPD is tasked with cleaning up Chinatown through broken-windows policing, which places Chang’s detective in the position of laying the groundwork for the gentrification of his own neighborhood, what he calls “the reality of realty.” Ultimately, Chinatown Beat and the novels that follow it, are about the double binds of ethnicity and the competing loyalties between one’s culture and one’s profession. These binds ensnare Chang himself as a novelist working in a genre with a long history of Sinophobic representations, ranging from the evil genius of Dr. Fu Manchu to the portly and effeminate Detective Charlie Chan. In Chang’s work, the struggle is not only over the place of Chinatown, but also over his own place in the genre of crime fiction.
Richard Price’s Lush Life (2008): Lush Life unfolds in the Lower East Side at a critical inflection point where this storied immigrant launching pad—“the most important neighborhood in American history,” Richard Price has claimed—morphs into a twenty-first-century “MFA playground” filled with wannabe artists, poseurs, and greedy landlords. “Real estate is violence. It’s physical violence, but it’s also uprooting, it’s clashing, it’s tectonic plates,” Price has remarked about the area’s recent transformation. But “real estate,” by which he meant gentrification, is also the “greatest crime fighter in the world,” even more effective than the cops. Lush Life tells a tale of two neighborhoods in one, the central streets lined with new upscale lounges and trendy restaurants and the perimeter blocks lined with mid-century public housing. In the novel, long-simmering racial and class divisions are inflamed by zero-tolerance policing and the murder of a “creative class” hipster, which the lead cop on the case knows will create a “media shitstorm” that’ll jeopardize the Lower East Side’s new reputation as a kiddie-club hotspot peppered with multimillion-dollar lofts. “Everybody thinks it’s rebirth, but it looks more like afterbirth,” Price has said about the Lower East Side’s so-called revitalization. Today, the Lower East Side has been almost completely rehabbed into an upper-class boho enclave for Wall-Street types who like a little grime with their oysters, but Lush Life captures it when the neighborhood is still categorically unruly, when its status, future, and definition are still actively fought over.
Walter Mosley’s The Long Fall (2009): Best known for his LA-based Easy Rawlins series that he launched with Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), Mosley kicks off his new Leonid McGill mysteries with The Long Fall, set in New York City. McGill is a P.I. in his early 50s struggling to pay the rent as prices keep going up despite the financial crisis, a context that unfolds in near real-time in this novel from 2009. “I want my money,” he demands from a client, admitting to himself “I was broke and the rent was due.” The real-estate bubble that popped in 2008, exposing the financial sector’s festering crimes, is felt throughout The Long Fall. Early books in the crime genre studiously separated the professional and private lives of the detective. Mosley’s novel, however, dramatizes, capital’s insidious interpenetration of both spaces. When The Long Fall opens, McGill’s wife has just returned to their marriage after an affair with an investment banker named Andre Zool who absconded to Argentina when the “real estate market crashed” and after he “lost over a billion dollars” by buying bad “mortgage debt” for his company. McGill’s marriage remains on shaky ground for the first two books, not only because his wife’s affair, but also because of McGill’s ongoing love for Aura, the woman who holds the keys to his shady below-market lease for his sprawling office in midtown Manhattan. These love stories are real-estate stories. They are crime stories as well. A side plot of The Long Fall surrounds Leslie Bitterman, a vulture capitalist for “a company that buys up debt and liquidates properties.” His crime isn’t one of real estate, per se, but his pedophilic abuse of his own daughter. Consolidated in Zool and Bitterman are the rapaciously destructive forces of capital that lay waste to houses and the lives inside of them.
These five recent crime novels are only a sample of the work being done in the genre to dramatize the ongoing struggles and fallouts of gentrification. Readers could turn to later novels in the same series—Henry Chang’s Year of the Dog (2008) or Red Jade (2010), Reggie Nadelson’s Blood Count (2010), Walter Mosley’s Known to Evil (2011)—to see many of these threads play out. Or readers could turn to Ivy Pochoda’s thriller Visitation Street (2013) about a missing girl in a neighborhood whose social order is being dismantled and reassembled on new terms, or Gabriel Cohen’s Jack Leightner series about death on the revitalized Brooklyn waterfront, or Richard Price’s The Whites (2015), featuring a retired police officer-turned-real-estate speculator who snaps up dilapidated apartments, hires ex-cops to crack the skulls of squatters, refurbishes the buildings, and flips them for huge profits.
The plots of these novels are about plots of land and the plots or nefarious schemes surrounding them. Real estate might be New York’s greatest crime fighter, as Price remarked, but it is also the city’s greatest crime.
Thomas Heise’s current book manuscript, Detecting New York: Crime Fiction, Gentrification, and the Postindustrial City, is under contract with Columbia University Press’s Literature Now series. He is the author of Urban Underworlds: A Geography of Twentieth-Century American Literature and Culture (Rutgers 2011), Moth; or how I came to be with you again (Sarabande 2013), and Horror Vacui: Poems (Sarabande 2006). He is on faculty at Penn State University (Abington).
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