As you might (or might not) know, I spent several years of my adult life in Philadelphia before moving to where I live now. At this time of year (just about summertime in the Northern Hemisphere), a lot of people in that area look forward to going ‘down the shore.’ For them, ‘down the shore’ means the Jersey shore.
Of course, New Jersey isn’t all shoreline. It’s a varied sort of state, with large cities, rural areas like the Pine Barrens, suburban developments….and crime. At least, fictionally speaking. Anyone who’s seen the US TV show The Sopranos can tell you that. The New Jersey Mafia certainly figures in the genre (right, fans of Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas?).
But New Jersey-based crime fiction is much more than Mob-related stories. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll think of lots more than I could.
Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is a fugitive recovery agent – a bounty hunter – who lives in the Trenton, New Jersey, area. Of course, fans can tell you that she didn’t start out in that career. Plum married early and was working in a department store as a lingerie buyer. Then, she discovered her husband was being unfaithful. She left him, ended up losing her job, and had to find other work. Her cousin, Vinnie Plum, owns a bail bond agency, and agrees to hire her to do clerical work. But before long, she starts doing fugitive recovery work, and gets her license. It turns out that she’s good at finding people who don’t want to be found.
Chris Grabenstein’s Danny Boyle starts out as a temporary ‘summer cop’ in his hometown, the mostly-tourist town of Sea Haven, New Jersey. Here’s how Boyle describes the place:
‘My hometown is best pictured on one of those perky placemat maps dotted with squiggly cartoons of buildings like The Shore Store, Santa’s Sea Shanty, and King Putt Golf.’
His job is mainly to manage traffic, issue parking tickets, and give directions to lost tourists. But, in Tilt a Whirl, Boyle and his boss, John Ceepak, are drawn into a case of murder when a real estate mogul’s body is found on an amusement park ride. As the series goes on, Boyle joins the regular police force, and he and Ceepak get involved in several different murder investigations.
In David Rosenfelt’s Open and Shut, we are introduced to Paterson, New Jersey, attorney Andy Carpenter. His father is a prominent District Attorney (DA) who leaves Carpenter a large fortune when he suddenly dies. He also leaves Carpenter with a strange request: to take the case of death-row prisoner Willie Miller. At first, Carpenter isn’t sure why his father would want so badly for him to defend Miller. But, before long, he discovers that Miller was framed. And the truth about the case goes to some very high and dangerous political places. Carpenter’s irreverent, and he doesn’t always play by the ‘usual’ rules. But he’s a very smart lawyer, and he finds ways within the law to get his job done.
James W. Fuerst’s Huge, set in the 1980s, is the story of twelve-year-old Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls. Huge lives in a small town in Central New Jersey with his mother and his older sister, Eunice ‘Neecy.’ He’s extremely intelligent, but he has trouble in school, mostly because of his lack of social skills and his anger issues. But he doesn’t care much. Huge wants to be a detective, just like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who defaced the sign at the elder care facility where she lives. Huge takes the case and starts to consider possible suspects. And that runs him up against a local bully, among other people. The case isn’t as simple as Huge thinks it is, though, and he makes several discoveries as he searches for the truth – including some things about himself.
And then there’s Eoin Colfer’s Daniel McEvoy, a former peacekeeping solder who moved from his native Ireland to Cloister, New Jersey. When we meet him, in Plugged, he’s working security at a sleazy bar/casino called Slotz. He gets involved in a case of murder when one of his fellow employees, Connie DeLyne, is found murdered in the street near the club. She was a friend (and, briefly, more than a friend), so McEvoy wants to find out who killed her. That’s not to mention the fact that he doesn’t want to be under the police microscope himself. In Screwed, McEvoy is now the owner of Slotz, and he’s trying to make the place cleaner and more successful. Instead, he ends up tangling with the New Jersey underworld.
While many of Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax novels don’t really take place in New Jersey, she considers it home. In The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, we learn that Mrs. Pollifax is a New Brunswick, New Jersey, widow, living a comfortable suburban routine. She’s a little tired of the Garden Club, though, and her children are grown and on their own. So, she decides to serve her country by joining the CIA. No-one at the agency takes her seriously. In fact, she’s chosen for her first job exactly because she’s about as far from a CIA agent as her handlers think is possible. But Mrs. Pollifax turns out to be much better at espionage than anyone imagined…
See what I mean? New Jersey has more than its share of fictional crime. So, if you do head down the shore, be careful. You never know what might happen…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). Oh, come on, you can’t say you’re surprised I chose Springsteen!