It’s 9 a.m. and I’ve already got five slugs in me. The four made of cheap whiskey are burning a hole in my liver and one made of cold lead right next to my heart keeps reminding me why I divorced my first ex-wife. It’s not that I mind the pain. I just wish I got paid more, so I could afford better booze, which might help me forget my weekday commute to Farragut North.
Wait—Farragut North? It’s true! There’s no need to go back in time, or leave home, to indulge your inner Raymond Chandler. As it turns out, Washington—wonky, policy-obsessed Washington—is a capital of crime fiction, too. And it always has been. Edgar Allen Poe invented the genre up the road in Baltimore when he published the short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841. Since then, D.C. has become the hometown of innumerable mystery novelists, including some of today’s best-known—George Pelecanos (The Sweet Forever), James Grady (Six Days of the Condor) and Katherine Neville (The Eight).
The past year has been an especially good one for the genre. According to Donna Andrews, president of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of Mystery Writers of America, there has been something of a regional boom in the genre. “In the last 10 years, our chapter has had almost a dozen Agatha Award winners, several Anthony Award winners and a number of Edgar Award winners,” she says, ticking off stats about the three most prestigious American mystery writing prizes. “The scene is just reaching critical mass now,” she continues. “People are starting to notice.”
One of the most notable new faces to debut in 2010 is Allison Leotta. By day, she’s a federal prosecutor specializing in sex crimes and domestic violence. By night, she turns her experiences into visceral prose. Her debut, Law of Attraction, is a riveting page turner about an up-and-coming ADA who gets entangled in a brutal murder case.
Another local notable is Amy Dawson Robertson, who recently published Miles To Go: A Rennie Vogel Intrigue. It’s part thriller and part mystery and should satisfy anyone who loved Patricia Highsmith’s pulp-fiction classic The Price of Salt. If you’re looking for something a little less lascivious, try Black Beans & Vice by J.B. Stanley. The latest installment in her Supper Club Mystery series, it follows a group of food-loving friends who like to solve mysteries in their spare time. Just imagine Encyclopedia Brown as a middle-aged woman with a penchant for cooking (recipes are included in the back of the book), and you start to get the gist.
Also published this year was Debbi Mack’s Identity Crisis, which combines equal parts domestic violence, and deadly violence then adds a shot each of identity theft, the mob, and B&E. Charles Toftoy’s brutally engaging It’s in the Eyes unravels the torrid and tangled mystery of four D.C. co-eds raped and murdered in the style of Thuggee worshippers. And Meredith Cole’s gripping Dead in the Water follows a photographer-turned-amateur detective as she tries to get to the bottom of a string of prostitute killings in Brooklyn.
One nice thing about D.C. mystery lit: Diversity in its authors’ backgrounds as well as in the subgenres they tackle. According to Andrews, the only other places in the country that can boast such variety are New York and California. So, there’s lots of good, locally grown choices out there so you can get your whodunit on.
Sure, coming from a guy who’s made a career out of bad choices, this recommendation might seem a little ironic. But I know what I’m talking about. I’ve heard enough lies and seen enough shit in my time to be able to appreciate the finer things in life. I gotta go now; my bottled breakfast is empty and there’s work to do out there on the mean streets. And yeah, I do mean the mean streets of D.C.