Blood Count, my latest book, is about a grand old apartment building in the Sugar Hill district of Harlem. Once, during the great days of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s, this was known as the place to live, in a district called Sugar Hill because it was "everything that was sweet and expensive." All the jazz greats lived around here—Count Basie, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington.
I’ve always been fascinated by Harlem, most of all because I’m a jazz nut. I love New York. I love the music. So: Harlem. In fact, the title comes from the last song written by Billy Strayhorn as he lay dying. Strayhorn worte many of the great tunes made famous by Duke Ellington, including "Take the A Train" which gave Harlem is theme tune.
But I wanted to set a book in an enclosed space, wanted a 21st century story set in a traditional kind of place. What better than a grand
Apartment building—I’ve called it the Louis Armstrong Apartments—populated by Harlemites, most old, most living on their memories. I think old people are the best characters because they have seen it all. One of the (real) people who helped me has lived in Harlem all his life, and played basketball with Sugar Ray Robinson.
I’m also interested in race in the city. So my book starts on election eve as President Obama is elected.I’ve sent my white New York detective, Artie Cohen, up to the Armstrong to investigate the death of an old woman. He finds suddenly that a few miles north of his downtown loft, he is in a world where almost everyone is African-American. Everything is the same, but difference. He has to work with a young black detective who is competing with him for the woman they both want. He is a fish out of water, and when he asks a local cop if race always matters, he learns a harsh lesson.
When I was doing the research, I met Norman Skinner, who has lived in Harlem his whole life. In his late 80s, Skinner is invested in the place like no one I’ve met and he became a model for some of the characters. He also said to me, "Harlem is black America, and black American is another country."
What Artie Cohen he finds, over a weekend when the city is socked in by a ferocious storm, is that new money is trying to push out the old people, trying to re-make the Armstrong into an expensive modern condo. And people start to die.
As a born and bred New Yorker, I’ve always lived in apartment buildings, and they’re like a vertical village: everything happens here—life, death, sex, and money. For old people, it’s their world, the lobby the Village green, and the corridors between their apartments the lanes. People gossip, they pry, they party, all in the building.
At the Armstrong, the tensions with every murder, but for Artie, the horror, and magic, is in the detail. Down in the basement where the laundry room is, Artie even encounters a woman who claims she was once Ella Fitzgerald’s maid. She offers him one of her ear pods, and for a while they stand there, in the laundry room of the building in Harlem, listening to Ella singing
Blood Count is published by Atlantic Books