Philadelphia may be called the City of Brotherly Love, but author Solomon Jones sees the sadder, more complex side of the city.
Jones' books feature Philly police detective Mike Coletti. When we meet him in The Last Confession, he's on the verge of retirement, but before he can head off into the sunset, he's got to confront some demons from his past and catch a serial killer calling himself the Angel of Death.
Angels are a repeating motif in The Last Confession, which kicks off with the discovery of a body in Philadelphia's 30th Street Station, right underneath a giant statue known as the Angel of the Resurrection. The dead man is a priest who witnessed a murder, "so at this point, my antagonist, the Angel of Death, is killing off people and setting up this final confrontation," Jones says.
Without giving away too much of the story, we can say that it's young men doing most of the killing, young men who get drawn into addiction and crime. "Philadelphia for a long time had some of the purest heroin on the East Coast," Jones says, "and I think as we go around the city today, we might see some of these same young people."
Sirens wail in the background as Jones walks along the streets of the Center City neighborhood. "Center City is the place where all of this stuff meets," he says. "The killers in the book are all people who are strung out on heroin, and this is the place where I first noticed the pattern of these young, white suburban kids who come to Philadelphia and are kind of stuck here because of that drug habit."
Those lost kids get drawn in by the Angel of Death, and Jones says death can truly seem angelic at first. "It's beautiful and it feels great, and then by the time you're sucked into it, it's too late, you can't get out," he says. "That's what addiction is like, and I love to explore that in the stories I tell."
And those stories have their roots in Jones' personal experience. He grew up in a working-class Philly neighborhood, and his parents divorced when he was 14 — but they had high expectations for him. "I was gonna be the first college graduate in my family, and the first one to really make it, and I fell off," he says. A cocaine habit led him to a precarious existence on the streets of North Philly, going back and forth between sobriety and bouts of homeless addiction.
"It ended for me in the winter of 1996," Jones says. Desperately ill with pneumonia, he was taken by a friend to Temple University hospital, "and I remember the doctor coming in, he said, 'You know, when you came in here, you only had a 50-50 chance of walking out alive.' So I consider myself fortunate to still be here," he says.
"If I can impact other people, be a role model for my children, if I can be a good husband to my wife, hey man, that's what I want to do, because I don't have a minute to do anything different," Jones adds — and then stops to give encouragement to a man on the street whom he met at a writing workshop.
"Moments like that are great," Jones says, because he can have an impact on young people. "Hopefully when they get to that point where they're at a crossroads, and they're kind of at the end of themselves, they'll remember that, and they'll make the right decision. And one day you'll be interviewing them."
The Last Confession can be read as a straight-up thriller. But there's one place where Jones' personal experience really shows through — a shout out to Jesus in the acknowledgements. "My faith has taught me a lot about how to be a man, and it has been the thing that has really allowed me to take advantage of the gifts that I've been given as a writer and a man, and I'll be forever grateful for that."
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Now, for another installment in our series Crime in the City. Today, we hear from a crime novelist on how the city he writes about also reflects his own story.
Here's our colleague David Greene in Philadelphia.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The City of Brotherly Love, it's where the book "The Last Confession" takes place.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN STATION AMBIENCE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Have your tickets out. All aboard.
GREENE: I met the author Solomon Jones inside the 30th Street train station. And I asked him to read a key scene from the novel, which plays out right there.
SOLOMON JONES: (Reading) By 1:30, 30th Street Station was a madhouse. Trains were backed up, Amtrak police with dogs and rifles were patrolling the stations and platforms. Sandwich and coffee shops were closed, commuters were afraid, and it was all because of an angel.
GREENE: That angel is a real statue that towers over the station's ticketing area. It's the Angel of Resurrection. Turns out, this statue is an important symbol, not only for the novel but in Solomon Jones' life. He went on with the passage.
JONES: (Reading) Today, that depiction of the Archangel Michael lifting a fallen soldier, flanked by Greco-Roman columns stretching nearly a hundred feet from floor to ceiling, was surrounded by crime scene tape. And the dead man at the statue's base was not about to be swept up to heaven.
GREENE: So, there's a dead body right here in your story.
JONES: There's a dead body right here in my story.
GREENE: And who is dead? Who was killed?
JONES: This is a priest who was a witness to one of the murders that was committed. So, at this point, my antagonist - the Angel of Death - is killing off people and setting up this final confrontation.
GREENE: You said that the body, that we would be looking at if we were standing here in your story, was on of many murders in the book.
GREENE: Who's doing the killing?
JONES: Well, then I'd give away the end of the book.
JONES: In general.
GREENE: It's a lot. I mean its young men, largely.
JONES: Right, yes.
