Sucked Away in the Undertow

By Alex SeguraOctober 3, 2016

Sucked Away in the Undertow
YOU CAN NEVER fully escape your past. That’s the central message of Michael Harvey’s melancholy and evocative thriller, Brighton — a gritty crime tale that brings acclaimed Boston journalist Kevin Pearce back to the dark, menacing hometown he left under cover of night decades before.

Harvey’s story, told on two tracks — one in the present day, the other flashing back to Pearce’s youth — takes readers on a tour of two different Brightons: the sinking Massachusetts town still infused with hope, and its faded remains, sleepwalking through what’s left of life. Kevin returns to his old neighborhood as a Pulitzer Prizewinning Boston Globe reporter, only to find himself ensnared in a decades-old murder investigation implicating his boyhood friend, Bobby Scales. As the death count rises, Pearce is dragged further and deeper into his own murky past, riddled with secrets and bad decisions long buried. As he struggles to cling to the leaky raft of his new life, Pearce must make difficult, sometimes ethically dubious choices.

Harvey’s prose is clear and sparse, presenting a bleak setting with a heartfelt and memorable touch. Every character feels fully formed and organic, making each twist and reveal earned and memorable. A mournful and taut crime story, Brighton is the story of one man’s quest to reconnect with his secretive and haunted past, and the pitfalls he must avoid to survive the experience.

I had the pleasure of discussing Brighton with Harvey over email.


ALEX SEGURA: I found Brighton to be a layered, complex, and engaging story. The kind you put down, still hungry for more. To me, the main lesson is you can’t leave your past behind. But exploring your past comes with risks, no?

MICHAEL HARVEY: Boston is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own identity and its own fierce sense of pride. But it doesn’t stop there. Within each neighborhood, distinctions are drawn and redrawn, block by block, street by street, house by house. A kid walks down to the corner. Other kids see him and one of them says, “Hey, aren’t you a Flannery?” Kid says sure. Other kid says, “Your old man was a drunk (crook, coward, liar, cheater, insert your own phrase), his old man was a drunk, and you’re gonna be a drunk.” Kid’s ashamed and runs home. Kid gets pissed and throws a punch. Kid shrugs and looks for a bottle of beer. It doesn’t matter the outcome. Any way you look at it, that encounter is going to leave a mark. Over time, those marks can add up and a sort of existential angst takes hold. People feel the need to do battle with their past, kill the ghosts, bury the shame. Sometimes it’s about family. Sometimes it’s money. Sometimes it’s the country you come from or the color of your skin. Often it’s all of that … and more. Anxiety builds, ripening into fear, anger, and no small amount of self-loathing. You see these themes played out time and again in novels and films set in Boston. It’s part of the fabric of the place, part of its power. If you grew up there, you can feel it. If you write about the city, you can’t avoid it. Why would you want to?

Right, and Brighton definitely embraces those themes, which can be daunting, I’d imagine. What were some of the challenges you faced shifting from writing a series to a standalone?

I think the biggest challenge is the scope and structure of the book. A P. I. series such as the Michael Kelly books has a basic template. Someone gets killed and the P. I. begins to investigate. Leads are spun out in all different directions. Our protagonist follows each in turn until the threads come together and the book turns toward its inevitable (and hopefully surprising!) conclusion. Now, there are infinite variations on this template, but the basic infrastructure is what it is. A standalone really offers a blank slate. The book can be written from any point of view and take almost any shape or form. Also, a standalone has no history in terms of character development. In a Hercule Poirot novel, the idea of Poirot himself is very much set in the mind of the reader from page one. Christie can nudge a bit, but there are definite limits. In a standalone such as Brighton, however, every character is created from scratch. It’s a challenge for the writer, but also expands the possibilities … which is exciting.

Speaking of characters, let’s look at the book's protagonist, Kevin Pearce. Like Kevin, you left Brighton and moved on to other things. What else went into the creation of Kevin? When did you realize this was the story you wanted to tell?

Kevin left Boston after being involved in a crime at the age of 15. I left to attend law school. Not sure there’s much of a parallel there, outside of the fact that we both left! But maybe that’s the point. As I started to think about Kevin, my only concrete notion was that I wanted him to be interested in the larger world, interested in getting out, interested in making his mark, whatever that might be. In blue-collar neighborhoods like Brighton, there were always “lifers” — kids who believed from an early age that they would live, grow old, and die on the same block where they were born. That’s not Kevin. He was going to get out of Brighton one way or another. It just happened a little sooner and a lot crazier than he expected.

Brighton the place is dark, dangerous, and full of potential double-crosses, but at its heart, it’s also working class and blue collar. It feels real. What kind of research went into writing about the place, and what did it feel like to go back?

Brighton is an edge neighborhood, which means it’s part of the city of Boston but right up against Newton, Brookline, Chestnut Hill, and across the river from Cambridge. As I said, back in the ’70s it was blue collar, mostly Irish, Italians, and African Americans, living in three-deckers, two-families, or public housing. I lived in a two-bedroom apartment on the second-floor of a three-decker on Champney Street — the same street where the novel unfolds. My parents slept in one bedroom and six of us kids slept in the other. It was like that up and down the block — lots of kids, no money. I’d play ball all day and hang out all night. If I had a snapshot of myself and 20 of my pals on the street corner, I’d guess half of them have gone on to have great lives with fulfilling careers, wonderful families, etc. Another third to half, also great kids, were dead or in jail by the time they hit 30. Is there some rhyme or reason to any of this? Or does it just cook down to getting into the wrong car on the wrong night and being sucked away in the undertow? Good questions. No easy answers.

