Philly Freedom (2) – Setting as Character

I got to Philly by way of Scotland.

That is, writing about it. I’ve been fascinated by how, indeed whether, a story’s setting can work like a character. Could something happen here that wouldn’t happen somewhere else? What effect does place have on a story? This past year, as I wrote here, I began writing about the place I live.

While working on my fourth novel Bastard Verdict, a political thriller set primarily in Glasgow and Dundee, I found that the details I included to make those cities come alive (Glasgow in particular) kept reminding me of home, of Philly: the contention between old and new; of a splintered city with deep, working class roots (and pride), struggling with its sense of itself, straining against the blanchissage of what had made the city unique.

Glasgow tenements
Society Hill row houses – Phila.

Both Glasgow and Philadelphia are old cities, perennially on-the-rise in some manner, only to slide grindingly backward in some other. Both cities played an outsized role as heralds of- and key players in the Industrial Revolution. Both were once strong in ship building. Kinship, religion, ethnicity and race count for a lot. Multiple generations live with- or around the corner from one another.

Any fan of William McIlvannie’s work (particularly, the Laidlaw mysteries) knows in their bones that while the stories resonate with readers outside of the city, the characters and stories only make sense in relation to Glasgow. McIlvanney’s vivid description of his town – “It was the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat” – sounded and felt a lot like Philadelphia, in a way I’d have never thought of in relation to the Seattle of my youth. Other cities have tough reputations, certainly, but here things are personal.

And it was that sense of the personal set in a unique place which has (re)animated my writing.

Divine intervention

In Philly, there’s a casual, winking corruption and/or indifference to authority, which grapples with WASP-y notions of order and tutting bourgeois sensibilities. It’s as much a legacy (if you want to call it that) of organized crime as it is an understanding, an acknowledgement that people need to get along, and allowances must be made. So yes, if you do your home-remodel on weekends and evenings, you can probably get it done without pulling permits. Who’s to know? And who’d report you? And outside of Center City you can park on the sidewalk, or in the left turn lane along Broad Street. It’s not legal, but again….

How else are youse gonna stay warm?
9th Street Market, Phila.

I don’t want to write about the 70’s and organized crime. I want to write about here and now–the juxtaposition of splendor and squalor, of what it means to leap forward while leaving whole parts of a city stuck behind. And I wonder if some of the people I’ve just deemed as “left behind” would see it that way.

When I briefly worked at the 9th Street/Italian Market here, I had complaints from time to time from newer residents about the trash can fires that the day-stall workers set to keep warm outside in the winter.

“Is that even legal?” they’d ask. “Aren’t those pallets they’re burning treated with something that might be toxic?”

I had zero time for these discussions, and typically I would nod gravely, promise to look into the matter, but know that I would do nothing. I remember one such conversation where I noted that “It would have to be the cops who enforced it, and”–I pointed towards the Market’s beat cop warming his hands over one as he chatted with the stall owner–“I’m afraid he’s the one who’d have to do it.”

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If you want to check out these latest short stories, you can find them here:

Eight O’Clock Sharp” on Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon.
Set in the 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces.

“Ultimatum Games” in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
A rare book heist. The narrator and his partner in crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms.


“Nostalgia” coming May 15 in Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3
An armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless ElectorDark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland.

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the newly elected vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out my Events/About page. And follow this blog!

Philadelphia Freedom!

Missed garbage pickup, South Philly

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s glad to see the back of 2021. Professionally, last year played out like the opening of some noir tale about a small-timer who dreamed of and failed at making his mark…Back list sales languished, the pitches for my fourth thriller met with stony silence, the third act of a comedy play wouldn’t come together. The dismal list goes on.

But in the midst of all this, I started writing short stories again, something I hadn’t done in years. And while two of my three published novels feature South Philly, they’re not set here, aren’t about the place where I live.

All that changed this past year.

Each is set in Philadelphia, and each, while different in tone and detail, confronts the tension between the competing experiences of- and aspirations for the lives of the city.

