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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."