Ever since Philip Marlowe walked those mean streets of Los Angeles, crime writers have been among the best chroniclers of American life. There’s hardly a place you can go in the USA, from Washington DC to the deserts of Arizona, where a detective hasn’t made a city or a landscape his own. Whenever I’m traveling anywhere in the USA, I always pack a gumshoe as well as a guidebook.
If you’re heading for Tinsel Town, Raymond Chandler’s books still give you a great sense of the Los Angeles atmosphere, especially if you also read a modern crime writer like Michael Connelly, Joseph Wambaugh or Robert Crais too.
Over on the east coast, New York has inspired writers from Mickey Spillane and Rex Stout, through Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series and Chester Himes’s Harlem novels to today’s writers like Lawrence Block. Block is still producing classic crime novels, and if you’re in New York look for the evocative Chinatown novels of SJ Rozan, which are strangely absent from British bookstores.
Up the east coast, Robert Parker and Dennis Lehane have made Boston all their own, while down the coast you can’t visit Washington DC without reading the brilliant crime novels of George Pelecanos. His work shows the grittier side of the city that exists just a few blocks from the White House.
Further south still, in Florida, there’s an embarrassment of criminal riches – just as there’s an embarrassment of criminal activities. Former crime reporter Carl Hiaasen covers the beat well, from strip clubs and strip malls to gators and gamblers. Florida’s produced some classic private eyes, including Hoke Moseley – Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues should be the second thing you pack, after your passport – and John D MacDonald’s unrivalled series of Travis McGee novels roo. Some readers rate him the best crime creation ever.
America’s vast interior doesn’t escape criminal investigation, and some of its most evocative landscapes have produced some of its finest crime writing. James Lee Burke’s Detective Dave Robicheaux covers both New Orleans and the steamy Louisiana bayous. You can feel the sweat of a southern summer in Burke’s prose, and hear the zydeco music.
In Tony Hillerman’s brilliant series of crime novels it’s the sound of the rattlesnake you need to beware of. When Hillerman passed away in October 2008 there was a genuine grief among his fans, as he was a fine man as well as a fine writer, displaying compassion and an understanding of the Navajo world he wrote about in his books featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Set among the stark and magical desert landscape of the Four Corners region of the South-West USA, where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado meet, they bring the modern American west alive like no other crime books do. A new title, Tony Hillerman’s Landscape, sums up the series with a collection of evocative photographs and a memoir by the author’s daughter, Anne Hillerman.
So when you’re packing for your US travels don’t just pack a guidebook – pack a guy, or a gal, who packs a gun as well. When it comes to travel background, crime definitely pays.