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Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons
The D.C. area has a wealth of crime fiction writers. So many, in fact, that about a quarter of the nominees for the 2020 Anthony Awards — a prestigious, international crime and mystery writing award — were from our region, as author E.A. Aymar points out.
So let’s crack the case: Why are there so many crime fiction writers and readers in D.C.? We investigate with three local authors, diving into how D.C. inspires their work. Plus, we talk about how the crime fiction world is handling issues of diversity, and if nationwide calls for police reform could have a lasting impact on the genre.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
- E.A. Aymar Crime fiction writer; Author, "They're Gone"; @EAAymar
- Cheryl Head Crime fiction writer; Author of award-winning "Charlie Mack Motown Mystery" Series; @cheaddc
- George Pelecanos Author of 21 crime fiction books, including "The Man Who Came Uptown"; Producer and writer for the television series "The Wire," "Treme,"and "The Deuce"
SASHA-ANN SIMONSI'm Sasha-Ann Simons, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. If you are familiar with the D.C. area's writing community, you may know that there's a sizeable group of crime fiction writers. So many, in fact, that one-fourth of this year's nominees for the Anthony Awards -- which is an international award given to crime and thriller writers -- it came from our region.
SASHA-ANN SIMONSSo, what is it about this place that attracts literary gumshoes? Let's find out. Joining me to discuss is George Pelecanos. He is the author of 21 crime fiction books, most recently "The Man Who Came Uptown." And he also served as a producer and writer for the television series "The Wire," "Treme" and "The Deuce." Hi, George. Welcome back.
GEORGE PELECANOSHi, how are you? Thank you.
SIMONSGood, good. And Ed Aymar is a crime fiction writer and the author of "They're Gone." Welcome to the program, Ed.
E.A. AYMARThank you so much for having me.
SIMONSAnd Cheryl Head is the author of the award-winning "Charlie Mack Motown Mystery" series. I Cheryl.
CHERYL HEADHi there, Sasha.
SIMONSNow, I'm going to start with you, Ed. You recently wrote an article for the Washington City Paper that looked at the local crime fiction writing scene. And I want you to tell us now about that community, because some people may not be aware. And tell us about your story when you first joined its ranks.
AYMARSure. You know, well, I wanted to write this article because we hear so much about crime fiction from New York and from Los Angeles, internationally, of course, with Scandinavian crime fiction. And there's not a lot of mention, I feel, that's made about the D.C. crime fiction scene and how strong it is, you know, both in its diversity of writers and in its recognition that's seen in awards and, really, through sales. A lot of this success kind of isn't explored, so I wanted to write the article for that.
AYMARI joined the crime fiction community, really, in about 2013. I'd published my first book, and I knew no communities, at that point. I sort of published that book, and thought I was coming down out of a mountain like Moses with commandments, and people would be waiting for it. And they weren't waiting, so I decided to join the...
SIMONSAnd you're, like, oh, well.
AYMAR...a couple -- yeah, right, I joined a couple of local organizations, and realized there was a really strong presence here, and a supportive group, at that.
SIMONSSo, you talk about the strong presence. You know, publishing and writing, those industries can be very competitive. Is there a sense of competitiveness among our local crime fiction writers?
AYMARWe really despise each other. No, that's not it. There is. You know, there's definitely competition, but there's a lot of support, and it surprised me. I really didn't think that I would like writers (laugh) that much.
AYMARYou know, yeah, I did not anticipate that. And I met, you know, a number of people who, philosophically and socially, I just vibed with, you know. They were people I had a lot in common with. And we all had the same goals, and we need each other to succeed. You know, we need books to be popular. We need crime fiction to sell well. And, you know, a book that does well helps all of us.
SIMONSFor sure. Cheryl, you're originally from Detroit, actually, and you moved to D.C. back in the '90s. Why do you think so many crime fiction writers are from here?
