'Forgotten City'

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Detroit native’s second crime novel is drawn from personal experience

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

In her second novel “Forgotten City,” author Carrie Smith explores the struggles between the haves and the have-nots, the powerful and the subjugated.

“It sheds light on some of the forgotten people in society,” said Smith, 59, a Detroit native and University of Michigan alumna who lives in New York City.

 “Forgotten City” (Crooked Lane Books $25.99) is her second novel starring Det. Claire Codella of the NYPD.

“For me, it’s very important to not only develop complex characters and tell a really compelling story, but also gently nudge readers to think about important social and political issues,” she said.

Smith’s late mother, who had dementia, spent her final three years at a memory care facility in Grosse Pointe. This set the stage for her second novel, where Codella investigates the death of Broadway legend Lucy Merchant. Lucy dies of Alzheimer’s disease at 56, living her last days in Park Manor, an ultra-exclusive, upper-Manhattan memory care facility. When Lucy dies, her daughter demands an investigation, believing foul play’s involved somehow. The case instantly becomes a high-profile one that Codella’s superiors want shut down, but she won’t stop until she learns the truth about Lucy’s death.

“I found it interesting how a (memory care facility) operates – it has its own rhythm, its own rules and patterns of behavior, it has its little hierarchy of roles within it. I was casting about for a setting for a book. I thought since I observed all this, why not have somebody who has early Alzheimer’s? But I wanted to make it somebody who has a certain kind of stature in the city. And I am a fan of Broadway and I love musical theater, so it’s taking things from many different parts of life,” explained Smith.

The author also gives more detail about Codella, a cancer survivor back on the job after three months. 

“Physically, she’s recovered; mentally, she’s looking over her shoulder,” said Smith. “In the first book, what you learned was her recent backstory involving cancer. In this book, I wanted to go back to her childhood and explain why she is a cop, what she went through personally as a child that makes her as determined and strong as she is.”

When Smith was writing “Forgotten City,” she didn’t intend for a minor character Brandon Johnson, Lucy’s caregiver, to have such a pivotal role.

“He’s a transgender character; he’s a female-to-male transgender character. What’s interesting to me, in a lot of reviews, most of them have mentioned Brandon and how nuanced he is and how much they like his characterization. I really enjoyed writing about him and going deep into his character,” she said.

Publisher’s Weekly has praised Smith’s portrayal of Brandon, stating Smith “writes with sensitivity and nuance about (Brandon’s) experiences as a transgender man.” According to Smith, Brandon’s creation was inspired by her mother’s caregiver.

“Her primary caregiver was a young man with vibrant blue eyes and a shy demeanor. I believe he was transgender. He told me how wonderful my mother had been and how much he had enjoyed taking care of her. He was extremely proud of the fact that whenever she saw him, her face lit up with a smile that she gave to no one else. It was clear he felt a special bond with her and that this connection meant a great deal to him,” she explained. “As I started (writing), I kept thinking about this caregiver, and although I didn’t plan it, he became incredibly important to the plot. As a writer committed to reflecting diversity in my works, I’m gratified that his character seems to have resonated with so many readers and reviewers.”
Smith stated it was easier writing the second book than the first.  “You have characters. You’ve already given birth to them. Now it’s about developing them and taking them farther and creating a really strong plot for them to live in,” she said. “So I felt like I was able to focus on making sure the story moved at a very fast pace. It felt good. With (‘Unholy City,’ debuting Nov. 7), I feel even more confident.”

Smith also spoke about her time as a private investigator after graduating from U-M in 1979 for R.L. Wininger & Co, a detective agency now based in Eastpointe. According to Smith, this agency investigated cases involving mostly workers’ compensation claims and fraud in the automotive industry. At first, she started out typing reports, then started investigating claims. She completed all her work via telephone (long before the days of answering machines and caller ID), insisting with a laugh that it was nothing out of “Magnum, P.I.”

“It sounds more romantic than it is, actually – pretty cut and dry,” she said. “Most of the time, I would have a couple of different pretexts that I’d use regularly. I was either Marilyn Temple from the Michigan Fidelity Insurance Company – which, of course, doesn’t exist – or I would be Pat Richardson from Tri-State Employment Services. Sometimes, I’d be calling the neighbors and saying I needed a reference on someone; other times, I would actually call the claimants themselves and interview them – they wouldn’t know I was investigating them, of course. We did have people who’d go out and do surveillance, but I did not do that… It was a good little window into that kind of world.”

Robin Agnew, who co-owns Aunt Agatha’s with her husband Jamie, enjoyed Smith’s second visit to her bookstore on January 26, for a book signing.

“Carrie Smith writes the type of books I love,” said Agnew. “First, they're a series; second, they have an interesting, strong, complicated woman as the main character; and third, they’re police procedurals, just about my favorite mystery subgenre. Beyond that. Carrie is simply a lovely writer. I’ve inhaled the first two books and am looking forward to many more.”

Last September, Smith moderated a panel featuring New York Times best-selling novelists Hank Phillippi Ryan and William Kent Krueger at the Kerrytown Bookfest in Ann Arbor, which was organized by the Agnews.

“Besides being outrageously talented, Carrie Smith is the coolest person in the world. Smart, engaging, and truly funny, she has a wonderful sense of herself and shows pure joy in exploring the world around her,” said Ryan. “Being a moderator is a tough job: juggling two authors, keeping the audience engaged and involved, and eliciting fresh insight. It takes a lot of preparation and a lot of nimble thinking, but the real key is being authentically interested in the subject. Carrie did it all, with grace and skill. I'd ‘panel’ with her at the helm any day!”
 

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