City Paper is not for tourists
On June 8, 2020, the nominees for the Anthony Awards, one of the biggest international awards for crime fiction, were announced. Approximately a quarter of the nominated writers were based in the District, Maryland, or Virginia, including this author.
That’s not an anomaly. Every major award in crime fiction this year, and most years, features multiple nominees and winners from our region.
Crime fiction and the D.C. region have a curious relationship. Within writing and publishing circles, New York is still considered the center of crime fiction (and every other genre) and Los Angeles has enjoyed a Chandler-inspired reputation for noir, but, starting with the heady days of the Cold War, the D.C. region has consistently asserted its own place as an important hub for the genre. Writers like Laura Lippman and George Pelecanos have represented this area well, and their work paved the way for exciting newcomers like Angie Kim, David Swinson, Tara Laskowski, Art Taylor, and Nik Korpon. The area has some of the best creative writing programs in the country, as well as active writing conferences and supportive professional organizations. Plenty of thrillers take inspiration from the country’s political elite and a robust number of hardscrabble noir novels chronicle their lives outside of those marble halls.
It’s understandable that, for many readers, D.C. is conflated with politics, and that conflation has tied into the region’s writing. Writers have done well imagining various crimes in the Capitol dome. Ward Just, David Baldacci, Julie Hyzy, Tom Clancy, Neely Tucker, and Matthew Quirk are just some of the many writers who have set captivating stories on the Hill.
But writing about D.C.’s political elite comes with complications. More often than not, good writing is accompanied by extensive research, enough to create an intimate knowledge of the character a writer is describing. But most of the famous personalities—legislators, presidents, and the like—are guarded and only presented through the approving eyes of communications staffers, which doesn’t make it easy for a writer hoping to examine their psyche. One tried and true workaround has been for writers to use ancillary characters as their protagonists. The people behind the politicos are more accessible, relatable, and often less buttoned-up than the people they work for. Colleen Shogan, author of the “Washington Whodunit” series and senior vice president of the White House Historical Association, explains that “everyone who has worked on the Hill or lobbied the Hill knows that congressional staffers make the place tick. I genuinely believe that most people who come to work in Washington, D.C., want to make the country a better place. I want to tell their story.”
James Grady, legendary author of Six Days of the Condor, agrees, but is firm in his belief that stories from the region should extend beyond the summit of the Hill. “One of the great things George Pelecanos and other crime authors have done is reclaim this city from the clichés. They tell stories about characters who are people, not government ID badges.”
And only writing about the Hill presents a misconception of the city, one Grady finds particularly worrisome. “When I rolled into town in December ‘73, ‘Washington novels’ were all like Advise and Consent and Seven Days in May [two Cold War political dramas]. Part of that was because the city and politics on this level was so small compared to now, partly because the big money didn’t arrive until Reagan, and importantly, because of racism. I could not believe how the cultural arbitrators of publishing and everything else thought of D.C. as a half-moon looping up from about 3rd Street NE to Connecticut, 16th, Wisconsin, and up to the Maryland line. Blew me away.”
Publishing, like every other American industry, is now openly grappling with that racism, thanks in part to the Black Lives Matter protests of this past summer. That includes acknowledging that the crime fiction set on Capitol Hill has largely not represented the diverse population of the area, much like Capitol Hill itself. Just under half of D.C.’s residents are Black, but its crime fiction hasn’t always shown it. This phenomenon isn’t unique to D.C.—it’s a problem the publishing industry has recently made efforts to correct, and an issue that local crime fiction writers of color and LGBTQ writers, such as Alma Katsu, Austin S. Camacho, Sujata Massey, Christopher Chambers, Cheryl A. Head, John Copenhaver, and myself, are eager to change.
“When I moved to D.C. from Detroit in the early ’90s,” says Head, who writes the award-winning “Charlie Mack Motown Mystery” series, “the diversity of cultures and worldviews was one of the jewels of the region for me. That’s such a bonus to people who are curious about the world.”