HEADWell, I think, like, no other place. And really when you think about it, there's these confluence of factors, power, money and the ego that comes with both of those things. It's a disparate social and class structure that I've seen in the DMV -- that's D.C., Maryland and Virginia -- a diverse international community. I was really excited about that aspect of the city when I moved here.
HEADAnd then the tension between the needs of the federal government and the needs of the people who live here in the neighborhoods. I think all of that really leads to -- makes it really ripe for conflict, and the mayhem that can go with, when you have that much kind of dissention and that kind of range of needs and influences.
SIMONSGeorge, let's bring you into the conversation, because you are one of the best-known crime writers from D.C. You've written 21 books. All of them take place here in the D.C. area. Why do you set your books here?
PELECANOSYou know, Cheryl kind of said it best, more eloquently than I will, but it's just a very interesting place to write about. And there's so much to write about. You know, if you stand on the corner of North Capitol Street and Florida Avenue and look around you, and then you look down and you see the Capitol dome looming over that, that tells a story right there, and you want to find out what's going on.
PELECANOSWhen I started, I didn't know that I was going to make this my life's work. I only wanted to write one book, at the time, but it developed into that. And, you know, I'm just going to keep going, because trying to leave a record of this town. And I think it's a worthwhile enterprise for me, anyway.
SIMONSGeorge, you've also highlighted many D.C.-area writers in your "D.C. Noir" anthologies, and many of these writers haven't received widespread attention. Tell us who some of your favorite D.C. writers are and why you think some of them have been overlooked.
PELECANOSAll right. Well, I'm going to name-check a bunch of people today.
PELECANOSYou know, I just read a really good book by Christopher Chambers called "Scavenger," which really nails Washington in the current environment. And he knows the city well. But this goes back to, you know, the Harlem Renaissance here, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar. And then writers like James Grady, Ross Thomas, Ward Just, Marita Golden, who's been around for a while. She lives in Prince George's County.
PELECANOSAnd then there's also -- there's ex-police that are writing books, Mitch Credle, Quintin Peterson, David Swinson. And you've got people like Kenji Jasper here, who's written many good book and a memoir. And then not to forget Eyone Williams, who wrote "Lorton Legends," which is a real big book, you know, amongst D.C. residents. It was banned in the D.C. Jail, and it still manages to get in there. And he's sort of pioneered street fiction here, and he has lived a life and knows what he's writing about.
PELECANOSAlso, incarcerated individuals who I published in the "D.C. Noir" collection, Lester Irby. And, of course, Roach Brown, who was incarcerated in Lorton for many years and did a lot of great things in the community, was a poet, also. So, there's so many people. And not to forget Ed Jones, who I think is the best writer that's ever come out of this city. Some of his stuff, like his story "A Rich Man," is -- you can call it noir literature in addition to being just great writing.
SIMONSRight. I want to get back to a word that we brought up earlier. I think Ed brought it up, and Cheryl, as well, which is diversity. Cheryl, how diverse is the crime writing industry, from your perspective, as a black woman? What voices are being heard?
HEADOh, a lot more than, say, five years ago, and a huge number more than ten years ago. It's a pretty white landscape, you know. If you walk into the rooms of the conferences that we have, there's a big national conference called Bouchercon. It's a pretty white space, but each year I've gone, and it's been the last three or four years, I've seen more and more people of color and more and more people of difference.
HEADAnd it's a really good thing. It's adding to the energy of the enterprise. I think it adds to the canon in ways that maybe people hadn't expected. I'm a big fan of mysteries and I'm a big fan of the PBS Mysteries, which is another space where it's pretty white and pretty old, you know. But we're introducing some new voices to the genre with a new perspective on what justice looks like, what policing looks like, what protecting and serving looks like. And I think it's really high-quality writing.
HEADYou know, it's not unlike other institutions that are grappling with how to bring in diversity and how to bring in inclusion and embrace it in a way that really makes a difference. And I'm hoping this time, it's not a trend, but a permanent feature of the new look of mystery and crime fiction.