GREENE: And they seem to be just sucked into the evil of this city; the heroin, the killing. I mean what does that say about Philadelphia?
JONES: Well, one of the things it says is that Philadelphia for a long time had some the purest heroin on the East Coast. And I think, as we go around the city today, we might see some of these same young people who have sort of been sucked in by that.
GREENE: Where to from here? Where are we going to get a feel for that?
JONES: Oh, we definitely need to go to Center City.
GREENE: Why is that?
JONES: Because Center City is the place where all of this stuff meets.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS)
GREENE: So, this is 15th and Market up here?
JONES: Yeah, 15th and Market is the next block up. We need to cross now.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SIREN)
JONES: The killers in the book are all people who are strung out on heroin. And this is the place where I first noticed the pattern of these young, white suburban kids who come to Philadelphia and are kind of stuck here because of that drug habit.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)
GREENE: There's something so symbolic about, in your book, those kids being sucked in by the Angel of Death. I mean...
JONES: Yeah. You know, death comes in a lot of forms. Death can come as an angel, which is at first, you know, it's beautiful and it feels great. And then, by the time you're sucked into it, it's too late, you can't get out.
GREENE: Sounds like a drug addiction.
JONES: That's what addiction is like. And I love to explore that in the stories I tell, you know, having been there.
GREENE: Having been there, it sounds like you've been there.
JONES: Yeah, I've been there. Grew up in a working-class neighborhood. My parents got divorced when I was 14. As I got older, you know, some of the things that everybody else was doing, I began to do. although I had gone to the same school that my daughter just got into - this great magnate school in Philadelphia.
GREENE: High expectations and...
JONES: High expectations. I was going to be the first college graduate in my family and the first one to really make it. And I fell off. I went from alcohol to marijuana, to cocaine to crack, and ended up on the streets of North Philly, trying to find my way. And there were times when I didn't want to find my way. It's like, OK, I'm going to die like this. This is it for me.
GREENE: How long were you homeless? How long do you consider yourself - did you consider yourself homeless?
JONES: I was in and out. It was all attached to addiction. I would stay clean for a year and then go back out for three months and be homeless. It ended for me in the winter of 1996 and ended up contracting a case of bacterial pneumonia. Somebody took me from a drug house in their little ramshackle car that was barely running. And they took me to Temple University Hospital.
They put tubes in my back. And they put an oxygen mask on my face. And they put a heart monitor on my finger. And I remember the doctor coming in, he said, you know, when you came in here, you only had a 50-50 chance of walking out alive. You know, so I consider myself fortunate to still be here.
And so, if I can impact other people...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: "The Last Confession," right?
JONES: What's up, man?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What's going on?
JONES: All right now.
GREENE: And that was your book.
JONES: Yeah. You know, if I can impact other people, you know, be a role model for my children, if I can be a good husband to my wife - hey, man, that's what I want to do, because I don't have a minute to do anything different.
GREENE: You talk about all the good. I mean going to a magnate school in Philadelphia and having a lot of talent.
GREENE: And then all the bad, you know, the addiction and...
JONES: What's up, man?
GREG: Not bad.
JONES: How are you doing?
GREG: I was at your seminar...
JONES: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, you were in the workshop, right?
GREG: Yeah. Yeah.
JONES: OK, you're going to write your story?
GREG: Yeah. Yeah, I'm writing my story.
JONES: Alright, that's what's up. What's your name?
JONES: Take care of yourself, man.
JONES: Thanks for saying hi. I'll see you later.
GREENE: Well, moments like that must be pretty important to you.
JONES: Moments like that are great, because I realized that I'm impacting young people. And, you know, hopefully when they get to that point where they're at a crossroads, and they're kind of at the end of themselves, they'll remember that. And they'll make the right decision. And one day you'll be interviewing them.
GREENE: I am amazed 'cause your book could easily be read sitting on the beach as just another crime novel.
GREENE: The one thing that stuck me that made it different was the first line in the acknowledgements.
GREENE: And I wonder if you could read that.
JONES: Sure. (Reading) First, I'd like to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who snatched me off the streets and gave me a second chance at life.
GREENE: The one place where you kind of come into your book, but pretty powerfully.
JONES: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, my faith has taught me a lot about how to be a man. And it has been the thing that has really allowed me to take advantage of the gifts that I've been given, as a writer and as a man. And I will be forever grateful for that.
GREENE: Solomon, thank you so much for sharing your book with us, sharing your city with us, and sharing your story with us.
JONES: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WERTHEIMER: Solomon Jones' book is called "The Last Confession." Read an excerpt, see photos at NPR.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
GREENE: And I'm Renee Montagne.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.