He is the author of Catching Water in a Net, winner of the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel.
He also wrote the subsequent Jake Diamond novels: Clutching at Straws, Counting to Infinity, and Circling the Runway.
Then came Chasing Charlie Chan, a prequel to the Jake Diamond series and a stand-alone thriller, Gravesend.
Abramo’s latest is Brooklyn Justice.
As Abramo makes clear, defining fictional genres gets messy in a hurry.
All I know is when you pick up Brooklyn Justice, you’ll hear the echoes to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and, well, all good classic detective fiction.
A review follows but, first, a thoughtful online interview:
Question: What’s up with noir? Why do you think it still holds appeal as a genre? Why is it timeless? Or is it?
J.L. Abramo: Let me begin by saying that categorizing—giving a work of fiction a genre designation, is often vague. The label crime fiction, for example, could be used to describe some of the great classics of literature—Crime and Punishment, Les Misérables, Oliver Twist, The Scarlet Letter—to name a few.
Joyce Carol Oates said: “In genre fiction there is an implied contract between writer and reader that justice of a kind will be exacted. Good may not always triumph over evil, but the distinction between the two must be honored.” I agree with the sentiment, but it is so broad it could easily portray The Count of Monte Cristo, Moby Dick and The Bible as genre fiction.
Categorizing is a double-edged sword. Calling something crime fiction can pigeonhole the work and serve to discourage readers with no taste for the genre or attract diehard fans.
Noir takes classification a step further—to what some call sub-genre. Noir’s appeal comes from generations of readers, writers and film goers who were inspired and thrilled by the 1940’s novels of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain and the French film noir work of Jules Dassin, Jean Luc Goddard, Henri-Georges Clouzot and others in the 50’s and 60’s. One of the characteristics of classic noir fiction and film was that it was invariably black and white—and as timeless as the eternal struggle between the darkness and light in humanity.
If I was forced to give my Jake Diamond series or Brooklyn Justice a label—it would probably be better described as classic-inspired detective fiction.
Question: Has the ‘noir’ definition slipped? I’ve been to some ‘noir’ readings where it seemed like a bunch of horror writers trying to out-gross each other. Do you know what I mean? Can ‘noir’ be defined?
J.L. Abramo: Dennis Lehane suggests that noir represents working class tragedy—noir is a genre of men and women unable to roll with the changing times, so the changing times instead roll over them.
I respect the observation—though it also brings to mind works such as The Grapes of Wrath, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Of Human Bondage.
A widely subscribed to rule of noir has long been choose a dame with a past and a hero with no future. Private investigators may or may not be present. Two of the most acclaimed noir novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, both by James M. Cain, do not feature private eyes. And the protagonists in many classic private eye works, from Philip Marlowe to Sam Spade to Mike Hammer, had both flaws and redeeming characteristics.
And then Jim Thompson came along.
The early bad guys, from Conan Doyle’s Moriarty to Cain’s Walter Huff in Double Indemnity, ranged from simply criminal to diabolical—Holmes and Barton Keyes could relate to their adversaries, and therefore so could the reader. In The Killer Inside Me, Thompson created a psychopath. Lou Ford was more than simply evil—he was a monster. To be able to identify with Ford would be a scary proposition. The book was shocking in an unprecedented way. It was more horror fiction than noir. It changed the landscape—and opened the door to crime fiction featuring villains like Michael Slade’s Headhunter and Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector. There are a number of younger writers today who choose the Thompson model over the Cain model in their writing, which would account for the observation you noted in your question.
Question: Okay, the whole notion of “justice.” How do you go about establishing a moral code for your characters? How do you decide when they need to take “matters,” so to speak, into their own hands?
J.L. Abramo: Justice can be a very subjective concept, both in terms of law and in the minds of individuals seeking personal retribution. From King Solomon threatening to cut a baby in half to address a dispute over its true mother to Vito Corleone’s admonition to the undertaker who asks to have the men who assaulted his daughter killed, “That is not justice, your daughter is still alive.” The more personally a violent crime affects a person—the more intimate the survivor is or was to the victim—the less willing that person may be to trust the legal system to exact fitting justice. However, even when a protagonist takes matters into his or her own hands—commensurate justice must be considered if we wish our readers to remain sympathetic to our hero.
Question: Have to ask about Brooklyn cuisine. Except I don’t think they call it cuisine. But there’s a fair amount of food being consumed in Brooklyn Justice. What’s the best thing about Brooklyn food?
J.L. Abramo: Brooklyn is as diverse ethnically as anywhere on earth—so when it comes to food, the variety is limitless. In general, I use food in my work for a number of reasons. As an excuse to bring characters together, as a means of accentuating setting and specific location, to slip in a little history and folklore, and to show that even fictional characters need to eat. I would point those interested in the role food plays in my work to this blog entry here.
Question: There’s a 1940’s vibe through Brooklyn Justice, but there are enough references for us to know that it’s actually a contemporary setting. How did you approach the atmosphere for these stories?
J.L. Abramo: One of the many unique characteristics of Brooklyn is how much it has changed and how much it has stayed the same.
