Best Place To Commit Murder
I’d been looking for years for the best place to commit murder. Then I moved to Columbus, Ohio.
The city doesn’t strike one as particularly deadly, at least at first. It’s the home of Ohio State University and a certain football team. It’s the seat of state government, and every four years has a starring role in presidential politics as played out in the quintessential swing state. It’s the test kitchen for America’s stomachs: headquarters of Wendy’s, White Castle, and Bob Evans, to name just a few. Quirky, but not exactly CSI material.
In fact, Columbus was dismissed for years as “Cowtown,” a sleepy Midwestern burg that most people circumvented on their way to Cincinnati or Cleveland and points farther west and east. “I suppose the Beatles are for the New Yorks and Chicagos and Los Angeleses; the Dave Clark Five are for the Columbuses,” journalist Bob Greene, who grew up in suburban Bexley, wrote in Be True to Your School. Or as New York Times food writer Molly O’Neill said in her memoir about Columbus, Mostly True: “Being average is considered a civic virtue in Columbus. ‘We tend to do everything in this city at about a B-grade level,’ Mayor Tom Moody once told the Chicago Tribune proudly.”
But then something funny happened. While Cincinnati and Cleveland shrank, Columbus continued to grow. A professional soccer team broke the OSU Buckeyes’ hundred-year monopoly on hometown sports (with apologies to the Clippers, the city’s minor league baseball team). An NHL franchise followed suit. Suddenly, Columbus was one of those cities that made lists: gay friendly, foodie friendly, business friendly. My favorite: one of National Geographic’s top ten vacation spots, just below Florida’s Emerald Coast. (Go figure.) Before long, Columbus was the biggest city in the state and one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. It was a finalist for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, for God’s sake, a feat unimaginable less than a generation ago. A killer city, indeed.
Before moving here in 1998, I’d written detective stories set in various places. But I never felt fully committed to my locales for the simple reason that my wife and I—she from Cleveland, I from the Finger Lakes near Rochester—moved around so much in our early years: South Dakota, Rhode Island, and Indiana, for starters. That changed when we arrived in Columbus with three small children and burned all our cardboard moving boxes.
The first step was dreaming up a protagonist for my newly adopted hometown. Choosing a private eye over a police detective was a no-brainer, at least for me: three of my favorite literary characters are Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, and Stuart Kaminsky’s Lew Fonesca. I knew I wanted a fallen angel, a righteous man struggling to transcend a dark past, as well as someone who both reflected Columbus and yet could stand above it in some universal sense. I didn’t have to look far. Just a few weeks after I’d moved here to work for The Associated Press, Ohio State was marching toward the national championship when Michigan State stopped it in its tracks. Having spent seven years in Bloomington, Indiana, during the Bobby Knight era, I understood the impact a big loss could have on a community. But I wasn’t prepared for the sheer depth of despair that gripped the city and its residents. It was like a death in the family, except everyone blamed the deceased for his demise. The wings of the previously exalted seraphim were now seriously sullied. Perfect.
It took a few years, but eventually I settled on fictional private investigator Andy Hayes, a former Buckeyes quarterback who went by the inevitable nickname “Woody” after the team’s storied coach. That is, until he committed an act in his senior year so egregious that it cost the team not only the Michigan game but the chance at another national championship. Andy went from the top of the pedestal to the bottom of the gutter. Twenty years later, with a little help from a former team manager-turned-lawyer, he reinvents himself as a gumshoe with a skin thick enough to survive the daily insults and occasional beatings his job delivers.
In my first Andy Hayes book, Fourth Down And Out, I laid on the unforgiving-fans shtick pretty thick, to the point that my editor challenged me. Would people really know who Hayes was or care twenty years after the fact? I worried about this until the day I did a walking tour of German Village, the neighborhood south of downtown that Andy calls home, and one of the people on the tour turned out to be a rabid Ohio State fan. Had I overdone it, I asked. Absolutely not, he said. More than fifteen years later, he and his friends still mourn that 1998 Michigan State win.
So it turns out that Columbus isn’t just a great place to live and raise a family. It’s a pretty good place to kill people, too.