SIMONSWell, Ed, you heard Cheryl mention this being a very white space. It's also a male space. What do you think about diversity in crime fiction?
AYMARYeah, you know, when I first started, you know, I mentioned I joined organizations, and I eventually started working for those organizations. And my goal was -- you know, my thoughts were that it was a very masculine space. And I wanted to do what I could to bring a lot of my friends who were female writers to those events and conferences, where they necessarily didn't feel welcomed.
AYMARAnd it was my grave error that I did not look to other writers of color, you know. And part of that was because there really weren't any at the conference. I mean, there was me and maybe a couple of others, but not a lot. It occurred to me, at one point, that I think I'm everyone's black friend, and I'm not black. You know, I'm half Panamanian, (laugh) but I'm the closest you guys have. So, it, you know, was something that I really should've done. I really should've looked into that, but that trend's changing.
AYMARThere's so many writers out there. A writer out of Richmond, Shawn Cosby, S.A. Cosby, an African-American writer, wrote, you know, one of the best-received books this year, and considered one of the better books this year in "Blacktop Wasteland." There's so many writers out of this area, Sujata Massey, Cheryl, Angie Kim, writers of color who are really being given opportunities now, and they're making the best of those.
SIMONSIf you're just joining us, that's Ed Aymar. He's a crime fiction writer and the author of "They're Gone." Also with us is Cheryl Head. She's the author of the award-winning "Charlie Mack Motown Mystery" series, and George Pelecanos, the author of 21 crime fiction books, most recently "The Man Who Came Uptown."
SIMONSGeorge, a lot of your novels deal with issues of race, as well, because you write about the D.C. area. So, you actually feature many black characters, right, including Derek Strange, who appears in a few of your novels. Tell me where you draw your knowledge and inspiration from when you're writing about people with a different lived experience from your own.
PELECANOSWell, I've lived here all my life in this area, and you have to remember that when I was growing up here, when I was a kid, the city was 70 to 80 percent black. So, if you're going to write about it and you're out there, you need to address that. The only thing that I can really say about it is that I think a writer should respect people when he or she is writing about them.
PELECANOSAnd that's really important, is to remember that everybody has a different voice. There are no types. There's only voices. And once you do that and focus on that, you can find your characters. And so that's what it's been for me, and you have to be unafraid. If you're going to go there, you have to do your job and be unafraid.
SIMONSWell, in your last book, George, "The Man Who Came Uptown," you actually didn't identify the race of any of your characters. Why?
PELECANOSYou know, I got tired of reading books where -- primarily from white writers, where they say something like, and then I met a black man standing on the corner. But if that character's white, they don't say I met a white man. And it made me think, you know, let me try something different, here. And I know it's looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, maybe, but you have to start somewhere. And, you know what? Hardly anybody noticed it. You're one of the first people that brought it up.
SIMONSYeah, it's something I know that it's common in film and TV scripts, as well, right. There'll always be a particular description of, you know, a Native American woman or an Asian woman or a black woman, but it never really notates whether the character's white.
PELECANOSYeah, and that's because whoever's writing it -- and it can be a black writer, too, you know, doing the same thing. They're describing the other, to them. But, like I said, you know, it's a place to start if you can get away from it. And, you know what? People figured it out, in that book. They figured out who was who. There's other ways to do it. So, anyway, I try.
SIMONSYeah, of course. Let's get to a caller, here. Roger's on the line. Hi, Roger.
ROGERGood afternoon. Enjoying the show.
ROGERI read a novel, a D.C. crime novel, recently. The name of it was "Capitol City." And it was a murder mystery about -- it had a Marion Barry-type character. And I'm just wondering if any of your guests have ever heard of this novel. It's called "Capitol City," and it was a murder mystery with a, you know, Washington theme. You know, it was about the Marion Barry-type character. And I was curious if any of your listeners had heard about this.