And some of those stories have found excellent homes:

This past weekend (1/15/2022) “Eight O’Clock Sharp” debuted on Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon.
Later this month, “Ultimatum Games” comes out in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
And in May ’22, “Nostalgia,” will be my contribution to volume 3 of the Low Down Dirty Vote anthology.

#7

In each of the stories above (and one or two that haven’t yet found a home), I wanted the conflict to be not just personal and unique to the characters, but also to represent the lived contention in modern cities, like my Philadelphia.

In “Eight O’Clock,” set in the 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces. In “Ultimatum Games,’ about a rare book heist, the narrator and his partner in crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms. And in “Nostalgia,” an armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

I’ve been thinking more about setting as character, and will be writing about that interplay in future posts.

# # #

James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless ElectorDark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland.

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the newly elected vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out my Events/About page. And follow this blog!

The elusive haggis

Haggis – Chieftain a’ the Puddin’ Race!

Scotland has a number of foodstuffs you’d be hard pressed to find outside of Scotland—proper shortbread, porridge, good butter. And haddock is regarded as a “trash” fish here in the US, so smoked haddock is all-but impossible to get, except at internet specialty sites where it fetches prices per ounce that rival cocaine!

Haggis is another thing altogether.

Our family tried it when we lived in Edinburgh in the ‘seventies, when I was a boy, but we didn’t like it. My mother happened to mention our experience to a neighbor, who immediately asked which butcher my mother had seen. It was the wrong butcher, the neighbor tutted, and we tried it again from the correct butcher. It was good!

My American haggis journey began in 1997, when my wife and I decided to have a proper Burns Supper with friends in Seattle. I scoured the city for the Chieftain of the Puddin’ Race. With no luck. If butchers even knew what it was (and more than half claimed not to), they still didn’t have it. I grew desperate. Remembering that there could be great variation in quality and taste, I worried that I’d just have to settle for whatever I could get, and risk that the friends I was inviting over might get a poorly made one, and dislike haggis from then on.

Hoping for some guidance, I took a chance and called a number in the phone book, “Scottish Connections.”

Robert Burns

Mrs Wilson answered. She had a lovely, lilting Edinburgh accent. I told her I was looking for haggis.

“Weel, dear, yer starting a bit late, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I admitted, “but I’ve been trying for weeks.” Did she know of anywhere I could get it?
“I could let ye have one…but I’m afraid I’ll have to charge you,” she said.
Ah, here it comes, I thought. The soak. “I see. How much were you thinking, Mrs. Wilson?”
“Well,” she began cautiously, “it’ll end up costing you at least five dollars.” She sounded genuinely apologetic, though at this point I’d have paid $20 and still felt like I’d done well. “You could come over now, if you’d like,” she said.
I rushed over, lest someone else beat me to her last one.

On the night, it turned out to be sublime, and very well made. And best of all—illicit!

Because it turns out that wee Mrs. Wilson, well into her pensioner years, had—and not for the first time—smuggled eight or ten haggis across the Canadian border where she’d procured them from a butcher in Burnaby, British Columbia, who made them in the traditional way—“lights” and all. Not all heroes wear capes!

One of the ingredients in a traditional haggis is the sheep’s “lights,” its lungs. The USDA will not allow food for human consumption that contains sheep’s lungs. Which, when you write it out like that, sounds kinda like a good thing.

But the point is that traditional haggis uses it–and has done for centuries. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK are fine with “lights” in their haggis. It’s only our own Dept. of Agriculture that prissily abjures it.

Not Mrs. Wilson

I loved that not only were we getting haggis, but a true one. That it was also smuggled, like whisky from the Highlands, only added to its steamy, earthy savor. I imagined Mrs. Wilson and her husband at the Blaine border crossing sweetly, innocently claiming they had nothing to declare, when in fact the car was sitting low on its springs under the weight of all the bootleg haggis they carried—less Robert Mitchum’s Thunder Road, perhaps, and more a Matlock-era Andy Griffith version.

