Murder isn’t supposed to be funny but this comment made me laugh anyway. When researching the project that became Columbus Noir, my new anthology from Akashic Books, it was suggested to me that Columbus was just too bland for a noir series. Better to find someplace grittier and with more character. What struck me as amusing was that my adopted city—the country’s 14th largest, if you’re counting—just couldn’t catch a break. For years, city boosters, myself included, have been shouting from the tops of the zillion new rooftops in town about what a great place Ohio’s capital city is—growing, vibrant, and internationally diverse. Despite our best efforts, the message now seemed to be, not only is Columbus not good enough, it’s not bad enough either. What’s a major metropolitan area to do?
So here are a few thoughts on why you can kill more than time in Columbus, Ohio.
First some history. Part of Columbus’ image problem stems from the difficulty in shaking our long-ago “Cowtown” persona, to wit: a sleepy white collar burg known best for its college football team, a bunch of insurance company headquarters, and the fact it was America’s test kitchen for decades, with Wendy’s, White Castle and Bob Evans—to name just a few—based in and around the city. Quirky, but not exactly CSI material. Former Columbus Dispatch sports writer Bob Hunter aptly described the origins of this reputation in Saint Woody, his history of Ohio State football, in describing life in the city in the nineteenth century:
Some people today still like to call Columbus a cow town, but in those days it really was. When you left the city limits, which didn’t extend much more than a mile or so beyond the modern inner belt in any direction, you were swallowed by farms as far as the eye could see in most directions, and some city dwellers weren’t ashamed to raise a few chickens if they had a big enough yard. Columbus was growing quickly but it hadn’t come close to growing up.
Whereas Cleveland and Cincinnati had already emerged as economic powerhouses thanks to their positioning by Lake Erie and the Ohio River respectively, Columbus was nothing more than a crossroads in its early years. Like Brasilia, the carved-from-the-highlands capital of Brazil, Columbus was declared a city of consequence by fiat rather than fortune as lawmakers and lobbyists duked it out over the state’s future capital before settling on Columbus—then Chillicothe, then Zanesville, then finally back to Columbus—as the location of the seat of government.
After its selection as capital in 1812, Columbus worked hard for generations to maintain a perception, at least on the surface, as one of the most boring cities in America. It was a legacy that persisted well into the 20th century. “I suppose the Beatles are for the New Yorks and Chicagos and Los Angeleses; the Dave Clark Five are for the Columbuses,” journalist Bob Greene, who grew up in suburban Bexley, wrote in Be True to Your School, his account of high school life in the 1960s. Or as the late New York Times food writer Molly O’Neill said in her memoir about Columbus, Mostly True: “Being average is considered a civic virtue in Columbus. ‘We tend to do everything in this city at about a B-grade level,’ Mayor Tom Moody once told the Chicago Tribune proudly.”
But then, about three decades or so ago, something funny happened. Columbus, its white-collar roots perfectly positioned for the emerging high-tech economy, continued to grow even as Cincinnati and Cleveland kept shedding population. Major League Soccer’s “The Crew” broke the Ohio State Buckeyes’ hundred-year stranglehold on hometown sports (with apologies to the Clippers, the city’s minor league baseball team). The Blue Jackets of the NHL followed suit. Gradually, Columbus became one of those cities that makes lists: gay friendly, foodie friendly, African-American friendly, business friendly, etc., etc. Thanks to the presence of companies like L Brands, Columbus now has the third-highest number of fashion designers after New York and Los Angeles (yes, you read that right). Importantly, we have the top big city library system in the country, which is worth the bragging rights alone but also means we’re a city of readers. And readers love their mysteries. In short, we grew up and became the city our parents always knew we could be.Today, Columbus is experiencing the kind of growth spurt you associate with the chugging of steroid-laden Muscle Milk.
Today, Columbus is experiencing the kind of growth spurt you associate with the chugging of steroid-laden Muscle Milk. We’re creeping toward a million residents, the most of any city in the state, far outnumbering our few remaining bovine. More people live inside the city limits than in Boston, Denver, or Nashville, a fact not lost on a company called Amazon that put us in the running for its second headquarters. These days, Columbus—“Cbus” to the hipsters—is a place the millennials are moving to as developers reshape the region with thousands of new condos and apartments. And while it doesn’t seem possible to squeeze in a single more brewpub or micro distillery, it appears that a new one is announced almost every week. On top of all that, a city built by Irish and German immigrants is experiencing new waves of visitors, with large populations of Mexicans, Bhutanese-Nepalis, and Somalis pouring into town and reinvigorating entire neighborhoods.
OK, so we’re good—even great, IMHO. But all these tall buildings cast equally long shadows. As our profile soared, so too did our homicide rates, including 2017’s record 143 deaths, with totals in subsequent years not far behind. As in many American cities, big and small, the streets are awash with guns and people who turn them on each other with depressing regularity. Columbus also struggles with police violence. While our cases haven’t received the national attention of places like Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore, we’ve experienced several controversial shootings of black people by white officers in recent years, including the 2016 death of a 13-year-old black teenager who was a suspect in a robbery. Columbus police have a “significant disparity of use of force against minority residents” that the city must address, according to a report by Matrix Consulting Group last year for a city safety advisory commission.