SIMONSYeah, well, thanks for that, Roger. Great question. Have any of my guests heard of "Capitol City"? How about you, Cheryl?
HEADYeah, I don't think I have. I've read one called "Capitol," I just think it's just "Capitol," written by Catherine Mann, but I don't think it has the Marion Barry character in it.
SIMONSAnyone else, George, Ed?
PELECANOSI haven't heard of it, no.
AYMARNo, me neither.
SIMONSIt definitely sounds like a great one to check out, for sure. We got an email from Greg, as well. It says -- wants a comment from you here. What do you consider D.C. crime fiction?
PELECANOSYou talking to me? Am I on?
SIMONSYeah, you can speak. Well, he's -- let's see here, there's more to his email. He says, are the Margaret Truman mysteries "Murder at the White House," etcetera, are they considered Washington crime fiction? So, he wants to know, you know, what do you consider D.C. crime fiction?
PELECANOSWell, those were around when I started out, and I sort of thought what I was doing was the antithesis of that. They were what they used to call cozies, you know what I mean, in the tradition of Agatha Christy and so on. And, you know, I was going out there -- outside of the political city and outside of the federal city and just trying to write about the lives of Washingtonian, working-class and middle-class people.
PELECANOSSo, you know, I was aware of those books and, I guess, you know, crime fiction's a big umbrella. So, yes, that is crime fiction, but it's a much different type than, I think, most of us are writing that are on this panel, here.
SIMONSHere's an email from Theresa. She says, I love the Charlie Mack series and look forward to Cheryl's D.C. debut. What about other women crime writers, especially women of color and LGBTQ writers? Who would you recommend, Cheryl?
PELECANOSOh, there are a lot of them. I'd start off with Kellye Garrett, who's written a series that started with her debut, "Hollywood Homicide." And Kellye has put together a group of crime writers of color. It's 200 people strong now. And she's a champion of diverse writer Tracy Clark, who has a series in Chicago that seems very much like Sue Grafton protagonist to me.
PELECANOSThere's Naomi Hirahara, who writes "A Japanese Gardener," who's an accidental detective in Los Angeles Alexia Gordon, who writes the "Gethsemane Brown Mystery" series that's more cozy. So, there are lots. Angie Kim, who's local, whose first novel award came to her last year for a book called "Miracle Creek." Some really sound, high-quality women writers of ethnic groups. Let me mention one more.
HEADKristen Lepionka, a lesbian woman, like I am, she writes out of Columbus, Ohio. She has a new series called the "Roxane Weary" series. It is exceptional.
SIMONSWell, one of our guests mentioned Christopher Chambers earlier, and he actually wrote to us. He's the author of "Scavenger." He just sent us an email and said, the Washington novel, the thick, Ludlum-esque political hardcover, was finally killed by Trump's antics. So, what we have is the richer fabric of crime fiction. That's what he said.
SIMONSNow, George, back to our talk about race, I want to pick your brain, here, because following the police killing of George Floyd this summer, there have been lots of calls to defund or reform police. And crime fiction relies heavily on issues of law and order, you know, often featuring a detective as your main character. So, do you think the events of this summer and a shift in perspective about police will change the crime fiction genre, or should it change?
PELECANOSYeah, I think it should change, and you'll see it in all forms of entertainment. Not just literature, but television and films. But, you know, this has been written about for quite a while. I wrote a book in, I guess it was 2000, called "Right as Rain," about a police shooting. And right now, I'm working on a thing for HBO on the Gun Trace Task Force in Baltimore. So, people are -- you know, the books reflect the times, and it's definitely going to -- you're going to see a lot more of these issues brought up in fiction.
SIMONSEd, how do you think calls for police reform will change the crime genre? And will it affect your own writing?
