87th Precinct Meets The Wire

McNulty and Bunk

Source: HBO

When I began writing Holland Bay,I thought about it as 87th Precinct meets The Wire. I had envisioned the detectives of Holland Bay to be like those of the 87th Precinct in that each subsequent book would feature a different detective. When I first described this to another writer at a Bouchercon, he asked me who my Carella was. I said I looked at them all equally. So he said, “Well, there has to be a first among equals.”

But McBain’s detectives, while not exactly perfect, are not also paragons of dysfunction. Carella is tempted by the fruit of a couple of others, but does not stray. Bert Kling has woman troubles. Meyer Meyer must deal with his baldness and his odd name. My detectives are dysfunctional as hell.

But McBain wrote about cops as the everyman. Even the seedier ones like Andy Parker (whom most of us would like to shove under an express train to Calm’s Point) and Fat Ollie Weeks (the 87th’s own bigoted uncle) are humans with flaws and struggles. But McBain also writes about the job of the 87th as a mission. They are the thin blue line in Isola.

87th Precinct

“87th Precinct Complete” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:87th_Precinct_Complete.jpg#/media/File:87th_Precinct_Complete.jpg

But my approach resembled something more recent: The Wire. On David Simon’s masterpiece of a TV series, not all the gang bangers are villains and not all the cops are good guys. In fact sometimes they’re neither. If Steve Carella is the man every other man wants to be, Jimmy McNulty is what happens when they fail. As smart and dedicated as Carella, he lacks political skill and responds to the stress of his job by drinking to dangerous excess and cheating on the women in his life, including his mistress in season 1. Stringer Bell is a shrewd, manipulative criminal not above murder to further his own ends, but you can’t help but rooting for him. Bell is going to college and running Baltimore’s drug operation like a business, right down to branding the dope and holding business meetings with corner boys.

The main difference is the approach of the creators. Simon admits The Wire, along with Homicide: Life on the Streets and Oz, are angry shows about the decline of the American dream. Quite often the criminals depicted (many of whose real-life inspirations appeared on the show) are actually the ones living the dream only to be killed or jailed when someone lower down the food chain takes them out. Like McBain’s bulls, the cops of the Baltimore PD are flawed, but their flaws sometimes consume them. The cheat on their spouses, drink excessively, lie to their coworkers, and openly try to sabotage the brass, many of whom are barely qualified to carry a badge, let alone run a police department. McBain’s crew is world-weary but conscientious.

It’s this blend that went into Holland Bay. I hope you soon get the chance to see what I did with it.

The Wire Gets A New Fan

Duke Sinatra, former sidekick to Cincinnati radio legend Gary Burbank, has discovered The Wire. Like those of us who learned of it before (in my case, straight from George Pelecanos’ mouth at a book signing), Duke is in awe.

He is also confused.  He wonders if every bar in Baltimore has a chain-smoking blonde waiting to have sex with the first drunk reeking of Jameson on the hood of his car.

I explain in the comments to Duke how Jamie brings out a man’s natural man-musk, which blondes find irresistible.  Case in point, I drank Jamie on my first date with Nita.

Activities on the hood of my car are not open to discussion.

And are generally illegal in Hamilton County, where sex is strictly for procreation.

[Pause for hysterical laughter.]

Giddy Up, Glacier

The new novel moves slowly, 25,000 words since September. Usually, that’s my output for a month. This is different. This is a bigger book. Bigger in scope, and likely, bigger in length.

Don’t know what possessed me to do this one the way I’ve been doing it. Fictional setting, feeding finished scenes to a friend, banging away without an outline and only a vague idea of what the end game is.

I have three (or four, really) touchstones driving this book. Hopefully, they drive the series as well. For starters, I take my inspiration from the 87th Precinct. It’s an ensemble piece, though hopefully, I have come up with a first among equals in a disgraced female detective. And like McBain, it’s set in a fictional city.

Second is the combination for Ken Bruen’s Brant series and Stuart MacBride’s MacRae novels. Both are very much the modern descendants of McBain’s 87th Precinct (though MacBride says he’s never read McBain. Can’t tell. He writes like he’s picked up where McBain left off.) Both stories are set in Britain, and the MacRae stories benefit from Scottish law vs. English or American law. So while I’ve learned how to modernize the McBain formula from both Ken and Stuart, I’ve also learned from the stark differences between these series and those set in America.

Third (or fourth if you count Ken and Stuart separately) is The Wire. Is there anyone writing noir, thrillers, or hardboiled crime fic today that doesn’t watch this show? But The Wire is not a television show. It’s a novel written by committee and presented in video. Sure, I can point to it and say, “That’s where I learned I could write morally ambivalent stories.” But what I learned from The Wire is how to pace a sprawling story with lots of characters. I don’t have nearly the huge cast The Wire does. This season, it not only pulled in two of Laura Lippman’s characters, but Laura herself is a character in one episode. David Simon, Ed Burns, and crew juggle a lot of balls, and from their juggling act, I’ve learned a new way to manage chapters.

That’s not to say this book will be the new 87th Precinct or Inspector Brant or DS MacRae. Certainly, it’s not The Wire. But all those have let me aim higher.