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A tourist’s Philadelphia itinerary is likely to include Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and perhaps a walk down a quaintly cobbled street following a meal at one of the city’s many fine restaurants. Any encounter with the darker side of this historic city is likely to be unintentional, perhaps a result of having strayed off a walking map of the Freedom Trail. But, surveying the best-reviewed books about Philly in the Booklist archive, we find that authors, whether they’re writing literary fiction, crime fiction, or nonfiction, don’t treat its big-city problems as isolated anomalies—they’re essential to understanding the place. You might say these authors have a love-hate relationship with the City of Brotherly Love.
Badlands, by Richard Montanari
This, the best novel in Montanari’s series about Philly homicide cops Jessica Balzano and Kevin Byrne, bears comparison to the work of such elite procedural authors as Michael Connelly. Working a cold case about a missing girl, the partners discover that a serial killer is stalking runaways. Combining the best elements of the police procedural with the most unsettling aspects of the psycho-serial-killer genre, this is seriously creepy—and simply stunning.
Brotherly Love, by Pete Dexter
Dexter’s title is purely ironic: In this unrelentingly sorrowful tale of Philly mobsters, neither the brothers Flood, Charley and Phil, nor their miserable offspring, Peter and Michael, feel anything but deep distrust and dangerous rivalry. Sparring in an ever-tightening circle, the younger generation are surrounded by more and more corpses until they can do nothing but join them.
Buck, by M. K. Asante
In this bruising hip-hop memoir, author, filmmaker, and professor Asante recalls his troubled youth in Philadelphia, or, as he calls it, “Killadelphia, Pistolvania.” With an absent father and an ill mother, 12-year-old Asante (“Malo”) idolized his criminal big brother, Uzi—until he finds himself enrolled in an alternative school where he learns how to express himself in writing, and it changes his life.
Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love, by Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker
In this gritty, true-life thriller, odd-couple Philadelphia Daily News reporters Ruderman and Laker flesh out their Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation into a crooked cop’s profitable partnership with his snitch—a series of articles that uncovered even more misdeeds in the narcotics unit. Prevailing against threats, intimidation, and the impending bankruptcy of their newspaper, they tell a story of a city the tourists seldom see.
Hostile Witness, by William Lashner
Maverick Philadelphia defense attorney Victor Carl is one of the most interesting and morally ambiguous characters ever to grace the pages of a legal thriller. Selfish, manipulative, and shady, he’s also intelligent, quick-witted, and somehow likeable. If you’re curious, start with ex-lawyer Lashner’s 1995 debut, in which a down-on-his-luck Carl gets his big break, even as the reader cries out, “Victor, don’t do it!” This is Philly as a world of flashy cars, dirty drug money, sleazy high rollers, and big trouble.
Pipe Dream, by Solomon Jones
This debut novel by Jones, a Philadelphia journalist and columnist, may still be the most powerful thing he has written. When a man is shot in a crack house, crack addict Leroy and hooker Pookie take cash and a gun from the body and split—finding out later the corpse was a mayoral aspirant. Their street smarts, and those of their friends, are put to the test as they try to stay a step ahead of the cops. Jones offers a knowledgeable, shocking, and visceral portrayal of the crackhead’s world.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis
Smart and lovely Hattie flees Jim Crow Georgia in 1923 and settles in Philadelphia, finding life not at all as she expected. Married at 16 to an irresponsible man, she is poor, cold, hungry, and desperate. As Mathis leaps forward in time to tell the stories of Hattie’s children, she exposes the crushed dreams and anguished legacy of the Great Migration; late in life, Hattie thinks, “Here we are sixty years out of Georgia . . . and there’s still the same wounding and the same pain.”
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