My Other Writing

Nina Darnton’s “The Perfect Mother”

Here is a quick Q&A I did with Nina Darnton, whose novel The Perfect Mother launches November 29. If you liked Defending Jacob…

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Boston’s Wonderful/Terrible City Hall

Boston City Hall

Ask a Bostonian to name the ugliest building in the city, and nine out of ten will say “City Hall.” (The tenth will say something rude to you. If he does neither of these things, he is no Bostonian.) But architects love the building as much as everyone else hates it, and in this case the architects are right: City Hall is a treasure. It is one of the very few truly significant and daring buildings this conservative city has from the entire twentieth century.

What City Hall needs is not tearing down, as the mayor has suggested, but fixing up. It is badly maintained, badly lit, badly furnished. Worst of all, it is surrounded by a barren, windswept, forbidding plaza that is an unqualified disaster.

But reimagine City Hall Plaza as a green space thick with trees and walking paths, a mini Central Park or Arboretum. Or reimagine it as a bustling open market. Reimagine the plaza, basically, as anything other than what it is, so long as it is warm and alive, with City Hall rising up out of it like a stone outcropping of the hillside it’s built on. Not cold and “brutalist” but geometric and permeable and funky — and unabashedly modern. Add shops and cafes to bring people inside, especially in winter. Open the roof as a public space overlooking Faneuil Hall. Imagine City Hall crawling with people like an ant hill or a coral reef or a playground structure! It would be worth any dozen of the forgettable glass boxes or tubes we’ve put up here in the last century.

ArchitectureBoston magazine — itself a little-known treasure of the city — devoted an issue to reimagining City Hall in 2007. Editor Elizabeth Padjen invited me to chip in with a non-architect’s impressions of the building. You can read my piece here (PDF) and the whole issue here [update: link no longer available]. I highly recommend the magazine. The architects’ visions for a renewed City Hall [update: link no linger available] may change your mind about this despised but important building whose failure leaves a hole at the very navel of our city.

(I am in the process of gathering up some of the scattered pieces I’ve written over the years and linking to them here on this blog. That way the good people at the Library of America won’t have to hunt around for my collected works when the time comes. I’ll link to them all using the tag Other Writing.)

Photo credit: “Upsidedown Ziggurat” (licensed under Creative Commons).

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Ten Views of the Combat Zone

Esquire napkin story

Since it looks like this blog is going to be a permanent thing, I’m going to try to gather up some of my other writing here. I don’t do a lot of writing outside my novels, and what I do is mostly for book publicity. But some of it is worth a second look, I hope.

Ten Views of the Combat Zone (Boston, 1976)” is a short short story I wrote in 2007 for Esquire magazine’s “napkin fiction project,” which challenged writers to compose a story so short it could fit, hand-written, on a cocktail napkin. The napkins themselves were as interesting as some of the stories (mine is above).

I’ve been fascinated by the Combat Zone, Boston’s notorious old red-light district, for a long time now. I hope to write a novel about is someday soon. I pitched the idea once to my editor, Kate Miciak, as a follow-up to The Strangler. It seemed natural enough to follow a story of Boston’s 1960s crime scene with one set in the epicenter of the city’s 1970s crimeworld, the Combat Zone. Kate didn’t buy it. But we novelists are stubborn as mules when we think we’re onto something good. I’ll try again.

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The Definitive Boston Crime Novel: “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”

Yesterday I wrote about the film version of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which I think is the best movie ever made about Boston. Today, over at the Rap Sheet, my review/appreciation of the George V. Higgins novel is up, part of the Rap Sheet’s “Book You Have to Read” series highlighting forgotten classics. Here is a clip:

Elmore Leonard, in his introduction to the Holt paperback edition, recalls reading The Friends of Eddie Coyle when it first came out. “I finished the book in one sitting and felt as if I’d been set free. So this was how you do it. … To me it was a revelation.” Leonard has called it “the best crime novel ever written.”

Eddie Coyle was a revelation to me, as well. I was a young assistant D.A. when I first read it, another Boston College Law grad with literary aspirations. I worked in Cambridge then, across the river from Higgins’ old office. I had never read the book. I was only eight when it came out, and later I was never much of a crime-novel fan anyway. But when I hit the first page, I had the same reaction Leonard did: so this is how you do it.

Read the rest here. Of course calling any book or movie the best of its type is a good way to start an argument, but I did it yesterday so why stop now? The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the best crime novel I’ve ever read.