You think you have seen America in countless movies and cop shows, or read about it in novels. You may have seen tourist brochures that show the major attractions and entertainments, a somewhat different view. You may also be a fan of fine literature, of which America can boast many writers. But John Williams is interested in crime, especially American crime. He contends that the crime novel is as valid a form of writing to give an insight into the 'Real America,' which lies beyond both tourist traps and Hollywood (or New York or Chicago) generated entertainment, where ordinary, real Americans live a darker life.
With this in mind, a higher respect for crime fiction and a fascination for the country that produced it, John Williams wanted both to meet some of the greats of the crime-writing genre and see some of the actual locations - The Badlands of this book's title - and find out the truth about the less savoury activities, people and places in this huge land. To do this he travels east to west through the southern states, then back east via the northern route, visiting crime-writers and the cities, crimes and criminals that they write about.
The book largely works because you know you are getting a bird's eye view of the reality, admittedly as filtered through Williams' own interests and obsessions. Some of it makes pretty grim reading - wait till you get to a chapter that forewarns with the title, 'As Cold As it Gets.' You sometimes wish that Mr Williams would lighten up the exposition with something a little less squalid. But this is a country of poor as well as rich, and poor people sometimes, even in a highly developed society, do some pretty awful things, just to get by, on a daily basis, like it's nothing more than going out to fetch milk or bread.
Dark, compelling, depressing even, but also enlightening - the America that even America probably doesn't want other people to see.