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,, 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!

Landscape as character

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 11.21.11 AMRecently (May 2, 2019), CrimeReads did a fine piece on The Importance of Setting, but its focus was on whether it made sense to choose a real place or to invent one.

It’s an interesting read (and of course it added to my TBR pile!), but I’m fascinated with stories that use their settings almost as characters in their own right. Why did the story happen in one place and not another? Could the same story be told in a different locale? Why is this place different from any other?

Some of the most recent novels I’ve read–Buzz Killer by Tom Straw; Below the Fold by R. G. Belksy, Hipster Death Rattle by Richie Narvaez; Record Scratch by J.J. Hensley and August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones–all use the landscape of their chosen city very well.  For Tom Straw and R. G. Belsky, it’s New York City; for Narvaez it’s Brooklyn (Williamsburg); for JJ Hensley, it’s Pittsburgh; and for Stephen Mack Jones, Detroit. 

MultiBookI’m drawn to their subtly (and not-so subtly) expressed exasperation with how cities are changing. Since people started gathering in them, they’ve been a place of excitement, diversity and exchange, teeming with stories, with filth, and above all, a mixing of people. The writers listed above struggle with where we’re heading, and their protagonists and stories reflect that uneasiness.

Change has always been a constant, but this time feels different, they seem to say. In Buzz Killer, Macie Wild struggles with the notion that New York has become “a tale of three cities,” with little or no connection to one another; Belsky’s Clare Carlson struggles to synchronize a former New York’s giddy sense of possibility with what we see now.  JJ Hensley’s Pittsburgh and Stephen Mack Jones’s Detroit are wistfully rendered, detailing and juxtaposing what was…with what is. (My only quibble with Hensley is that when casting about for really violent, dangerous thugs, his Yinzers import a group of–of course!–Philadelphians, as clearly among the worst. C’mon! Cleveland’s closer. They don’t have head-breakers?)

I liked that Hipster Death Rattle focused on Williamsburg, and the fraught changes happening there. It put me in mind of where I live. When people ask where I live, I say South Philly, because I don’t want there to be any doubt about what I mean. It’s distinct from the suburbs (obviously) and from Center City, the Northeast or, say Fishtown. It’s changing, too, but it’s still a mix of people (mostly) getting loudly along. Stoop culture still prevails and a dense web of family and extended family live throughout the neighborhood, just around the corner, up the block; and that family life is still largely enacted in public.

This isn’t where I come from, but it’s where I’ve chosen to be. So far, I haven’t written anything that’s set mainly here in Philly, though parts of both Faithless Elector and Dark Network take place on Catharine Street. But, like the authors and their work I’ve discussed above, I feel that there’s something coming.

Invent a place or work with what you’ve got? There’s freedom in making it all your own, certainly. But there’s more source material in a real place.


NOTE: I’ve begun posting reviews of the books I’ve read, and they can be accessed here. I also post them on Amazon, Goodreads and BookBub.


James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager NoirPolitik thrillers Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.



If you live in Philadelphia, pick up copies at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out: