Mysteries are a Great Way of Getting to Know a City


Boston. Photo by Rob Bruce


Exploring the city of Boston, I have enlisted the help of a private eye. A six-foot-one ass-kicking redhead who moonlights as a part-time cabbie and roams the city night and day, rooting out the corruption which constantly reappears, always in a different form.


Among other things, she has tracked down Mafia gangsters through their roots in the North End; blackmailers escaping by kayak at night on the Charles River;  and the killers of illegal immigrants found in the Boston fens. Seeing the city through her eyes has helped to give me a feel for its changing face and its rough edges, the parts the tourist guides don’t highlight.


Carlotta Carlyle is the creation of novelist Linda Barnes and she is very much in the mold of two of my favourite fictional PIs, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. LIke them, Carlyle leads a life more or less unencumbered by domestic drudgery. She doesn’t shop, cook or fuss over her family. Lunch, if not eaten in Chinatown with her cop friend, is more than likely peanut butter spooned straight from the jar while she mulls over the latest mystery.


Barnes herself has more sophisticated tastes, as I discovered when we met at the Eastern Standard, a brasserie in Kenmore Square. We both ordered Barnes’ recommendation of mussels Provencale and mine, a glass of Macon.


“I chose this place because it’s near one of Roz’s old haunts,” Barnes said, referring to Carlotta’s sexpot lodger and part-time assistant. “It used to be a place for loud punk bands. It’s pretty tame now,” she added.


Barnes, who at 5 ft 11 is just short of Carlotta’s imposing height, and has dark brown rather than red hair, arrived in Boston from Detroit in 1967, having overcome her mother’s opposition to the move by secretly attending an audition and obtaining a scholarship to study theatre at Boston University. Her first lodgings were in Kenmore Square and she met her husband at a party there.


“When I arrived at our dormitory I was told that the Boston Strangler who was active at the time had struck just across the street. My mother said, get back in the car. But I thought, I’m tall and I’m from Detroit. There is nothing here that is going to scare me.”


Boston was cheap in those days. “I lived in Kenmore Square, I lived in Cambridge, I rented an apartment off Harvard Square for $85 a month. It was a dive, but nowadays it would be thousands a month.”


One of the ways the city has changed has been in the soaring cost of living, and the costs of being a student. “Every year we get an influx of the best the and the brightest from all over the world. Some of them fall in love with the city, as I did, and want to stay. I hope they find a way to do that and that we continue to be welcoming to people from all over the world.”


Barnes and her family moved a little out of the centre for her son to attend high school. But she didn’t want to go too far. “I’m very urban. I get frightened out in the country. I like city streets and people.”


She always comes into the city to check out the neighbourhoods that will feature as backdrops to her stories. “I might begin with Google maps and street view but I want to smell the air and see the people. I love to hear the voices of the people around me. I don’t think there is any substitute for that.”


When searching for dialogue she gets on the T and zones into conversations. “I ride around the city listening to people.”


Boston is increasingly multilingual. “When I came here everyone was speaking in English, now it’s a different city. I hear people speaking 40 different languages. That has added to the vitality.”


She describes Boston as a city of small enclaves, each with their own unique character.

“We just had Allston-Brighton Christmas. That’s when, on the 31st of August, the students move out of their apartments and leave their furniture in the street – that’s ugly old furniture, broken furniture, sometimes new furniture, and people come from other parts of town with their U Hauls and pick it up. I have been in apartments that were totally furnished with this stuff.”


In the North End: “The Italians coexist with the students and the tourists, they sort of bring everyone together.”


One of Barnes’ books. “The Big Dig”, is set amid the massive infrastructure project which removed and buried an elevated highway which once cut off the north side of the city. Here’s an excerpt: “I knew that depressing the Central Artery was the notion of a young MIT-trained engineer, Fred Salvucci, who later became Governor Dukakis’s transportation secretary; that it was his dream and some said his revenge for his grandmother’s Brighton home, bulldozed almost forty years ago because it lay in the path of Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman William Callahan’s ill-planned Turnpike extension. I knew that Salvucci’s idea had been initially derided, that then state-rep Barney Frank had reputedly said it would be cheaper to elevate the entire city than sink the artery. I knew driving through and around the dig. I knew confusing signs and miles of blue-and-yellow barriers. I knew endless delays and complex detours. I knew the sound of travellers, cabbing into the city from Logan Airport, catching their breath at the mouth of the Ted Williams Tunnel, gasping at the forest of giant cranes that loomed over the South Bay.”

For someone arriving in Boston now, the highway is hard to imagine, memorialised only by part of a riveted girder which remains in place. “It was an unbreachable barrier. You wouldn’t wander into the North End. No one went there unless they lived there and the only people who lived there were the children of the Italian immigrants.”


This elevated highway was a remnant of 1950s development, when the populous West End was decimated. “They used perjorative terms to describe the housing, like slum and destroyed it. They tried to do the same thing in Jamaica Plain but people protested, they waved placards and stood in front of the machines and they were not successful there.”


Since the 2007 conclusion of the “Big Dig” which has replaced the ribbon of highway with parks and fountains, Boston “has become much more of a walking and cycling city. I can park in Cambridge and walk to the North End. My husband and I walk into town for pasta and walk back to burn off the calories.”


Boston is a multi-layered city: “You can start with the Revolutionary War, you can start with the pilgrims, there is the battle of Boston Harbour of 1812. There is so much history here.”


One of the unchanging features of the city in every era is the constant problem of corruption. “It’s a city of dreams, it’s a city of ideals and at the same time there is always someone somewhere milking the system and they are always milking it in a different way.”


Carlotta Carlyle will never run out of wrongs to right. But for the moment, she is on the back burner. Certain things in the stories present particular challenges. In these days of Uber , there is the issue of the cab company that is a central feature of the narratives and its overweight, wheelchair-bound manager, Gloria. “All these characters exist in my head. I worry about what Gloria is doing now, how is she managing. She’s smart, I’m sure she will find a way.” But Barnes feels sorry for the Boston cabbies who bought medallions for upwards of a million dollars. “It was a dream for a lot of people.”


Terrorism too has brought challenges: 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing. Barnes spent a year writing a book about someone who brought down a plane with the aim of killing one person onboard. “I never finished it. I just didn’t want to go there.”


There are contemporary issues Barnes would like to address. It would be interesting to see for instance how her fictional Boston cops react to wearing cameras on their uniforms. “I’m proud of the police here. They haven’t volunteered to wear cameras, but I think they will wear them. Most of them are interested in working for the communities they police. I really think that’s true. It’s a tough job and wearing the cameras will be a challenge, but people have to have their rights protected.”


While a new Carlotta mystery is brewing, Barnes is trialling a new detective, an ex-US army vet and dog handler called Drew Casey. “I don’t know where she came from. I don’t have any military background; I don’t own a dog.” The first story involving Casey appears later this month in the 75th Anniversary Issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It is called: “The Way They Do It In Boston.”

Barnes also enjoys reading mysteries, set in Boston and elsewhere. “If I’m gong to a new city, I always read the mystery writers. It’s a great way of getting to know a city. “


Tags from the story
, ,