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October 22, 2008

Hardboiled Brooklyn

Tim McLoughlin probes the seedy, non-organic-eating side of Brooklyn.

Matthew Patin

"Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth." So begins Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. It's a fitting description, crafted at the height of the geometry-exalting art deco era. And as it mirrored that movement, it heralded another: noir. Specifically, the dark, pensive, gritty badasses and antiheroes that came to iconify modern crime fiction. There are few better settings for such stories than equally badass Brooklyn, and Tim McGoughlin knows it.

In 2004, McGoughlin edited and contributed to Brooklyn Noir, an anthology of short crime fiction culled from pros like Pete Hamill and newcomers like bartender Thomas Morrissey, both of whom netted awards for their contributions. (Now in its third volume, the series, still edited by McLoughlin, has gone true crime). Having worked in the criminal-justice system, and, perhaps more saliently, having come from a long dynasty of Brooklynites, McGoughlin brings a knowledgeable perspective to crime stories set in the borough.

Tim McLoughlin. Photo by Renette Zimmerly.
"When my novel was published, my publisher put out that the longest continuous time I've spent outside of Brooklyn was five weeks…I mean, it's Brooklyn, not fucking Des Moines."

Tim McLoughlin. Photo by Renette Zimmerly.

In the anthology's introduction, McGoughlin writes, "The only men I've ever known, other than my father, who are comfortable telling me that they love me, are also men capable of extreme violence." It's an example of code, he says, "the language of inclusion." With Noir, he gives the reader glimpses of this argot, the dark heart of noir, and Brooklyn's fabled history. Gelf spoke with McGoughlin about crime and violence in Brooklyn, why he'll never leave, and why we identify with the moral ambiguity of antiheroes. You can hear McGoughlin, Brooklyn Noir contributor Nicole Blackman, and others speak about Crime in the American City at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker Series event on Thursday, October 23rd, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: Do you still work in the Kings County Supreme Court? Working in a courthouse naturally provides some good inspiration for crime stories. What are some of the strangest cases that have come through there during your tenure?

Tim McLoughlin: I still work in the Criminal Term of Brooklyn Supreme Court, and yes, it's priceless for stories, and for dialogue. A lot of my plots have their genesis in cases I've seen or snippets of conversation overheard in the halls. Some are tragic, some are comic. I work in the cashier's office now, collecting fines, fees, and bails.
A while ago a very conservatively dressed middle-aged woman came in to post bail for her boyfriend. He'd been charged with assault, stemming from a bar fight. I took her money and collected her information. The last thing I asked was her occupation.
"Dominatrix," she said.
"Excuse me?"
"Dominatrix," she repeated.
"I have to log this information for the record," I told her.
She shrugged. "It's what I do."
I wrote it down, finished the paperwork, and gave her a receipt. I explained that she was posting this money to insure the defendant's appearance at all his future court dates, and that if he missed any of them she would forfeit the bail.
"Don't worry," she deadpanned, "I'll keep him on a short leash."

GM: Coming from a long lineage of Brooklynites—six generations, is it?—you obviously have deep roots. Do your family's tales influence your work? Have you, like the protagonist in Pete Hamill's "The Book Signing" in Brooklyn Noir ever fled Brooklyn? Would you ever?

TM: It is six generations Brooklyn, and no, I've never fled. When my novel, Heart of the Old Country, was published in 2001, my publisher included in the press release the information that the longest continuous time I'd spent outside of Brooklyn was five weeks. Although that's true, I've always felt that it sounds more provincial than it really is. I mean, it's Brooklyn, not fucking Des Moines. I could certainly live elsewhere, but it would have to be someplace big, urban, edgy, and always on. London, Paris, Tokyo: that would be fun. But hell, when I go to Boston or Philadelphia, I'm always shocked at what relatively small towns they are and how quickly they roll up the sidewalks.

GM: In your contribution to the anthology When All This Was Bay Ridge, you write, "There were many body parts undoubtedly littering the less frequently traveled parts of the city. Arms, legs, heads, torsos…" That's an interesting image. If Brooklyn's the body, what neighborhoods are its parts? Which are the muscle, the brain, the heart, the teeth? If there's a part that connects them all—a soul, perhaps—what is it?

TM: That's a great question, and if I ran with the metaphor this would be a six-page answer. I'll just say that the soul of Brooklyn is in Coney Island; a place where people go, and have always gone, to dream, to lose themselves, to escape their limitations.

GM: Violent crime has decreased dramatically in Brooklyn and citywide over the last few decades. Do you think that's solely because of the crackdowns enacted by city administrations? If not, what else? If so, is it a fair assumption that without increased enforcement, Brooklyn would be as crime-ridden as ever?

TM: Crime, historically, is cyclical in this town. It's determined, to a large extent, by the economy and by demographics. It fluctuates based on how many 16- to 20-year-olds there are in the population at a given time. That said, I do credit Giuliani with the dramatic drop in crime that coincided with his election. I disagreed with many of his policies, but he really got guns off the streets. Will Brooklyn be crime-ridden again? It's definitely going to get more dangerous. The economy tanking, cuts in services, and Bloomberg paying cops so little that they qualify for food stamps is a recipe for a serious spike in crime.

GM: What do you think it is about crime and mystery that draws readers again and again? What do you think it says about human nature? Why don't we always crave happy endings or tied-up loose ends? Why do we relate to antiheroes?

TM: Some readers do crave happy endings. That's why we have the cozies. I think it's cultural. We're a really new country culturally, and I think it's why we're drawn to the literature of the frontier. Compared to Europe, the paint is barely dry on America. It's why British crime stories are about ferreting out the abnormal behavior and returning society to the norm, where American crime fiction is about one guy in the dark trying to shepherd himself or somebody else through the wilderness to safety. The wilderness used to be mountains and woods. Now it's the Vegas strip or East New York. But readers know that it can't be navigated confidently by someone bound up by rules or laws, and the old seesaw of justice and morality creates the antihero we love.

GM: One doesn't have to look much further than Frank Miller's Sin City to see noir's significant influence on graphic novels. Sure, "neo-noir" typically contains fantastical elements that go well beyond realistic, but classic noir conventions (which themselves differ between critics) are still there. Do you keep up with graphic novels? What do you think their place is in the realm of noir? If you were to curate another edition of Brooklyn Noir, do you think a graphic story could have a home there?

TM: I like graphic novels, but I don't read enough of them. There's so little time for everything I want to read. I love Frank Miller, of course. I also really dug Alan Moore's Top Ten, and I like Fables and Y: The Last Man, from Vertigo. I like a lot of the work from Vertigo. They have a very noir vibe. Gary Phillips's Angeltown was great. If there's another Brooklyn Noir, there will definitely be a graphic story in it. Johnny Temple (Akashic's publisher) and I have kicked around the idea of an entirely illustrated volume, but that's a lot to take on. We'll see.

GM: Is Brooklyn still New York's "punchiest" borough? Crime's down. Violence is down. Gentrification is up. In this changing environment, what does it mean to be "punchy," a word that sounds as much like a term of endearment as it does one of danger?

TM: Is Brooklyn still the punchiest borough? You want to step outside?

Matthew Patin

Matthew Patin is a writer (sometimes) and editor (kind of) in New York City.







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Article by Matthew Patin

Matthew Patin is a writer (sometimes) and editor (kind of) in New York City.

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