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This essay originally appeared in Mystery Readers Journal, summer 2016 issue. Contributors were asked to write about how New York City has inspired their fiction.
If someone is looking for inspiration to write mystery or crime fiction, New York City is a very good place to find it. It’s almost impossible to live in the city and not at some point be the victim of a crime, witness a crime, or hear about a crime that happened to someone you know. Then of course, there is also the daily barrage of news reports about street crime, white collar crime, and let’s not leave out all the juicy political corruption both financial and sexual. To watch the local TV news, listen to the radio, or read a newspaper is to see dozens of potential short stories and novel ideas thrown at your feet every day, like gold dust just waiting to be sifted through. This is the environment I grew up and lived in for much of my life. (Not including time spent in other parts of the country that had so little crime I was astounded by the peace and tranquility that local residents were forced to endure).
I’d like to tell you about the New York inspirations for two of my published mystery stories. The first is called, “You See But You Forget”, which originally appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. The story came about as the result of local news reports about the horrible conditions in buildings in some very poor neighborhoods in New York. Unfortunately, these reports are all too common. There are numerous tenement buildings owned by slumlords that subject their tenants to the most horrible conditions imaginable; chipping paint (sometimes containing lead), leaking pipes, no hot water, insects, rodents and often, in the middle of winter, no heat.
The last one got me thinking. (I do that sometimes). What if someone froze to death in one of those buildings? What if the victim was a much-loved older woman? What if her neighbor is a young man who finds her dead and is heartbroken about it? And what if he’s also angry and decides to, uh, let’s say, do something about it?
Curiously, the title of this story was also taken from a TV news report about another impoverished drug- and crime-infested neighborhood, but here the focus was on the high murder rate. A TV reporter asked a resident if he was a witness to any of these street crimes. The resident smiled then very calmly explained the credo of the neighborhood. In one sentence he recounted the mantra of how the scared and defenseless innocent citizens endured daily assaults, robberies, and murders, yet managed to stay alive, and protect themselves and their families. In a single line, he revealed how one avoided the deadly retaliation that comes to those who talk about what they have witnessed. He stated the chilling code of silence that they all lived with every day. “Yes,” he said to the reporter, “you see, but you forget.”
In sharp contrast, my other story could not be more different in setting and socio-economics. “The Bet,” (which also ran in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine), is about two very wealthy Wall Street businessmen. One is in his early thirties and the other is in his mid-eighties. The story opens in a private club. The room our two main characters are in is a wood paneled one, where men in three-piece suits sit on leather winged back chairs that rest on antique rugs and read newspapers, not on their phones, but the old-fashioned way, on paper. The lighting is subdued, the air is heavy, and if people speak at all, it is in hushed tones. It’s in this world that the two men make a bet involving vast amounts of money and a violent crime.
I have been to a number of these real-life clubs (as a guest of course, so don’t ask me for a loan). I have also met men of this caliber. One such club I’ve visited is the National Arts Club on Grammercy Park. This club overlooks a tiny park surrounded by a tall wrought iron gate. The park is so private that, until recently only a few nearby homeowners and privileged residents were permitted to enter it. To do so required being in possession of a key, of which only 383 copies existed.
What was I doing at the National Arts Club? At one time it was where the local chapter of The Mystery Writers Of America met. I remember the first time I entered that beautiful and historic building many years ago. It was like being transported back in time to the Gilded Age. A place right out of Henry James, with elegant mirrors, marble fireplaces, antique porcelain vases, crystal chandeliers, high ceilings and opulently framed paintings of distinguished club members (a number of whom were former US presidents) dating back over a hundred years. My first thought was, I wonder if anyone has ever been murdered here? Writers, you can’t take them anywhere.
Marc Bilgrey has written numerous mystery and fantasy stories short stories that have been published in anthologies by Ace, DAW, Avon, Simon and Schuster and others. His mystery short stories appear regularly in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. He is the author of two fantasy novels that were originally published by Five Star Books, now available as ebooks from Amazon Kindle. He is currently writing a mystery novel that is set in New York. His website is www.marcbilgrey.com.