Ten years ago I made the first notes on “Iron City”. It began as a stage play, became a screenplay, and eventually was written as a novel. It’s a companion work to my earlier novel, “Kabbalah”, though I hadn’t planned it that way. Both take place in Pittsburgh, Pa., the Squirrel Hill and Greenfield sections, and both involve murder.
In “Kabbalah” the murder takes place at the very beginning and the reader knows who the murderer is. It is a chase novel in which two people who grew up with the murderer, a cop consumed by ineradicable envy and a rabbi obsessed with the ancient Jewish practice of Kabbalah, for their own complex reasons, set out to find him.
“Iron City” is more traditional, a dense mystery involving a string of bizarre murders that is not solved until the very end. A disgraced ex-cop, Frank Kalinyak, a Greenfield native, is on a mission to find why the victims are being killed and who the murderer is. Kalinyak, who has suffered a tragic loss in his life, seeks to redeem an existence that is drifting, splintering, by tracking the murderer who has terrorized the city he grew up in, Pittsburgh, Pa., known by people raised there as Iron City. The area that Kalinyak operates in, the area where the killer lurks, is a harsh, brutal environment of pimps, hookers, druggies, failed clergy, business hustlers, closed-down, rotting steel mills.
We follow Kalinyak on his increasingly desperate search for the murderer and to prevent further terror and slaughter, through the underbelly of Iron City. We find ourselves in a maelstrom of political and church intrigue, brutal encounters, surprising duplicities, ghosts of the past, furies of the present.
There are complex psychological elements in both novels. I have always had great respect for the mystery form. Dostoyevsky was an early influence on my work, as were the novels of the Belgian, Georges Simenon. I admired the seriousness, the complexity in their works, Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”, “Brothers Karamazov”, “The Possessed,” Simenon, “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By”, “Belle”, “The Brothers Rico”: they were less “whodunits” as “whydunnits”, mysteries of character: they were about peeling away levels of reality to reach the core of a human being, the person’s soul.
“Iron City” is a mystery that’s not solved until the end. I’m limited in what I can reveal about what propelled me to write this story. It involves a series of murders that are connected by a horrific act that has poisoned a community. As is true of all of my novels it has relevance to my life and the complications in my life.
The texture of the neighborhoods I grew up in is a very important element in the book, as it is in many of my books. Squirrel Hill and Greenfield to the south; North of Forbes, above Squirrel Hill—these neighborhoods have become my Dublin, North and South Sides, the Hill District, my Nighttown. Squirrel Hill proper was middle-class; as you moved into Greenfield the environment became working class. North of Forbes was upper middle class with pockets of wealth. These areas form a checkerboard of class and religious tensions, envies, wounds that fester, scars that remain open.
I must warn you—the novel is dark. I recently read a review of Simenon’s “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By”, and the critic said of the book, “Despair and negation predominate in Georges Simenon’s ‘The Man Who Watched Trains Go By’, a book that I considered to be darker than noir.” I’ve told you how much I admire Simenon. And it’s possible that “Iron City” is darker than noir. It’s possible that all of my novels are darker than noir. Sorry.
The book forms an intricate puzzle. I think the writing is strong. I have not condescended to the genre. It’s a serious novel, ambitious, ingenious. If you’ve liked my earlier novels, plays, and films, I think you’ll like “Iron City.” It’s a tough book, a journey through a hellish world of harsh entanglements, brutal relationships, reversals, twists, piercing insights into the dark night of the soul. To be true, also, there are bright spots and entertainment and the pleasures in what the novel illuminates, much darkness, but also explosions of light, rich characters, the way they talk and behave, their ambitions, dreams, foibles. And there is also tenderness and love and the generosity that grows from love.
I aspired, ultimately, to reveal something true and strong about our lives, about retribution, foundering dreams, guilt, love lost, and love redeemed, to tell one tale of this strange journey we all take to a dusty end.