The Bay Ridge Canon: Lawrence Block Crime Novels (Interview)

Lawrence Block Bay RidgeCelebrated crime novelist Lawrence Block partially set two of his Matthew Scudder novels in Bay Ridge. The first, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, from 1986, concerns several loosely related mysteries that develop at the same time, mostly in and around Hell’s Kitchen. But one is the murder of Tommy Tillary’s wife at their home on Colonial Road, after an apparent robbery; Scudder, an ex-cop and unlicensed private investigator (he does “favors” for his friends), is asked to investigate, to make sure the cops can’t pin it on Tillary. Block doesn’t specify the Tillarys’ address, but he clearly has No. 6815 in mind:

The house was a huge brick-and-frame affair three stories tall, just across the street from the southeast corner of Owl’s Head Park. Four-story apartment buildings of red brick flanked the house. It had a broad porch, an aluminum awning, a steeply pitched roof.

6815 Colonial Road
6815 Colonial Road, as it appeared in the 1980s. Via the department of records

A chapter or so is devoted to the interior, and the house’s view of the park. The cops pin Mrs. Tillary’s murder–robbery on two low-level guys from Sunset Park, caught trying to sell stolen merchandise from the house, but they insist they’re innocent. The book has a few chapters of Scudder wandering around on either side of the border, visiting suspects’ homes or the local stationhouse:

The Sixty-eighth Precinct is stationed on Sixty-fifth Street between Third and Fourth Avenues, straddling the approximate boundary of Bay Ridge and Sunset Park. On the south side of the street a housing project loomed; across from it, the station house looked like something form Picasso’s cubist period, all blocky with cantilevered cubes and recessed areas.

The 68th Precinct
The 68th Precinct House, as it appeared in the 1980s. Via department of records

Block returned to Bay Ridge, and Colonial Road, seven years later, for A Walk Among the Tombstones. It kicks off with the kidnapping, murder and dismemberment of another Bay Ridge man’s wife, after a ransom-gone-wrong. This couple lives in “a mock-Tudor structure of half-timbered stucco on Colonial Road between Seventy-eighth and Seventy-ninth Streets,” which could seem to refer to any one of three houses on the west side of the street: Nos. 7814, 7818, or 7822.

The man’s name is Kenan Khoury, his wife’s Francine, and he’s a midlevel drug smuggler, targeted for this reason: he has ample cash reserves and an unwillingness to call the police. So Scudder is instead brought in to solve the case. (The recent film adaptation with Liam Neeson is mostly set in Red Hook, with “Kenny Kristo” instead of Kenan Khoury.) Scudder and the Khoury brothers often meet at the Bay Ridge house, and Scudder sometimes wanders the neighborhood.

7822 Colonial Road
7822 Colonial Road, as it appeared in the 1980s. Via department of records

The R train, also known as the Broadway local of the BMT, runs all the way from 179th Street in Jamaica to within a few blocks of the Verrazano Bridge at the southwest corner of Brooklyn. I caught it at Fifty-seventh and Seventh and got off two stops from the end of the line. [Presumably 86th Street? Although 77th Street would have been closer to the Khoury house.]

There are those who hold that once you leave Manhattan you’re out of the city. They’re wrong, you’re just in another part of the city, but there’s no question that the difference is palpable. You could spot it with your eyes closed. The energy level is different, the air doesn’t hum with the same urgent intensity.

I walked a block on Fourth Avenue, past a Chinese restaurant and a Korean greengrocer and an OTB parlor and a couple of Irish bars, then cut over to Colonial Road…

(The only OTB I remember was on Fifth Avenue, in the opposite direction of the Khoury house from the subway, so Block may be fudging the details here in favor of ambience.)

Scudder also returns to the Tillary house, from When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.

It was a little smaller than my memory had it, like the classrooms in your old grammar school, but otherwise it was as I remembered it to be. … The house looked in good shape. I wondered who owned it, and what he knew of its history. If it had changed hands a few times over the years, the present owner might have missed the story. But this was a pretty settled neighborhood. People tended to stay put.

6815 Colonial
6815 Colonial Road in 2013. Via Google

Otherwise, Tombstones is largely set around Atlantic Avenue, where Francine was kidnapped while shopping for Middle Eastern groceries, as well as Sunset Park, where, again, the criminals live! It climaxes with a nighttime meeting in Green-Wood Cemetery.

I reached out to Block by email to ask him about any personal history with the neighborhood that may have inspired him.

Why did you want Tommy Tillary and Kenan Khoury to live in Bay Ridge?
Gee, I dunno. Everybody has to be someplace…

Had you spent time in Bay Ridge before you wrote When the Sacred Ginmill Closes?
In 1973–4, I had a girlfriend whose Latvian mother lived on Ovington; I sometimes tagged along on visits. But I can’t say I spent any real time in Bay Ridge.

Did you have any favorite spots?
Not really. On those occasional visits we just rode there on the subway and hurried back when we were done.

Both times these books visit Bay Ridge, it’s specifically Colonial Road. What is it about that street that attracts you?
No idea. It must be well over twenty years since I’ve been anywhere near Colonial Road, and back in the day all I did was walk a few blocks of it.

Lawrence BlockBoth books reach some pretty obscure corners of Brooklyn. How did you come to know the borough so well?
I don’t know that I know it terribly well. I did live in Greenpoint for most of 1982—but that was after I’d already had Chance living there, in a converted firehouse, in Eight Million Ways to Die.

Had you spent much time in Sunset Park? In both books, it feels kind of like the yin to Bay Ridge’s yang.
Interesting image. No, not too much time in Sunset Park, though I understand it’s worth a visit these days for Chinese food.

Do you imagine yourself ever returning to Bay Ridge in print?
Not writing much these days, Henry. So a fictional return to Brooklyn seems unlikely.

Do you have any favorite books set in Brooklyn?
I always like it when Pete Hamill writes about the old neighborhood.

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