And our writing community is marked by its diversity of voices. I’m a mixed-race military brat who moved around a lot growing up. Often, I was the only mixed-race kid in my classes—if not the only one, then definitely a rarity. A lovely benefit to living here, writing here, and raising my son here is that I no longer have to make up characters simply to find others like me. And, hopefully, my son will never experience that same isolation.
That benefit has also affected my fiction. When I’m trying to capture the area in my work, I have the luxury of writing about my own experiences, knowing there are residents here who will relate. My protagonists have always been characters of color, because that’s representative of this area. My latest novel, They’re Gone (written under my pseudonym E.A. Barres), features two protagonists who are both women of color and live in the region.
Saying that these voices belong on the page and in the public consciousness, and that they have stories and experiences worth sharing, is also an inherently political statement. Anjili Babbar, who teaches at the Community College of Baltimore County and is president of the local Dashiell Hammett Society, a group for fans of hardboiled crime, agrees. “I hope that we help students think about justice from angles they hadn’t considered before,” she says, “and to understand their voices are important in discourses about justice.”
The social upheaval of 2020—especially the protests after the murder of George Floyd and wider acceptance of the Black Lives Matter movement—underscores this point. Crime fiction plays a role in shaping the public consciousness in regard to topics like law and order and morality, even across enormous political divides. Yet it’s important to note that, within the D.C. region’s crime fiction, that divide is narrow, in part because of the strength of the local writing community. Our intimacy shrinks the gap that politics tends to widen. And this is despite the competitiveness that publishing presents—the fight for readers, the limited calendar space at venues, the harsh push for publicity.
Award-winning writer Shawn Reilly Simmons helps organize the Bethesda-based Malice Domestic conference, which gives out the Agatha Awards, one of crime fiction’s preeminent prizes. Simmons notes the strength of the community’s support in the face of competition. “Writing tends to be a solitary endeavor,” Simmons says, “and Malice is a chance for authors to gather together and find camaraderie and community, as well as introduce their work to new fans and readers.”
Kristopher Zgorski, who runs the popular and influential crime fiction blog BOLO Books and is based in Maryland, tries hard to keep his community ties strong. “I am very active in the crime fiction community, I do have many friends around here, so I am always conscious of not giving any priority or preference to those individuals,” he says. “In the end, my goal is to point readers toward stories I love in the hopes that they too will enjoy those works. My loyalty lies with readers and the writing community respects that by and large—both locally and beyond.”
And since 2015, I’ve run a rowdy regional reading series called D.C.’s Noir at the Bar, a gathering of crime fiction writers at Columbia Heights’ Wonderland Ballroom, where drinks are downed and short stories are shared. After the March shutdown, I took the weekly series online. Given its effects on businesses, I dedicated the readings to support local independent bookstores, and I only featured writers from the D.C. region. Over the rushed course of seven weeks, I was able to bring nearly 70 writers on screen to read their work to an enthusiastic audience that always numbered in the hundreds. Their warmth transferred over from the in-person events we used to have prior to the pandemic.
“At the store, we comment on that support every time we host an event featuring a local mystery author—they come out for each other,” says Eileen McGervey, the owner of Arlington’s One More Page Books. “They share the joy of fellow writers’ new books, articles, and other successes. In listening in on Sisters in Crime Chesapeake Chapter meetings when we first opened, I admired how writers helped and learned from each other—[from] what’s the impact on a body from a gunshot from a certain caliber weapon to advice on pitching agents.”
It’s a unique, somewhat surprising thing, the enthusiasm crime writers here have for each other. But perhaps the reason this region has produced such good work is because its writers—placed squarely in the city that’s an avatar for national political conflict, but given the tools to dismantle it—are keenly aware of this attitude, and we’ve (consciously or not) chosen to write against it. The coldness and aloofness of emotional, physical, and social cruelty has made its way into our fiction, but not into our character. Like the great crime writers that came before us, we’re still scrutinizing society. And we’re hoping, somehow, to find a better version of it.