Criminal Minds

Robert Parker is gone. Who is the next face of Boston crime fiction?

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / February 23, 2010

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Robert B. Parker had been the face of Boston crime fiction for nearly four decades when he died on Jan. 18. There is no replacing a writer who built a larger-than-life persona and cut a unique swath with his best-selling Spenser novels. But who are the new faces to watch? Who stands poised to possibly follow in Parker’s footsteps and make their mark with hard-boiled protagonists and gritty stories drawn from the streets of our fair city? Here are a few likely suspects:


Dave Zeltserman worked for 25 years as a software engineer at companies like Digital and Lucent before he got his big break as a writer of crime fiction. And it happened just in the nick of time, because Zeltserman was prepared to abandon his dream of being a novelist.

So excuse him if he seems like a man in a hurry - he wrote last year’s “Pariah’’ in six weeks - rather than pausing to savor his success.

Zeltserman broke through two years ago with “Small Crimes’’ and quickly followed it up with “Pariah’’ and his new novel, “Killer,’’ out in the United States in May (Serpent’s Tail has published all three). Before that, while he managed to get a couple of books published, he had to weather constant rebuffs from publishers who told him his work was too dark. “I was about to quit writing for good, because I was frustrated as hell,’’ says Zeltserman, 50, of Needham.

Kudos are flowing his way these days. The Washington Post compared Zeltserman to pulp-master James M. Cain, author of such classics as “Double Indemnity.’’ National Public Radio chose “Small Crimes,’’ which revolves around a corrupt ex-cop in Vermont released after serving time in prison for stabbing a district attorney, as one of the top five crime and mystery novels of 2008, calling it “a thing of sordid beauty.’’ Globe reviewer Ed Siegel lauded “Pariah,’’ one of whose characters is a Whitey Bulger-like mobster, as “darkly enjoyable,’’ adding that Zeltserman’s “smooth, lively writing’’ makes him “a fine addition to the local literary scene.’’

You ain’t seen nothing yet, according to Zeltserman: “I have a bunch of books coming out that are actually better than the books that are being published.’’

Zeltserman’s “Killer’’ is based loosely, the author says, on notorious Boston hit man John Martorano.

Though his reputation is for writing rough stuff about tough guys, don’t assume Zeltserman is either. “I’m not a gritty type of guy,’’ he says. “Writers are not necessarily what they write.’’


Raffi Yessayan draws from a much deeper well of personal experience than most writers of crime fiction.

From 1995 to 2006, Yessayan worked in the Suffolk district attorney’s office, and for the last four years of that stint he was the chief prosecutor in charge of the gang unit. He has worked with a lot of police detectives, seen a lot of crime scenes, and spent a lot of time in court.

To his wife, Candice Rowe, crime fiction seemed like a natural step for Yessayan, 41, of Avon. “I used to come home with my stories from court, and she and her writers’ group used to say: ‘You should write something,’ ’’ Yessayan recalls.

Eventually he did. The result was his 2008 debut novel, “8 in the Box’’ (Ballantine paperback, out next month), which featured an assistant district attorney who responds to a crime scene in Roslindale along with a police homicide unit and finds a bathtub filled with blood but no body. Parker called it “a powerful story gracefully told by one who knows.’’ The title comes from prosecutorial slang for district court juries. “We used to say ‘Let’s put eight in the box, swear them in, and give [the defendant] his day in court,’’ says Yessayan, who now has his own law practice.

“I’m able to give you what it’s really like for police and DA’s trying to catch a killer,’’ he says. “There’s no clairvoyant detective that just comes up with things, like ‘The Mentalist.’ My guys are out there doing real, hard police work.’’

Shortly after “8 in the Box’’ came out, Yessayan bumped into a defense lawyer in Brockton who needled him about its title, then joked, “2 in the hat!’’ (mob slang for a rub-out). And just like that, Yessayan had a title for his second novel, which is also set in Boston and which will be published in April, also by Ballantine.

“It’s hard not to want to make Boston a character,’’ he says. “I don’t think you ever run out of things to write about in Boston. There’s just so much to tell about the city.’’


When Margaret McLean was a prosecutor trying cases in Lawrence, she recalls, “I’d sit in the courtroom and I’d look around at all the different characters, and I’d think, boy, there’s a book here.’’

Then she would return to her home in Charlestown, look around at the colorful characters in the neighborhood, and think the same thing.

The result was her debut novel, “Under Oath’’ (Hot House Press, 2004), a legal thriller that blended aspects of the criminal cases she prosecuted in Lawrence and the infamous “code of silence’’ regarding criminal activity that once prevailed in parts of Charlestown.

Now McLean, 43, of Norwell, is putting the finishing touches on her second novel, a courtroom drama with elements of arson, murder, and a few ripped-from-the-headlines components such as a subprime mortgage crisis and a governor who is trying to get a casino built. “I threw it all in there,’’ McLean says with a laugh.

Boston is a feast of story ideas for a writer, she says, because of the diversity of characters, from firefighters and longshoremen and construction workers to intellectuals and community-garden devotees. She is toying with ideas for a novel set in the West End, and for another that involves the Russian mob.

In forging a career as a writer, McLean drew inspiration from the late, and great, George V. Higgins. Like McLean, Higgins was a graduate of Boston College and Boston College Law School, and like her, he worked as a prosecutor before writing “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,’’ “Cogan’s Trade,’’ and other classics populated with tough-talking characters from the streets of Boston.

“I loved that dialogue,’’ McLean says. “He was inspirational to me, in trying to capture that type of dialogue. Though I don’t use as many swears.’’


What if you’re a private eye whose eyelids keep falling shut all the time?

That’s the dilemma confronting Mark Genevich, the narcoleptic South Boston detective who is the protagonist of Paul Tremblay’s novels “The Little Sleep’’ (Holt, 2009) and “No Sleep Till Wonderland’’ (Holt, out this month).

“The idea was to create the anti-private eye,’’ says Tremblay, 38, of Stoughton. “Who would be the anti-private eye? Obviously someone who falls asleep.’’

It gets even more complicated for poor Genevich. “When he falls asleep, he has these dreams that he confuses with reality,’’ says Tremblay. In “The Little Sleep,’’ Genevich is visited by a young woman named Jennifer Times, the daughter of the Suffolk district attorney and a former contestant on a show called “American Star.’’ Jennifer tells him that someone has stolen her fingers, and asks for his help in recovering them.

It turns out Genevich is dreaming, but what is the meaning of those two photos he discovers on his desk when he awakes? And why are the DA and his thuggish compatriots so determined to get the photos back?

“He’s not dumb, but he’s not the smartest guy in the world,’’ Tremblay says of his protagonist. “He’s not going to beat up anybody. He has no special powers. His ability to go on is his special power.’’

Tremblay’s own special power is his ability to bang out fiction during breaks at St. Sebastian’s School in Needham, where he has taught mathematics for 14 years. “I tend to come up with the character first and then build the story around that character,’’ Tremblay says. He wrote a novel titled “Phobia,’’ about a guy who had all kinds of strange fears, including the fear of an inability to complete small tasks. He was unable to sell the novel, but it landed him an agent.

Tremblay says that Boston kindles his imagination as a writer because it offers “this odd mix of quaint and big city that I think is compelling,’’ adding: “When you throw into it the massive history - from the Revolution to busing - you can feel the weight that Boston has.’’