Red-Brick Noir: Boston With Crime Writer Pamela Wechsler

Crime writer Pamela Wechsler takes us on a tour of Boston's red-brick mean streets.

On the strength of her storied career as a Boston attorney, Pamela Wechsler was hired as legal advisor for Hollywood movie, “The Judge” (2014).

Between takes, Wechsler mentioned to star Billy Bob Thornton how, at times of stress, she used to send herself to sleep by obsessively counting crooks—rather than sheep. Thornton was intrigued by this detail and told her she should think about writing a novel.

“That was the jumping off point,” said Wechsler. “The whole thing was his idea.”

She duly scored a three-book deal and conferred her unorthodox solution for insomnia on Abby Endicott, the protagonist of her crime fiction debut, “Mission Hill.” Follow-up “The Graves” is out now, and like its fast-paced predecessor, delivers a potent dose of Boston noir—with a twist.

“Ideally I would like my writing to be a combination of Robert B. Parker and Jane Austen. It’s got that toughness and, you know, a little bit of whimsy.”

Quincy District Court

Local Girl

Although Wechsler spends most of her time in Los Angeles—where she has worked as a technical advisor, writer and producer on multiple TV shows, including the “Law and Order” franchise, “Doubt” and “Bull”—her Boston roots run deep.

“I grew up in Quincy, on the South Shore. I volunteered at the Pine Street Inn when I was at high school, which is a shelter for the homeless. I was very involved and interested in city life, and I did a brief internship as a photographer at the Boston Globe, which gave me a way to explore the city. I worked with some tremendous photographers, and I think that was the beginning of storytelling for me—because that’s what photojournalists do.”

Former jail, The Liberty Hotel (©Michael Weschler Photography)

Sense of Place

Like much great crime fiction, Wechsler’s books are informed by a keen sense of place.

“I think it’s really important,” she said. “I like recognizing places when I read books, and I think it sets a certain tone for the plot and the characters. So for me Boston was a really important part of the books. Boston is a really unique city and I sort of traveled in different worlds from parts of Boston, and that informed my characters and my stories. Working in the district attorney’s office brought me to some places that I would never have access to and so I really wanted to write about them.”

Boston’s history is second nature to Wechsler: “I studied it,” she says. “I grew up steeped in it. Boston has evolved in a lot of ways—but it also hasn’t evolved in a lot of ways. So I thought that was kind of interesting. That’s part of the charm of Boston, it’s part of the good and the bad of Boston.”

The North End

Old Streets and Cobblestones

Even though her fiction describes a world most of us never experience firsthand, the backdrop is grounded in reality.

“The goings-on in the scenes are fictional but the locations are very real,” she said. “I lived near the North End and I loved the old streets and the cobblestones, the area around the Paul Revere House, the restaurants and all that, the waterfront. That was one of my favorite places in Boston. I also lived on Beacon Hill for a while. I think that’s a really special part of Boston. Beacon Hill’s one of those places where families have charge accounts [i.e. they can run up a tab], which I found sort of interesting. I just love walking up Charles Street, through Louisburg Square, all around there.”

All of which makes Wechsler an ideal guide for any Boston visitor or curious local. Riff through her sharp, thrilling novels and—as you navigate the shadows and shadiness of the city's darker sides—you’ll find many great Boston locations well worth further investigation.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (©Siena Scarff)

Tour and Order

Pamela Wechsler sets her crime fiction on the mean streets of Boston—but it's not all cops and robbers. She loves these places:

Restaurants: I used to go to The Paramount all the time. I have a lot of fond memories of that place. In college I used to go to Bartley’s [Mr Bartley’s Gourmet Burger] in Harvard Square.

Culture: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is my favorite museum. And now it also has the new wing. I think it’s so beautiful in and of itself, especially when it’s springtime and the flowers are all in bloom—and the art is fantastic.

Bar: The Liberty Hotel is a fun place to go and have a drink. It used to be the Charles Street jail. There are real mug shots of celebrities on the walls.

Classes: I would recommend GrubStreet to any aspiring writer. Even after I had my three-book deal I still went every week and workshopped my pages, just for a sense of community.