This book review was originally printed in the Montreal Mirror.
For many fans of HBO’s critically acclaimed series, The Wire, the cultural landscape has been forever altered by its existence. With its novelistic sprawl, deeply human characters, and nuts and bolts realism, the show has played a role in the way that we think about TV, and the degree to which we find it appropriate to hijack an otherwise inclusive dinner party and turn it into a members-only roundtable analysis.
I am one such fan, and since the series’ finale in March 2008, I have experienced what can only be described as withdrawal symptoms. Hoping to lessen the impact, I had resorted to playing “spot the Wire actor” on reruns of Law & Order. But it was only when I stumbled across a book by a novelist involved with the show that I found the means to ease myself into recovery.
Though much of The Wire was penned by creators David Simon and Edward Burns, there were a host of crime writers who lent their manifold talents to the story department. For readers, deciding which one to begin with is as easy as picking a favorite city: Dennis Lehane’s Boston, Richard Price’s New York, or George Pelecanos’ Washington, D.C.
Third in the four-book series known as the D.C. Quartet, The Sweet Forever has a stand-alone plot that requires no background knowledge. Set in the eighties, in an impoverished downtown neighborhood ravaged by the drug trade, the novel revolves around two individuals: a basketball star turned record store owner and his coke-addled business partner, as they attempt to manage the fall-out from the death of a drug-runner. The prose is hard-boiled and evocative. Pelecanos is in equal parts gifted storyteller, urban historian, and cultural anthropologist, making his work both informative and highly entertaining.
Price, whose novel Clockers was adapted by Spike Lee in 1995, set his most recent tale, Lush Life, in the rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side. This is the story of an accidental shooting and its aftermath, but it is also a portrait of a community buckling under the strain of constant change, and the impact this has on the individual. Price has an incredible ear for the language of the street, and a passion for the minutiae of police procedurals. Morally complex, densely layered, and diverse in its perspective, the book so completely captures the experience of the city that you feel like you have been there.
For my money, Lehane is the lesser writer of the three, though in crime fiction circles he is a star. Perhaps it is the fact that his work is less sweeping in scope, and more true to the conventions of the genre, that I find less appealing. That said, Lehane loves his city and has an ear for gritty dialogue and knack for colourful characters that makes him a great companion for a summer day. Many will have seen Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, but his first novel, A Drink Before the War, introduces readers to the private investigators who thread through most of his work.
Wire fans will find a lot to like in these authors, but The Corner, Simon and Burns’ first collaboration is the ultimate fix for the newly jonesing. Set in their beloved Baltimore, this stunning non-fiction account brings its characters to life, putting us at the heart of a community torn apart by drugs and crime. Narrative in structure, it focuses on one family’s struggles while commenting on many broader themes: police corruption, racism, poverty, and the government’s inability to get a handle on the drug war.