I just reread a book that I first encountered some 20 years ago, Don Winslow’s A Cool Breeze on the Underground (1991). Winslow has established himself as an entertaining, edgy writer of crime and mystery novels, and this was his very first.
The protagonist is a young private detective named Neal Carey. Early in the book, we learn how Neal’s hardscrabble upbringing during the 60s and early 70s New York City led him to become part of a secretive detective agency that achieves difficult results for high powered clients. Although not expressly stated in the novel, the primary story is set in the summer of 1976, and there’s a connection to that year’s Presidential campaign.
I found Neal to be an endearing character when I read the book 20 years ago, and I felt even more so this time around. In addition to becoming a savvy P.I. at a young age, he’s a scholar in the making, enrolled in an English literature graduate program at Columbia University. Some of the implausibilities of this scenario are overcome by the charming way it fits into the main plot, which eventually takes him to London.
I love the book’s uses of New York and London. The more familiar the reader is with these cities, the more vivid the story becomes, whether it’s grabbing a burger at the legendary Burger Joint in Manhattan, or navigating the labyrinths of London’s Underground subway system.
Winslow’s references to specific places send me off on my own journeys in those cities, today with more nostalgia than my during first reading. For example, one scene puts Neal at London’s Embankment along the River Thames:
Neal paid the cabbie and started across the pedestrian walkway on the bridge. The view up and down the Thames was one of his favorites. It might be the best spot to see London, he thought, and he stopped about halfway across to take it in.
This vista includes “a postcard view” of “Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament,” as well as the “stretched Victoria Embankment.”
I have to put the book down to drink in this passage. That’s my own favorite view of London, and I’ve made a point of crossing that footbridge during every one of my visits there!
For me, therein lies the appeal of so many crime novels, espionage thrillers, and mysteries: They take me back to places I know and enjoy, sometimes even prompting me see them in a different way, with scenes woven into plots full of suspense and intrigue.
In fact, the right location can lift a so-so plot for me. If a story is set in a place I don’t know, it better be a compelling tale to keep my attention!
In the U.S., New York is my favorite setting for mystery and suspense tales. Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, Hawaii, and Washington D.C. also appear on my list. When it comes to international intrigue, give me London, Cambridge and Oxford, Paris, and major cities in Austria and Germany, the latter especially if we’re talking about historical stories.
When it comes to fiction, I confess that I’m not a devotee of serious literature. Rather, this is my favorite genre, and when good stories are placed in cities I’ve come to know and love, it’s an added treat.