Five Reinventions of the Boston Crime Novel
How to account for the popularity of Boston as a setting for crime fiction? There’s the city’s checkered history of real-life crime, from the Brinks truck job to the Gardner Museum heist to the tragic Boston Marathon bombing of 2013. Then there’s the Hub’s rogues gallery of larger-than-life criminals, including the Boston Strangler, Kenneth “The Giggler” Harrison, and Whitey Bulger. Or maybe it’s just that Boston has an inherently noir-ish quality, especially when the temperatures start to drop and the nights grow longer.
The past masters of the Boston crime novel, George V. Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle) and Robert Parker (the Spenser series) are long gone, but in their place is a new generation of writers building on what they established and taking Boston noir in exciting new directions. Here are five examples of recent vintage that any fan of the genre should seek out.
- Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
With Higgins and Parker gone, Lehane is the undisputed dean of the Boston crime scene. His latest novel is a break from both the Kenzie-Gennaro mysteries that made his name and his recently completed historical fiction trilogy of Coughlin novels. For the first time, Lehane’s central character is a woman, Rachel Childs, an agoraphobic ex-journalist who falls for the private eye she’s hired to find her birth father. The first half of the book hardly reads like a crime thriller at all as it deals with Rachel’s mental state and relationship history, but the peerless Lehane twists and turns soon emerge and make Since We Fell as hard to put down as his best work.
- Brighton by Michael Harvey
Documentarian and novelist Harvey used Chicago as the sandbox for his first six crime thrillers, but with Brighton he returns to the city he grew up in. The story begins in 1975, when two teenage friends, Kevin and Bobby, commit a murder as a misguided act of revenge. Bobby stays behind in their gritty neighborhood, but by 2002, Bobby has moved on uptown and become a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. He is drawn back to Brighton when the case resurfaces—something he learns because his girlfriend in the District Attorney’s office has taken an interest. Harvey brings the tribalism of Boston neighborhoods to vivid life as Kevin learns you can’t go home again even if you’ve never really left town.
- World Enough by Clea Simon
Simon is best known for a series of cat-themed mysteries, including Mew is for Murder and Cries and Whiskers. The standalone World Enough is a feline-free departure that draws on Simon’s experience as a music journalist and denizen of the Boston club scene. Her lead character Tara has the same background but is now working a corporate job while trying to keep a toe in the rock world. When a friend from the past dies suddenly, Tara is drawn back into her old life and begins uncovering decades-old secrets. Simon’s novel is less an airtight mystery than a haunting exploration of the dark side of nostalgia and the differing perceptions of shared experiences.
- Bosstown by Adam Abramowitz
Abramowitz pours his real-life experience as a courier, mover, and poker player in Boston’s South End into this zippy tale of bike messenger Zesty Meyers. A seemingly routine pickup from a record company nearly proves fatal for Zesty, who finds himself drawn into a conspiracy of drug dealers, bank robbers, a long-missing mobster, and his own parents: a poker-dealing father suffering from Alzheimer’s and a radical mother on the run from the law for decades. Abramowitz takes his pacing cues from Zesty’s reckless rides through the streets of Boston, from the drug corners of Roxbury to the waterfront recently made over by the Big Dig. The result is a witty page-turner that has spawned a sequel in A Town Called Malice, due in spring 2019.
- Little Comfort by Edwin Hill
This debut novel from the editorial director of an educational publisher introduces Hester Thursby, a diminutive Harvard librarian with a sideline in missing person investigations. When Hester is hired to track down the long-lost Sam Blaine by his sister, finding him is the easy part. Learning the truth behind this slippery character reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley proves more difficult, especially once the bodies start to drop. Although this is the first in a series of Thursby novels, the book devotes equal time to its villains as Hill expertly shifts between Hester’s investigation and the dark doings of Blaine and his longtime confidant Gabe. The result is a fascinating psychological thriller that gets deep under your skin.
– Scott Von Doviak is a former film critic and the author of three books on pop culture. His fiction debut, the Boston crime novel CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL is now available from Hard Case Crime. Learn more at scottvondoviak.com.