Columbus is also an epicenter of the opioid epidemic, swamped with heroin and the even deadlier fentanyl as dealers flood the city with their wares. Nearly five hundred people died of fatal overdoses in central Ohio in 2018, according to the most recent data. And the problem is not going away: over just ten days this past January and February alone, twenty-eight people in the Columbus area died of overdoses, nearly all of them related to fentanyl. The twist to the epidemic here is that the city, long a test market for fast food, became a successful market for another kind of product. Columbus was ripe for the “pizza delivery” system of heroin sales perfected by Mexican dealers, as investigative journalist Sam Quinones spelled out in his 2015 book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic:
Black tar became the talk of Columbus’s drug underworld. It was the most powerful heroin anyone had tried. Plus the Mexicans soon had a delivery driver in each area. With that, heroin found its way to suburban kids .“They broke this city down into ‘Domino’s: thirty minutes or less,” one veteran addict told me. “When you’re dope sick, that makes a big difference.”
OK, so we’re also bad, as the facts make clear. Now back to shaking that Cowtown moniker. In truth, some of the nickname’s resilience is self-inflicted, thanks to a few Mayberry-esque traits that Columbus clings to—replacing the letter “M’ with “X” in signs around town in the lead-up to the annual Ohio State-Michigan football game, for example. (Cue the eye roll.) Despite such stunts, the stereotype really is a thing of the past. Yet here’s the rub: in reality, it was inaccurate even way back when.
People who consider the city bland overlooked the legacy of the Ohio State Penitentiary that sprawled just north of downtown, where thousands of prisoners served their time in increasingly brutal conditions, and where not a few met their deaths at the end of a noose or from a jolt of electricity. They forgot the terror of the .22 Caliber Killers, whose slayings gripped the area in the 1970s, not to mention Charles McCoy, the man behind the 270 Outerbelt shootings in 2004 that killed a woman, damaged multiple vehicles and terrorized commuters for months. Nostalgia has also helped people turn the page on Dr. Michael Swango, a serial killer believed responsible for at least thirty-five deaths of patients under suspicious circumstances in hospitals in the United States and Africa, including five deaths of otherwise healthy patients at the Ohio State University Medical Center in the early 1980s.
The rose-tinted glasses crowd is also forgetting the city’s gang problem. When looking for a role model for a violent mob in my novel Slow Burn, I searched no farther than the Short North Posse, the real-life cadre of drug dealers and hired killers who once stalked the streets of the Short North, now one of the city’s poshest shopping and eating districts. Finally, any suggestion that Columbus is too tame a locale for crime fiction glosses over the capital’s long and shameful history of segregation, a period painfully explored in journalist Will Haygood’s most recent book, Tigerland: A City Divided, a Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of Healing. Those who consider the old—or new—Columbus a comfy couch conveniently ignore the guns and knives hidden just under the pillows.
Many of the neighborhoods featured in Columbus Noir embody the chiaroscuro nature of the city. German Village, the setting of Edgar-nominated novelist Craig McDonald’s story “Curb Appeal,” is a former slum whose blocks of brick homes and streets were nearly razed half a century ago, only to be transformed into one of the region’s priciest zip codes, with all the drama that preservation in a historic district can entail. Olde Towne East, a neighborhood of nineteenth-century mansions featured in two-time Shamus Award winner Kristen Lepionka’s story, “Gun People,” has been the object of tension between minorities who called those mansions-turned-rentals home in the 20th century and urban homesteaders, many of them LGBTQ, who set about revitalizing the neighborhood more recently. In “Long Ears,” Khalid Moalim, a Somali-American man who grew up in Columbus, identifies the stresses inside and out of his North Side community as it grew into the country’s second-largest Somali population after the Twin Cities.
In the end, what makes Columbus ripe for the attention of crime fiction writers is the same thing that make it such a groovy place to live right now. It’s a growing city where an old guard of university types, career politicians and white-collar workers rub shoulders with fashionista millennials, high-tech engineers and immigrants from around the world. This growth is sometimes comfortable and sometimes a collision. But just as you don’t get mountains without tectonic plates crashing together, you don’t get memorable mysteries without conflict, big and small.
Head north out of Columbus on Riverside Drive a few miles, and not long after crossing under the Outerbelt you’ll come to an old Columbus landmark—the limestone slab sculpture known as the Chief Leatherlips monument. The display, honoring a chief of the area’s native Wyandots, is just this side of roadside kitsch. Nonetheless—or perhaps because of that—it’s also a popular tourist destination. The statue underscores the blood at the roots of the region even at the beginning: fellow Wyandots executed Leatherlips by tomahawk in 1810 for befriending whites. Like many a character in a tale of noir, he tried to rise above his station only to suffer a fatal setback. From time immemorial, it’s a common problem in Cowtown—in Columbus—and beyond.
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Excerpted from the introduction to Columbus Noir, edited by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, published by Akashic Books. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.