October 3, 2009
A Month of New York Mysteries, Ghosts, Detectives, Gothic Tales and Noir
Thursday afternoon, the first real chilly day of the season with strong west winds, I visited two bookstores that specialize in mysteries. The chilly day, coupled with the passing of dark clouds, signaled the advent of many beloved autumn pleasures - sweaters, apple and pumpkin pies, hearty soups, and cozy bookstores. In October the residents of the island turn inward, leaving the sunny shoreline of Manhattan for comfortable places indoors. So, I was in one of those autumn moods, gathering stories of the mysterious, ghostly or noir variety to bring home and place next to a comfortable chair inside. In sync with the season, the gathering felt like a literary harvest.
Taking the train to the W. 4th. St. station, flipping through an anthology of classic mystery stories, I noticed three NYPD officers standing in my subway car. They looked nonchalant, occasionally yawning and staring at their feet, but of late New Yorkers have been asked to be alert to yet another security threat. I knew the authorities were keeping close watch on affiliates of a man recently detained on suspicion of a plot against the subways, so I tried to shrug off a growing anxiety by returning to my book. Leaving the train, I started walking faster than normal, but as soon as I reached the stairs near W. 8th to leave the station, I nearly stepped on a little rat nibbling on a piece of food. Walking now quite briskly across Washington Square Park, I happened to glance behind me. The same police officers from the train had taken up new positions on the western side of the park. More concerned that I had almost stepped on a rat, I got home as quickly as possible.
Browsing the bookstores and flipping through a wide selection of detective novels, gothic tales, classic mysteries and stories of contemporary noir apparently had an immediate effect on my imagination. Not that the police and the little rat weren't real enough, but shifting into the mystery mood of the season, I assigned their presence with more meaning than usual. Furthermore, I had been thinking about the larger role of the mystery genre in contemporary life and the specific geography of the New York mystery. With inventions of digital technology and high-speed communication promising to leave no one in the dark, how does the mystery story thrive? With bloggers and websites covering every inch of the five boroughs, will there soon be no urban mysteries to uncover? The policemen and the rodent provided preliminary clues to answering these questions. As long as humans are capable of crime and others capable of suspicion, there's always going to be a fresh trail to sniff out.
And what of the streets? How do mysteries quicken our steps on the storied avenues, dark intersections and back alleys of Gotham? Walking Off the Big Apple now turns attention this month to mystery stories of literary value, for we do not truck here in lesser thrillers. I have brought home a superior collection of books to consider - The Alienist by Caleb Carr, Manhattan Noir 2: The Classics edited by Lawrence Block, China Trade by S. J. Rozan, Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem, and Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow. If you would like to recommend a New York mystery novel, please do so in the comment section. I look forward to exploring the streets these stories take us. The game, gentle readers, is most definitely afoot.
• Bookstores: Partners and Crime, 44 Greenwich Avenue (corner of Charles), New York, NY 10011, and The Mysterious Bookshop, 58 Warren St., New York, NY 10007
• Browse this list of Historical Mystery Novels set in New York City from the Springfield City Library
Images: Scenes on Bond Street, NoHo neighborhood, early in the morning. Bond Street was the scene of a famous gruesome crime in January of 1857. At 31 Bond Street, Harvey Burdell, a successful dentist, was found bound and stabbed multiple times. His landlady and ex-lover, Emma Cunningham, was put on trial and later acquitted. The mystery of the complicated and notorious crime reveals much about the relationship between the sexes in New York's gaslight era. See Benjamin Feldman’s 2007 book, Butchery on Bond Street: Sexual Politics & the Burdell-Cunningham Case in Ante-Bellum New York, for the gory details.
Read the follow-up post, Gumshoes: A Partial Lineup of New York Detectives in American Crime Fiction
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