Writing the Five: Thrillers Set in NYC—by Borough

Roger A. Canaff's new legal thriller City Dark is out and garnering rave reviews from readers. We're honored to have him on the site today comparing and contrasting New York City's five boroughs from a cri-fi standpoint.

Ecologically, New York City is an estuary; a giant, cleansing filter.

Figuratively it is the same, and I know of no place on earth that can be so described in identical terms as accurate as they are disparate. 

Among the many gifts bestowed by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, there is revolutionary 18th century NYC as Hamilton sees it: the place to go to take one’s shot. Before and after him, almost four hundred years now, New York is a roost of smugglers, entrepreneurs, prostitutes, outcasts, geniuses and con artists. Her wharves are a black water’s edge to reach, as much by those being chased as for those doing the chasing. And all the while the filter churns. Cleans. Erases. 

All five boroughs share important similarities: the brackish tides; the steaming asphalt in summer; the howling winds of winter. Forests of street-lamps, mountains of concrete. But to the extent there are differences, here are brief offerings for each borough, moving north to south, as they relate to thriller stories in my field of vision as a long-time resident and writer:

1) Bronx.

At once magnificent and godforsaken, this lowest point on the New York mainland may offer NYC thriller writers the most in contrast. To the west, on the Hudson River, stirring views atop Fordham granite compliment deep and old wealth. Moving eastward there is generational poverty and decay, although both show stubborn signs of rebirth. Her eastern shores, particularly City Island, have the feel of a New England fishing village. She is a marvelous place; on the northwest and northeast corners are massive parks, “green spaces” long before the term had common meaning. White, black, rich, poor, young, old, nascent and ancient, all collide here.

2) Queens.

The city’s largest borough by land area, containing both major airports, is about cultural and linguistic diversity, now more than ever. More than 138 languages are spoken in this sprawling space. Her beaches and watersides stretch from the East River to the Long Island Sound to the wide open Atlantic. The entire world on a street corner is possible here, from Micronesia to Ireland and all within a subway stop on the 7 line. Thrillers can span the globe from this sprawling, bustling place and never leave Long Island.

3) Manhattan.

Your pulse? You’ll feel it elevate the moment you climb to the street from a subterranean system, which is by far the best way to enter this island. There’s a steely, creosote smell that envelops you and seeps into your mouth, clothes, and soul as you navigate the streets. Most enjoy only a visit, some can’t stand to be there, and some can’t bear to leave. But almost everyone will love a Manhattan murder mystery. Depending on who is defining it, Manhattan is forty or more distinct communities from the Battery to the Cloisters. 

4) Brooklyn.

Brooklyn, like Queens, has it all, but in a slightly more iconic package. While many if not most neighborhoods in Queens are endlessly fluid, quite a few in Brooklyn cling to the past even when the “past” is uncertain and malleable. Three stunning bridges connect her to Manhattan. Miles of wharf, harbor, ferry channels, and beach form her outlines. Brooklyn is about edges. A thriller writer can stab at cultural roots, still closely guarded within Shakespearean borders marked by street signs and playgrounds.

5) Staten Island.

The forgotten sister, she is a surprisingly large island barely separated from New Jersey by an almost creek-width, Dutch-named “kill.” The Verrazano-Narrows bridge, opened in 1964 and joining the island to Brooklyn, created a sturdier bond between her and the rest of the city. Probably her most iconic feature is the thick, heavy, orange ferry—the source of the Vanderbilt wealth—that to this day carries millions back and forth from the hilly bluffs of St. George to Manhattan. There is great heart in Staten Island (and great food). A thriller there can start in a former oyster village and run full-tilt into modern Gotham. 



About City Dark by Roger A. Canaff:

On a steaming night in 1977, New York City is plunged into darkness and two boys, Joe and Robbie, are abandoned by their mother, Lois. Forty years to the day after this unforgivable moment, Joe is a hard-drinking ADA and Lois has resurfaced: Joe wakes from another alcoholic fog to learn she’s been found murdered on a Coney Island beach.

Joe throws himself into his work, struggling to reconcile his memories of Lois with the relative stranger found by the NYPD. And when another murder hits close to home and DNA links Joe to both crimes, he sinks deeper into the abyss. Joe can’t remember a thing. His last hope as the evidence mounts against him is Aideen Bradigan, a brilliant and dogged lawyer from his past.

It will take Aideen’s drive and Joe’s own shrewd legal mind to uncover a potentially terrifying truth―and to shatter the devastating secrets that claw back to that fateful night in the dark.

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  1. Susan Schmitt

    City Dark is my favorite book this year, nothing else comes close. I mentioned it in my book club meeting and everyone wants to read it. 👍👍

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