Wm. McGonagall

On Burns Night, we feasted, we toasted, we read not only from Burns, but from William McGonagall (a friend was from Monifieth, near Dundee, and if Burns was the poet laureate of Scotland, McGonagall was the eedjit laureate of Dundee; a poet so bad that pubs would pay him NOT to read his poetry in their shops).

And we raised a glass to Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, too. We had a grand and a delicious time.

Next up, further tales and travails of the elusive haggis on American shores.

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James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector, Dark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

James McCrone

His work, “Numbers Don’t Lie” recently appeared in the 2020 short-story anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 2, and his short story “Ultimatum Games” will appear in Rock and a Hard Place in issue #7 this fall. His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland.

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the newly elected vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out my Events/About page. And follow this blog!

Strong Characters

I write about politics and institutions a great deal on this blog. I worry that my posts have made it seem that the Faithless Elector books are only political treatises. To be sure they are well researched and offer a chilling, insider take on Washington and our dismayingly enduring democratic deficit.

But they’re thillers.

As thrillers, they’re about characters in action. And a good many readers and reviewers have found the characters compelling and intriguing (see a sampling, below). My protagonist, FBI Agent Imogen Trager is a complex, driven character, a by-the-numbers (if rarely by-the-book) investigator who leads a strong, memorable cast. Taken together, the books weave high stakes, low politics, intricate motives and tense emotions into compelling, fast-paced stories that can be read individually or in order.

Imogen grew out of the first book, Faithless Elector, and during the re-writing/editing process, I realized she was a star. And like a star, she was stealing scenes and making others look bad! I deleted one character, and gave her his lines and discoveries, and switched a few other things around to make her more central. When I came to write the second book, Dark Network, I was excited because it would be wholly her book. In Emergency Powers, all the chickens come home to roost. And the whole cast—Imogen in particular—must confront their choices and their allegiances. (No chickens were actually harmed in the writing of this book 🙂

Here’s some of what reviewers and readers have said about the characters in the Faithless Elector series:

“McCrone’s ability to portray a heroine who makes both good and bad decisions is well-done, providing many action-packed and unexpected moments throughout.” — DIANE DONOVAN, Sr. Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

“Three tough female characters that steal the show: FBI agents Vega, Sartain, and Trager…shoulder much of the burden in this novel and deserve a large credit for why it succeeds.” -T. LIEBERMAN, Independent Book Review

Imogen Trager “wrangles with her demotion from golden girl to the FBI’s problem child while still trying to uncover the truth…It beautifully combines the bureaucracy of a spy thriller with the tantalising chase that’s usually seen in detective novels. -HANNAH STEVENSON, Dorset Book Detective

“A dynamic mix of political intrigue and high-stakes personal drama, offering keen portraits of true patriotism—its weight, its costs, and the courage that drives it.
ART TAYLOR, Edgar Award-winning author of The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74

“Couldn’t put it down. The tension just builds and builds. The book just sucked me in….and now I’m looking forward to the next!” radiostax (Amazon)

“Wonderful characters! But the key to the book is Imogen Trager – a dedicated FBI agent who’s willing to risk whatever it takes to save the country. You’ll love her. Highly recommended!” R. G. Belsky (Amazon)

Links to all the books are available in the bio below.

You can catch me online this Sunday, Aug. 1 at 3pm in conversation with Matty Dalrymple and Lisa Regan, hosted by the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop;

AND I’ll be in New York City on Wednesday, Aug. 4, at KGB Bar (85 E 4th St) IN-PERSON and online for the MWA Reading Series, beginning at 7pm.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out my Events/About page.

# # #

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless Elector , Dark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His work, “Numbers Don’t Lie” also recently appeared in the 2020 short-story anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 2, and his short story “Ultimatum Games” will appear in Rock and a Hard Place in issue #7 this fall. His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland.


A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the newly elected vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.