Brooklyn is where there are still Brooklyn Dodger fans nearly sixty years after the team left for California. Brooklyn is where you can take your eight-year-old granddaughter on the same rollercoaster you first rode when you were an eight-year-old. Brooklyn is where the Atlantic Ocean defines summer. Brooklyn is stick ball and slap ball. Brooklyn is evenings on the stoop. Brooklyn is Coney Island, where Nick Ventura does business. Brooklyn is refuge. For these reasons, it is a good setting for the kind of private eye fiction that transcends time.
Question: Favorite noir and/or crime writers, go. And how about a few good ones we’ve never heard of?
J.L. Abramo: Where and when a story takes place, how characters speak to each other, knowledge of subject matter, willingness to make the hard and sometimes unpopular choices—for me these are all important considerations when I write. In that regard I admire and I am inspired by those who do this well. Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos for the authenticity and essential role of their settings, Loren D. Estleman and Donald Westlake for their smart and often humorous dialogue, James Ellroy for his diligent attention to time period, Bob Truluck and Lee Child for their uncompromising moral choices, Scott Turow and Patricia Cornwell for their expertise—to name several.
Question: You were born on Raymond Chandler’s 59th birthday. How did you plan that?
J.L. Abramo: I have to give the credit to my parents for their impeccable timing. I was actually unaware of the shared birthday until reading a short bio of Chandler in a used paperback copy of The High Window I purchased from a street vendor in New York City.
Since I don’t customarily believe in coincidence—I decided it would be intriguing to mention the fact in my own bio. The drawback is that if readers discover the year of Chandler’s birth, and do the math, my own age will no longer be my most well kept secret.
Question: What’s next?
J.L. Abramo: Short stories in three upcoming anthologies—Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns; Mama Tried: Stories Inspired by Outlaw Country Songs, and Coast to Coast: Private Eyes From Sea to Shining Sea.
The follow-up to my thriller Gravesend, once again set in the Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up, is scheduled for release before year’s end.
MORE ABOUT J.L. ABRAMO:
When the first nasty bit of justice is delivered in “Pocket Queens,” the opening novella in this collection of taut crime fiction from J.L. Abramo, it’s quick. And harsh.
Nick Ventura doesn’t like to be lied to. It might be his least favorite “thing.” But he’s relaxed enough to identify the make of chef’s knife before he, well, uses it. Let’s leave it at that.
Nick Ventura’s office is above Totonno’s Pizzeria on Neptune Avenue “two blocks from the beach and the ocean that separates me from a thousand places I had only read about.”
Nick Ventura’s world, in fact, takes place in a tight bubble of gambling, Monte Carlos, .357’s, and the cocktail lounge at the Howard Johnson’s. Men have names like Freddy Fingers, Mario Grillo and Charlie Mungo. Trouble starts right out of the shoot (ahem) in “Pocket Queens” when a “small pop” at a poker table leaves Blinkin’ Lincoln slumped over, “blood spilling out of the back of his head turning his sevens crimson.”
Nick Ventura has a sharp eye—and ear. He likes The Mets. He drinks Cherry Coke with his Sicilian squares and when he wants somethings stronger it’s Johnny Walker Black. Or Red. Or Green. Once entangled, Nick isn’t likely to give up. Nick can take a bullet but, naturally, has his soft spots, too. He’s a reader and quotes lyrics from Jackson Browne.
If the ‘hard-boiled’ concept goes clear back to Gordon Young, then we have nearly a century of writing about cynical tough guys who have seen it all and who are out to save the world. Or, at least, the problem at hand. This style never gets old—and Abramo is right at home. He writes with a cool, crisp vibe.
Nick Ventura is right at home, too. There are ample contemporary references, but there’s a timeless quality to the prose and the dialogue is ready for a screenplay.
“She was dressed for the weather in a little blue number with a small white polka dots that could be politely described as a pinafore and more accurately described as too provocative.”
“North Maine Avenue had not earned a square on the Monopoly Board but it sat in a prime location and I imagined it wouldn’t be long before the four homes between Caspian and Liberty Avenues would be traded for a hotel.”
“I think I could eat a horse if it was scrambled with bacon.”
Moral ambiguity is one hallmark of the traditional hard-boiled gumshoe. Nick Ventura, however, doesn’t fret over all those blurred lines. He knows his rules and he’s very clear on his role, a self-deputized and entirely unofficial member of the forces trying to keep a bit of order to civilization. He’s more prone to hop in his Monte Carlo in search of answers than he is likely to spend time on self-reflection. But when he does, he knows his precise spot in the world:
“I walked down to the waterside to stare out over the Atlantic, sizing myself up—a small man facing a mighty ocean trying to hold my own and live with my own choices. A huge world filled with little people capable of causing monstrous damage or, for too short a time, shining a faint light in the darkness.”
In Brooklyn Justice, six stories in all, Nick Ventura soldiers on—over and over into the “muddy fray.” He knows when to press his luck—and when to walk away, whether or not anyone is keeping score. You may not want to drive what he drives. You may not drink what he drinks. You may not agree, at every turn, with his style of justice. But you’ll be glad to know he’s out there taking care of business.