Award-winning crime fiction novel explores Queens and its denizens

Headshot of author Michael Sears. (Photo by Rod Goodman)

As crime fiction writer Michael Sears pondered his next novel, biblical images were likely swirling in his head when he likened Queens to the Tower of Babel – the title of his latest book, which explores the “World’s Borough” and its denizens, their tormentors and their heroes.

“Tower of Babel” (Soho Press) is the first in a brand-new series from the author of “Black Fridays” and the Jason Stafford novels. According to Publishers Weekly, “Fans of Raymond Chandler and classic gangster films will be rewarded.”

Front cover design credit – copyright James Iacobelli. Cover image credit – copyright Felix Lipov/Shutterstock

QNS readers who love crime fiction will surely enjoy a touch of noir in the most culturally and ethnically diverse place on the planet, as the story unfolds with an array of colorful characters including arrogant – and criminal – real estate developers, crooked politicians, gangsters and low-lives.

“The action of the book is propelled by a developer’s wish to create a mammoth high-rise, emblazoned with his name. The Tower of Babel is what one of the characters likens it to,” Sears explained.

“In the Bible, Nimrod, a mighty king, attempts to create such a monument. God punishes the people for their arrogance by creating different languages, so they cannot communicate. In Queens, most people get along by overcoming their differences,” he added.

Formerly, a high-powered Manhattan attorney, protagonist Ted Molloy now ekes out a living as a foreclosure profiteer. The honest, law-abiding scavenger gets by on the scraps he can find in Queens real estate, but his life changes when he falls for a good-looking community activist, with a passion for saving working-class communities from the ravages of development. An unlikely pair to take on the rich and powerful. And then there are plenty of locals. You will recognize them all.

It’s a dirty business, but a safe one – until Ted’s case source, a mostly reformed, small-time conman named Richie Rubiano, turns up murdered shortly after tipping Ted off to an improbably lucrative lead. With Richie’s widow on his back and shadows of the past popping up at every turn, Ted realizes he’s gotten himself embroiled in a murder investigation. His quest for the truth will take him all over Queens, plunging him into the machinations of greedy developers, mobsters, enraged activists, old litigator foes and old-school New York City operators.

The author regularly does research for his novels, in the borough. While writing “Tower of Babel,” which was awarded the 2022 Nero Award (the audiobook version won the Audiofile Award), and its sequel, “Love the Stranger” (due out in 2024), he would drive around or walk the streets, soaking up the sights and sounds, talking to vendors and enjoying a variety of ethnic fare that Queens is known for. Sears admits to inventing certain retail establishments, but noted that he likes to be accurate in depicting the tone of a neighborhood. 

“Jackson Heights has to be my favorite neighborhood. Not solely for the food, but that’s got a lot to do with it,” he shared.

The author described a “memorable” moment from an interaction he once had with a strange Queens local: “Early on in the book, Ted describes how he met the man who ended up working for him. The guy tried to con him into helping him cash a check. The check was bogus, of course, and Ted doesn’t fall for it. I had just this experience outside a Citi branch one day. I’d heard of the scam before, and it was fascinating to watch the man try to reel me in,” Sears recalled. “I do admit to once falling for the ‘I need twenty bucks to get a bus back to New Jersey,’ routine. I gave him five.”

While the author has never lived in Queens (he has lived in Manhattan and Nassau and currently resides in Sea Cliff, NY), he has previously worked here doing private real estate investing and tax lien lending.

“Queens is often thought of as a semi-suburban, low-crime, almost boring, place to live for Manhattan commuters, who can’t afford Manhattan apartment rents,” Sears noted. “Brooklyn is cool. Queens is not. But Queens is where immigrants first set roots and where communities of immigrants remain stable for generations. Lots of change bangs up against nothing ever changes … There is constant tension, and yet people live together in relative peace. Like the Mets, Queens offers constant hope with occasional heartbreak.”

But in some ways, Queens is still cooler than Brooklyn.

“Brooklyn is home to haves and have-nots. Queens has strivers and dreamers,” Sears continued. “Despite a few well-publicized explosions, everybody pretty much gets along. That may not be unique, but it is certainly something special.” 

“Black Fridays” and the three sequels in that series, have been described as financial thrillers with heart.

“There are plenty of Wall Street criminals, and a reformed ex-con to hunt them down, but there is also a beautiful young boy on the autism spectrum, who will break your heart again and again,” the author noted. 

Until 2005, Sears was a managing director for two different Wall Street firms, where he worked in the bond market for twenty years and, earlier, in foreign exchange and derivatives. Prior to returning to Columbia University for his MBA, he was, for eight years, a professional actor appearing at the Shakespeare Theatre of Washington (Folger Theatre), Playwright’s Theater of Washington, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, The Comedy Stage Co., and, in the course of a single year, every soap opera shot in New York City.  

“Tower of Babel” is available in hardback, paperback, e-book, and audio from your local bookstore. It is also available from the usual online sellers. Amazon selected it as an editor’s pick.