AYMARYou know, I think with crime fiction, there's certainly been a lionization of law enforcement that is a bit tired and outdated. I think it's going to change, and it's changing. I think it's coming from a different area, you know. And I see one of the most successful genres within crime fiction is psychological fiction, or psychological thrillers. That's where, you know, Gillian Flynn resides. Laura Lippman's written some excellent books in that field. And there's a very nuanced approach to the character there that seems to be almost where the novel gets its strength, from character.
AYMARAnd I have a feeling that that is going -- you're going to see this kind of nuanced approach turn to police procedurals and other things. And it's going to -- for issues like racism aren't going to be something that accepted or tolerated anymore. It's going to be viewed more the way that, I think, I personally view it, as a disqualifying factor.
SIMONSCheryl, your thoughts on the role of police and crime fiction and how that might change?
HEADYeah, I think George and Ed are right, that it is changing. And it needs to change more. But I think there is a middle ground between the -- and the tropes of the bungling police officer who can't get it right, and so the PI has to figure out everything. And then, you know, the other side of the spectrum, this kind permanent, heroic figure that we sometimes ascribe to police officers. I think there's lots of middle ground. These are human beings who come with their own set of prejudices and needs and interests.
HEADAnd I think as you see more writers of color writing about justice, you will see a shift in the perspective of how the police and law enforcement in general are treated. My protagonist, Charlie Mack, comes from Homeland Security, and she has opened up a private investigation firm because she had to leave the DHS because she couldn't abide the profiling of Muslims. I think you'll see that kind of perspective more and more in our work as writers of color come to the table.
SIMONSWell, Paul called us, but couldn't stay on the line. He says, in science fiction, you can generally find the author's political ideology through the stories they tell. Is this the same for crime writers? Ed, do you want to take a brief stab at that one?
AYMARI don't think so, not necessarily. I mean, I think there's a lot of interpretation of the author that can happen in theory or in social media. But I'm not sure how true that is. You know, I -- go ahead, sorry.
SIMONSNo, no, go ahead, finish.
AYMAROh, I was just going to say that I think you can glean something from it. I'm not sure whether I would consider that an accurate representation of the person who wrote it.
SIMONSI want to quickly go around, because we're almost out of time. Ed, I'll start with you. Tell us what projects you have in the works. What else can we expect?
AYMAROh, I've been working on short fiction. I have another novel that I'm writing, and I'm just figuring out whether I should set it in 2020 or not. (laugh)
SIMONS(laugh) Yeah, this year. It might be a wash. You might want to set it in 2021. Cheryl, what about you?
HEADI'm writing the sixth Charlie Mack book, and it's looking at who are these knuckleheads that were at the state capitol in Michigan shouting at the police officers there who thought they could kidnap the Michigan governor.
PELECANOSOkay. Well, I have a movie out called "D.C. Noir" that's available for streaming. And we made that in the District. It's four short films based on my short stories. My son directed one of them, Nick. And I'm currently adapting John D. MacDonald's "The Deep Blue Good-by," the first Travis McGee novel for FOX, which has been a dream project of mine since I read the book 40 years ago. And I'm working on that.
SIMONSThat's great. George Pelecanos is the author of 21 crime fiction books, most recently "The Man Who Came Uptown." He also served as a producer and writer for the television series "The Wire," "Treme," and "The Deuce." Ed Aymar is a crime fiction writer and author of "They're Gone." And Cheryl Head is the author of the award-winning "Charlie Mack Motown Mystery" series. Thank you all. This segment on crime fiction writing in the District was produced by Cydney Grannan. And our conversation about keeping safe during the pandemic's winter surge was produced by Julie Depenbrock.
SIMONSNow, Tuesday is our winter reading show, and we want to know, what was the best book that you read this year? Send a voice memo to Kojo@wamu.org, subject line, "Best Books." We're going to play a selection of your responses during the show. Coming up tomorrow on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, what toys and gifts are topping holiday lists this year. I'll give you a hint: chess sets are sold out. It all starts at noon, tomorrow, on The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'll see you then.
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