Things have changed quite a bit in Brighton since I was a kid. Gentrification has rubbed smooth the rough edges and given the place a facelift. Scratch the surface, however, and it’s not hard to find that old neighborhood, not to mention the ghosts that haunt it.

One of the big ghosts that haunts Kevin is an old childhood buddy, Bobby Scales. He plays the part of Kevin’s opposite number — basically, an alternate version of Kevin, the one that stayed. That contrast is key to the book and gives the reader a better sense of what could have been. How important was it for you to show the reader — and Kevin — that path not traveled?

There’s a scene in the book where Bobby is looking out his apartment window and sees a car pull to the curb in Brighton Center. Kevin gets out. Both men are in their 40s and haven’t seen each other since a summer morning 25 years earlier when a black man was shot and killed. Kevin, then 15, was shipped out of town, while Bobby, then 17, stayed to face the music. Except there was no music, no investigation, and no arrest. The murder went unsolved. As Kevin gets out of the car, Bobby recognizes him right away. Bobby thinks to himself that his childhood friend is like a letter that was put in the mail more than two decades ago and has been circling in the ether ever since. Bobby has always known that some day that letter was going to land in his mailbox and he’d have to deal with the consequences. For Bobby, it’s the inevitable result of their actions as kids. Fate, pure and simple. Kevin doesn’t see it that way. There are choices to be made, options to be considered. The situation can be managed. And Kevin and Bobby are just the guys to do it. This conflict between fate and free will is at the heart of the book. How much are we really in charge? Can we shape and reshape our lives? Or, once certain levers are pulled, is there really no stopping things? Is our only recourse to deal with whatever’s coming down the track and, in doing so, both reveal and define our true nature? There are several layers to the story, but that juxtaposition of free will and fate is certainly one thing that’s bubbling just below the surface.

I want to talk about revisions and the editing process for a moment. As a novelist, do you have a recurring method? Do you outline or just write from the blank page? What made Brighton the book you wanted to write next?

I’m not really sure why Brighton was the next book to write. It usually starts with language, words on paper. I started writing about the neighborhood and the prose sounded right, felt right, looked right. And then the characters started being born.

As for outlining, I don’t. I just start at a certain place in time and off we go.

The book is very much a crime story — but at its heart, it’s about lost relationships and how they can haunt and influence your present. You weave in flashbacks effectively, and they don’t feel like filler. They propel the story forward. How important was it to include glimpses of Kevin and his family’s past and showcase how they influence the current story?

Each of us is nothing more or less than the product of his or her childhood. In Kevin’s case, he grew up in a family that was largely bereft of love. Kevin’s safe harbor was his grandmother and Bobby. The flashbacks helped to detail those bonds and provided important context for Kevin’s return to the neighborhood as an adult. I also used flashbacks at the outset of the book to underscore another subtext of the novel — the profound damage done to women trapped in physically, emotionally, and/or sexually abusive relationships. As a journalist, I’ve interviewed a lot of women who found themselves trapped in such relationships. Many of them told me they put up with the abuse for the “good of the family” or “to keep the peace.” Meanwhile, they gave away pieces of themselves until there was literally nothing left. They also often became unwitting role models for their daughters, who watched and learned. Those same daughters then would go out and, not coincidentally, pick the exact same kind of partners and deal with the next generation of abuse in exactly the same fashion. In the first hundred pages of Brighton, I used flashbacks to detail this cycle and the damage that spread like a virus across three generations of women. I tried to make the stories seem almost seamless so it didn’t matter whether a grandmother, mother, or daughter was speaking. They were all telling the same tale with the same tragic consequences.

Were there any films, albums, or other books that you found yourself turning to a lot when writing the book?

I listened to a lot of Springsteen, Dylan, and Van Morrison while I wrote this one. I don’t typically read a lot of fiction, especially crime fiction, when I’m writing.

Who are some of your writing influences? How do you see them showing up in your own work?

Like many American writers who grew up in the 20th century, I’ve been influenced by Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald. Chandler, Hammett, and MacDonald were also big influences, as was Gabriel García Márquez, Richard Price, Robert Parker, Elmore Leonard, Thomas Harris, and Don DeLillo. As a kid, I was the beneficiary of a classical education, studying Latin and Greek from the seventh grade right though college. The Greek authors were especially important in helping to shape me as a writer. I’m thinking of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and, of course, Homer. The truth of the matter is it often takes a paragraph or more to say in English what Aeschylus can say in a sentence or even a phrase. Such is the economy and elegance and genius of ancient Greek. While not nearly as profound, my writing, especially its compact and spare style, owes a lot to the years I spent translating all that Latin and Greek. At least that’s what I tell myself!

Was Kevin’s story more personal for you to write about?

Not really. I know some people who write about their childhood and the places where they grew up as a form of therapy. I’m not sure that would work so well, at least not for me. I think a writer needs to engage with her past while keeping a part of herself detached and observant so as to meet the needs of the characters, plot, and overall narrative. In order to do that, the writer needs to have that appropriate measure of distance — not so far away that she can’t connect, but not so close that she loses perspective as a storyteller. If a writer gets too caught up in her own emotional wake, I suspect the work might suffer. Perhaps not, but that would be my fear.


Alex Segura is the author of Miami crime novels Silent City and Down the Darkest Street.

LARB Contributor

Alex Segura is a novelist and comic book writer. He is the author of the Miami crime novel Silent City, the first in a series featuring Pete Fernandez. Silent City and its sequels, Down the Darkest Street and Dangerous Ends, are available via Polis Books. He lives in New York with his wife and son. He is a Miami native.


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