Destination: American crime writers

April 15, 1993|By Gary Dretzka | Gary Dretzka,Chicago Tribune

The concept behind "Into the Badlands," a tasty collection of essays about both travel and crime fiction, is so simple that it will have many readers wondering, "Why didn't I think of that?"

As John Williams, a British journalist, explains in his preface: "I wrote this book because I wanted to go to America. I wrote about crime writers because it is largely [because of] them that I wanted to go to America."

Thus, he packed his bags and ventured forth to see the cities described in his favorite novels and interview their authors. These writers include the cream of the current crime crop and places that any one of us might want to visit: George V. Higgins in Boston, Carl Hiaasen and James Hall in Miami, James Crumley in Montana, Andrew Vachss in New York, James Ellroy and Gar Haywood in Los Angeles, Tony Hillerman in Albuquerque, James Lee Burke in New Orleans and Elmore Leonard in Detroit. Sara Paretsky and Eugene Izzi showed Mr. Williams Chicago.

Hey, who wouldn't want to share a beer and few hours of literary chitchat with even the most prickly of these folks?

Mr. Williams asserts that "Europeans propagate the myth that America has no culture, and Americans tend to believe them." Written for a British audience, "Into the Badlands" is meant to introduce this revealing part of our culture to a whole new group of readers and travelers, "not because [the novelists] portrayed these places as necessarily lovely but because they portrayed them always as alive." Sometimes frighteningly so.

Credit Mr. Williams for resisting the temptation merely to turn on his tape recorder and transcribe conversations. "Into the Badlands" works nicely both as a Baedeker and as a primer on mysteries, American style. For instance:

"Downtown Miami is completely alienating, the center of a place that doesn't have a center, just a financial zone. The bus drops me off in an urban jungle of endless discount hifi stores and shoe shops. After 30 minutes of trying to locate some basic amenities -- a phone, a post office, a record store -- but finding nothing except more shoes and hifi, I give up and try to find a bar . . . I'm getting near hysterical as I ask a newspaper seller where I can find a bar. Simple, he says, and directs me between a couple of stores into what looks like an office block. . . . The bar, La Cucaracha or somesuch, is in the basement and has a miniature lake and an aquarium and a nuit americaine atmosphere. It also has a phone, so I call Carl Hiaasen and he tells me to come on over."

Wish I could do that.

British and American readers alike will find much new here, as they accompany Mr. Williams on jaunts with Mr. Vachss through Times Square and the Bronx; with Mr. Izzi, to the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago; with Mr. Haywood, to pre-riot South Central L.A.; and to Mr. Crumley's favorite Missoula bar, full of "authentic 1960s survivors."

Clearly, Mr. Williams got unusual access to these writers and he was helped along the way by a network of referrals and the generosity of strangers. But, while he made the most of these connections, he also was adventurous enough to hop in a car alone and visit such places as Louisiana's Cajun country and the wilds of Chicago's seedier suburbs. His writing and opinions, always interesting, are often humorous and enlightening, as well.

George Bernard Shaw remarked that England and America are two countries separated by the same language. Mr. Williams has narrowed that gap and introduced a common currency: crime fiction.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Into the Badlands: Travels Through Urban America."

Author: John Williams.

Publisher: HarperCollins.

Length, price: 157 pages, $11 (paperback).

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