"Back to the Badlands: Crime Writing in the USA"
(Reviewed by Tony Ross APR 9, 2007)
This excellent literary travelogue is a little bit of an odd beast in that it is essentially an updated version of William's 1989 book "Into the Badlands" (which I read about five years ago). Back then, Williams visited the U.S., interviewing various crime writers about their hometowns and their writing process. He then repeated the process in 2005, leading to this book.
Williams' M.O. is to stay in a cheaper (i.e. seedier) parts of town and either walk around on his own in search of interesting bars or music stores, or get the writer he's meeting to give him an insider's tour. He's clearly a believer in crime fiction as social portraiture and commentary, and also has a bit of a music industry background. These perspectives combine to make him an interesting external chronicler of contemporary America.
The first hundred pages reprint portions from the 1989 edition on Miami (Carl Hiassen), New Orleans (James Lee Burke), Los Angeles (James Ellroy and Gar Anthony Haywood), Missoula (James Crumley), and Detroit (Elmore Leonard). These are interesting to read today not only for a perspective on how these various places have changed in the intervening 18 years, but for their insight on writers whose careers have since blossomed (the notable exception being Gar Anthony Haywood). A postscript gives a brief, and not always flattering, update on the career trajectories of these six writers.
Sharp readers will also find other little nuggets that have aged well -- for example, in the section about L.A., one of the people who hosts Williams is scruffy young intellectual named Mike Davis, who has since risen to international prominence as an urbanist. It's not clear why these particular sections were chosen for this edition, nor why the decision wasn't made to simply republish them all, but the "missing" chapters are available for free at Williams' web site. These include another section on Miami (James Hall), and chapters on New Mexico (Tony Hillerman), San Francisco (Joe Gores), Chicago (Sara Partesky, Eugene Izzi), Boston (George V. Higgins), and New York (Andrew Vachss).
Since his 1989 trip, Williams has gone on to write a series of excellent Cardiff-based crime novels himself (all of which are well worth seeking out). At the same time he's become more steeped in American crime writing, which gives the five newer chapters a touch more depth. Here, he visits Washington, D.C. (George Pelecanos), Hollywood Beach, FL (Vicki Hendricks), LA/San Diego (Ken Nunn), Austin (Jesse Sublett, Kinky Friedman), and the Ozarks (Daniel Woodrell). The only place in the whole book I'm particularly familiar with is D.C., and that chapter does a good job of giving the reader a taste of what the city is really like, and delivers a solid profile of Pelecanos (one of my favorite writers) as well.
The book concludes with a bittersweet epilogue in which Williams reflects on the change that's come about in the intervening 16 years between his trips. Of course the internet has made the enterprise of traveling to new places and discovering new authors much easier -- but he feels that something is lost in the process. In the literary world, he sees crime fiction emerging from its ghetto and standing with the mainstream. Most refreshingly, Williams isn't afraid to pull punches, noting that much of the best crime fiction now comes from other countries, and that several of the writers he originally interviewed in 1989 have spent the years cranking out commercial dross. The book is a must read for anyone interested in modern American crime writing, and will be of interest to anyone interested in an outsider's view of the U.S.
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Back to the Badlands: Crime Writing in the USA (1991; 2005; February 2007 in U.S.)
- Bloody Valentine (1994)
- Faithless (1997)
- Five Pubs, Two Bars and a A Nightclub (1999)
- Cardiff Dead (2000)
- The Prince of Wales (2003)
- Temperance Town (2004)
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- Serpent's Tail page on author John Williams
- HomePage interview with John Williams
- MostlyFiction review of Cardiff Dead
- Official Website for Back to the Badlands
- Tangled Web review of Back to the Badlands
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About the Author:
John Williams was born in Cardiff in 1961. He wrote a punk fanzine and played in bands before moving to London and becoming a journalist, writing for everyone from The Face to the Financial Times.
He wrote his first book, an American crime fiction travelogue called Into The Badlands (Paladin) in 1991. His next book, Bloody Valentine (HarperCollins), written around the Lynette White murder case in the Cardiff docks, came out in 1994. Following a subsequent libel action from the police, he turned to fiction, including the Cardiff novels.
He has edited an anthology of new Welsh fiction, Wales Half Welsh. He also writes screenplays (his ninety-minute drama, A Light In The City, was shown by BBC Wales in 2001).
He now lives in Cardiff with his wife and children.