How much should this bother me?
I’m reading Walter Mosley’s The Long Fall. It’s the first in his new series of detective novels featuring Leonid McGill. I hope Mosley’s not done with Easy Rawlins, but he seems to have put Rawlins aside for now to focus on McGill. McGill is not Easy or easy, not in mind, body, or spirit. He’s a tense, angry, unhappy man who isn’t at his ease anywhere, but especially not on airplanes. So why, then, does he fly from his home turf, New York City, to Albany, New York?
McGill says he’s made tips to Albany fairly regularly. Then he should know that flying is the least efficient way to travel from the City to the state capital. Albany is about 150 miles up the Thruway. You can drive it in a little over two hours. Even if you can book a flight from LaGuardia in the morning that’s leaving in the afternoon, which is what McGill does, the time you have to wait, the time spent getting to the airport, picking up your boarding pass, getting on the plane, waiting for the plane to take off, in the air---McGill has to take what he calls a “puddle jumper” that takes eighty-two minutes to fly from LaGuardia---waiting to disembark, and getting your rental car and then driving from the airport into downtown Albany can easily add up to more than the time it would take to just drive there. Maybe McGill doesn’t own a car. But wouldn’t it be a fairly simple matter for him to rent one?
It’s be even simpler to take the train.
McGill, by the way, isn’t rich, a client isn’t paying his fare, and yet he not only buys a ticket for an airplane, he calls for a limo to take him to airport. Amtrak wouldn’t just be more convenient, it would be a whole lot cheaper.
It makes no sense for McGill to fly and as far as I can tell the only reason he does is so that Mosley can describe how uncomfortable he is aboard the plane.
That bugs me.
But there’s more to it.
When McGill drives into Albany in his rented SUV, he doesn’t notice or note for us that he notices the defining feature of downtown Albany.
Albany’s the state capital, but McGill cruises through downtown without mentioning the hundreds of state workers who pretty much make up the whole of the population during the day or noting that that part of town is set up pretty much exclusively to serve them. Plot requirements and the conventions of the genre send McGill into a seedy part of down and to a bar where he gets into a fight, but you’d think for purposes of verisimilitude, Mosley would have at least given a passing nod to the fact that Albany is more than an airport and one seedy bar and that to get from the airport to that seedy bar he had to drive past a lot of other bars, restaurants, shops, and offices that weren’t seedy. Just the opposite, as a matter of fact.
By the way, it’s a redneck bar and a patron picks the fight with McGill because McGill’s black. It’s not that Albany doesn’t have its share of racists or that I doubt that they have their own watering holes or that, although I think it’s unlikely, I don’t believe a white patron would just up and start a fight with a black stranger who accidentally wandered in. It’s that A.) the fight serves no purpose and the only reason Mosley put it in was that he realized he’d gotten pretty far into his story without anything violent happening to McGill and B.) the bar as Mosley describes it could be anywhere in the United States. There’s no reason for Mosley to have sent McGill to Albany for that scene, as opposed to Schenectady, Syracuse, Rochester, or Buffalo, or, for that matter, Chicago, Topeka, Denver, or Walla-Walla, Washington, not to mention Brooklyn, the Bronx, or Queens, or, to take it even further, Floral Park, Flushing, or Far Rockaway.
Mosley doesn’t make use of Albany as a place, just as someplace else and this makes me feel like he’s not really trying.
Oh, and there’s this. McGill/Mosley says the seedy bar is on the north side of town where the businesses are being “crushed by mall culture.” Albany doesn’t have much of a north side. It’s mainly laid out east to west, fanning outward from the Hudson River. You don’t have to go very many blocks north from downtown before you’re not in Albany anymore, you’re in a rundown factory town called Menands and for all intents and purposes the part of Albany that can be called its north side is part of Menands and it used to be a lot like it, a working class residential neighborhood. People lived there because that’s where their jobs were. It went down hill long before the rise of “mall culture” and its slide was due to factories in the area shutting down. Whatever businesses that are there now are either ones that are benefiting from the spill of the growing prosperity downtown or ones that are serving the needs of what’s left of the old neighborhood that forty years of “mall culture” haven’t been able to meet.
Not only do I not buy that McGill’s in Albany, I don’t believe Mosley’s ever been there himself. As far as I’m concerned, this is fatal weakness. One of the pleasures of detective novels is the way the writer uses a realistic setting to make the action seem realistic too.
Big deal, right? I should put the book aside and move onto something else. My problem is that reason I’m reading The Long Fall and had planned to move onto the next book in the series, Known to Evil, is I was going to review the newest one, When the Thrill Is Gone is Gone. I was looking forward to it, in fact. I’m a big fan of the Easy Rawlins books so I had high hopes for McGill.
Has anybody read The Long Fall or either of the other two? Am I wrong? Should I keep going?
Another question for you. What detective novelists do you think are really good when it comes to describing a real place?
Just want to make it clear, it’s not that Albany doesn’t do seedy. My complaint is that the seediness Mosley describes is generic not specific to Albany. I took this picture back in March when we were up there for the art show that included a painting by Young Ken Mannion. Pretty seedy neighborhood, huh? But it’s not on the “north side.” It’s downtown, tucked up right against the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Plaza, but hidden by a parking garage and the Times Union Center sports arena. If McGill had found his way here, then I would have been ready to believe anything Mosley wanted to tell me about Albany.