Friday, December 03, 2010

Mystery Novels Set in New York City

Mystery writers all have their favorite settings and today I’d like to kick-start a discussion about writers who set their mysteries in New York City and how they create characters who embody that upscale yet gritty setting—from Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy, an early 20th-century immigrant who wants to be a private investigator to Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr, a burglar and bookseller, in New York City.

In the late 1980’s, when I first read Greenwich Killing Time and When the Cat’s Away, I had no idea that someday, like Kinky Freeman, I would have a hyphenated identity as a singer/author. Friedman’s books delighted me with their quintessential New York flavor, irreverent humor, and day-glo colorful characters.

Walter Mosely’s Leonid McGill, a black ex-boxer and old-school private investigator, is an outsider in today’s glitzy New York. In these books, Mosely uses the city as a foil for his struggling hero. Here, McGill describes himself at the beginning of The Long Fall:

I was wearing a suit and tie. Maybe my shoe leather was dull, but there weren’t any scuffs. There were no spots on my navy lapels, but, like that woman in the corner, I was obviously out of my depth: a vacuum-cleaner salesman among high-paid lawyers, a hausfrau thrown in with a bevy of Playboy bunnies.

I no longer live in New York City, but I visit as frequently as I can, especially when working on a new book.. I thought I knew the city until I began to write about it (both Ask the Dead and The Last Matryoshka are set at least partially in New York) but it would take more than one lifetime to plumb these depths. Still, I try not to be intimidated by what Agatha Christie had to say on this topic: It is ridiculous to set a detective story in New York City. New York City is itself a detective story.

Visitors – please share your own experiences writing or reading mysteries set in New York!




  1. Anonymous10:02 AM

    It's been a while since I've been to New York City, but it's the only big city I know of where people on the street will actually talk to you.

    Still, I'll take Los Angeles over NYC any time.

  2. Most of my novels are set in New York but sorella is it changing ... I used to live in Little Italy and wrote a book that took place there a few years back ... then recently visited it and hardly recognized the area.

    It's still home field advantage but my readers tend to be my age and the youngins' probably can't conceptualize much of what I describe.

  3. Hi Charlie and thanks so much for coming by! I just watched the book trailer for Johnny Porno - it's great! And I hope the "youngins" catch on to your books which will set them straight about the real NYC.

  4. The Christie comment is new to me--but definitely a good one. NYC is so rich that you can write almost anything there, and live almost any kind of life there--you can make the city whatever you want it to be. I think of Amanda Cross/Carolyn Heilbrun's academic mysteries in contrast with Lee Child's Jack Reacher--two writers couldn't be more different.

    Susan Oleksiw

  5. Hi, Joyce,

    New York's my city too even though I'm on the Jersey side. I've spent a great deal of time in the city. And that's where my husband hails from as well as his entire family. I hope to sell a mystery thriller called DEATH LEGACY which takes place mainly in NYC.

  6. @Susan - great examples of how diverse NY's inspiration can be. There's a terrific list of mystery novels set in NYC at - wish I could say I'd read most of them, but it gives me something to shoot for!

    My latest novel in progress has a setting on Broome Street that I need to visit personally - a good excuse to visit a childhood friend who lives in Chelsea!

  7. I recommend Stefanie Pintoff's Simon Ziehle series set in *old* New York. Her command of historical detail is impressive, and if you love NYC as a setting, this series gives quite a twist on it...

  8. Thanks Jenny - my favorite book as a child was The Magic Tunnel - in which two kids travel back in time to the New Amsterdam of the 1600's by way of the subway. The way this story came alive every time I rode the MTA, showed me at an early age how books contain so much more than paper and ink -- or digitized media...

  9. I love THE MAGIC TUNNEL! I still have my paperback copy bought in grade school from the Scholastic book order. Was probably only 35 cents or so. I am glad some one else remembers the book.

    I don't think I have read too many series set in New York, but I do enjoy the Stanley Hastings books by Parnell Hall.

  10. That's amazing Elizabeth - I remember having a hardcover copy of The Magic Tunnel, owned by my elementary school - I'll have to hunt one up online.

    Your blogger profile didn't come up - do you live on the east coast?

  11. I'm a New Jerseyite who spends as much time as possible across the river in NYC. My mystery series features a young woman blues-singer/sleuth who lives in Hackensack but practices and plays gigs with her band in Manhattan. I had a great time capturing the quirky, gritty quality of the city in Sweet Man Is Gone. Many of the musician characters were based on New York types I've met as a result of my own guitar-playing addiction.

  12. Thanks for stopping by, Peggy - I can't wait to meet your blues-singer sleuth. I think NY encourages hypenated identities - Jo Epstein is a performance poet/private investigator who works out of a club in Chelsea. Come back and share a paragraph or two from Sweet Man is Gone if you like.

  13. Reading Charlie Opera (Stella) latest novel set in NYC. Great job depicting the city's underworld characters w/ stark realism. Another I really like is Andrew Vachss. Very imaginative, but the writing is so good it's completely believable.
    Mike L.
    Noir Journal

  14. @ Mike L. if you scroll up to the top of these comments you'll see one by the same Charlie Opera you are reading!

    I checked out Noir Journal and also Andrew Vachss after reading your note - thanks!

  15. Joyce, am a lifelong Wisconsonite except for 2 years in Illinois and 2 years in Michigan. Have been to NYC 4 times and every time was a wonderful
    visit. How does one even begin to see all it has to offer??

    WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND...WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE...TOM'S MIDNIGHT GARDEN...these are all childhood books I have also kept, and still occasionally re-read. Oh, GHOST OF DIBBLE HOLLOW was another. The setting of each of these definitely plays an important role.

  16. Hi Joyce, I'm not a writer (my partner is an editor/publisher who always correct my grammar)but love reading sci-fi and mystery books. I've always wish I could visit New York City.I'm new to blogging.

  17. New York City is famous to have a lot of people who will directly come to you and talk like you've been together for a long time. Sometimes its funny but sometimes its not.

  18. And sometimes it's downright scary!


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