Michael Ayoob was born in Lawrenceville, grew up in Brookline, and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University. Then he left for New York. But he came back to finish a book that reflects what he calls his "love-hate" relationship with the city.
In Search of Mercy, Ayoob's first novel, follows an atypical private-eye plot. Its protagonist, former ice-hockey star Dexter Bolzjak, sets out to find a Hollywood seductress formerly engaged to Lou Kashon, an habitually intoxicated Strip District businessman. Yet, having been kidnapped and sexually abused during high school, Bolzjak searches, more than anything else, for his former self buried beneath the weight of his memories.
In Search of Mercy (Minotaur Books) won the Private Eye Writers of America's Best First Private Eye Novel competition.
"I think it's honest," Ayoob says of his book's depiction of the city. "Pittsburghers love it here but still like to complain about it. And we also know a lot of its faults, but we get brutally defensive when someone from a bigger city starts making fun of it. It's almost familial."
Ayoob, 35, attended grad school at Columbia University. That's where he began the novel -- and found himself defending his choice to set the book in the Steel City.
"It was really weird at Columbia, because you'd run into a lot of weird attitudes about Pittsburgh or writing about Pittsburgh," recalls Ayoob. "There's one chapter in the book where a character sees a neighbor in a tire swing. One of my classmates actually asked, 'Do they have tire swings in Pittsburgh?'"
All that made Ayoob focus on his scene-setting. He needed to capture the city's shadows, its characters and its style. To describe its tire swings in a way that even New Yorkers would believe. So he moved back.
The resulting prose describes "a guy with a mullet and a Steelers tank top, showing off his inflated arms."
With a surgeon's eye for subtlety, Ayoob dissects Downtown and the Strip, carefully outlining the curve of the rivers and the wedge of the land. Of our quirky cartography, Ayoob writes, "[I]t's like two different guys designed two different grids for Downtown." And of the Strip, where most of his novel is set, he notes, "[I]ts mini-groceries, cafes, diners and junk shops make you feel like a traitor for shopping anywhere else."
"When I went to New York I tried to remember things from years ago. When I moved back here, I wanted to be able to just walk around the Strip and make sure I had everything right," he says.
Since completing the book, in 2009, Ayoob has taken a day job with the city's Citizen Police Review Board. And he's back living in Lawrenceville -- practically next door to those Strip District locales his fiction strives to make real on the page.
In Search of Mercy book-launch with Michael Ayoob. 2 p.m. Sun., Oct. 31. Mystery Lovers Bookshop, 514 Allegheny River Blvd., Oakmont. Free. 412-828-4877