Mar 112014
(Editor’s note: Below you will find the 48th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series. It was sent our way by Bruce DeSilva, who put in four decades as a journalist, working as an editor and national writer at The Hartford Courant and as an investigative reporter for The Providence Journal. More recently, he’s served as a writing coach for The Associated Press. His first novel, 2010’s Rogue Island introduced Liam Mulligan, a Rhode Island newspaper veteran, who reappeared in 2012’s Cliff Walk. DeSilva’s latest Mulligan outing, Providence Rag--about which he writes here--is being released this week by Forge.)

I’ve certainly never thought of myself as delicate, but novels, movies, and TV shows about serial killers often make me squirm. It’s been that way ever since my real-life brush with one.

Not that I was ever in any danger. The killer in question was already behind bars before I spent several weeks of my life researching and writing a magazine story about him. It was the kind of article journalists call a hell of a good story, but my god, it was an ugly one.

The killer’s weapon of choice was butcher knives, and he used them to stab his victims over and over again, long after he knew they were gone. The dead included two sweet little girls. As a father, I couldn’t help but imagine their terror, and it sickened me. I know this sounds melodramatic, but sometimes, in my dreams, I can still hear them scream.

So two decades later, when I retired from a 40-year-long journalism career to write crime novels, I was sure I would never write one about a serial killer. I didn’t want to get that close to pure evil again.

Yet, those long-ago murders never stopped working on my subconscious, the place where novels are born.

For several years, I resisted the impulse to fictionalize the story. I told myself we’ve already got all the make-believe serial killers we need. Ever since Thomas Harris upped the ante with Hannibal Lecter, novelists and screenwriters have been tripping all over themselves trying to make each new psychotic butcher more twisted than the last. We’ve been treated to Jigsaw (who cuts his victims into puzzle pieces), The Grave Digger (who buries them alive in automobiles), Red John (who paints smiley faces on walls with human blood), Floyd Feylin Ferrell (who serves investigators chili made from his victims’ flesh) … I could go on, but I trust I’ve made my point.

When the compulsion to fictionalize the real-life case became too great to resist, I knew I would have to write a different kind of serial-killer book, one in which the focus would be on something other than brutal murder and criminal detection.

The result is Providence Rag, the third novel in my Edgar Award-winning series featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter for a dying newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island. The murders are committed and the killer is imprisoned in the first 75 pages. The rest of the book is dedicated to exploring an impossible moral dilemma: What are decent people supposed to do when a legal loophole requires that an unrepentant serial killer be released--and when the only way to keep him locked up is to fabricate new charges against him?

Convicted murderer Craig Price, aka “the Warwick Slasher”

The real criminal who inspired the novel is Craig Price, the most notorious murderer in Rhode Island history. He slaughtered two women and two children before he was old enough to drive. Just 13 years old when he began killing, and 15 when he was caught, he was the youngest serial killer in U.S. history. But that’s not the interesting part.

When Price was arrested in 1989, the state’s antiquated juvenile justice statutes had not been updated for decades, and when they were written, no one had ever imagined a child like him. So the law required that all juveniles, regardless of their crimes, be released and given a fresh start at age 21.

The state legislature promptly rewrote the law so this wouldn’t happen again, but in America, you can’t change the rules retroactively. So the authorities were faced with the chilling prospect of releasing Price after he’d served only six years for his crimes. Robert K. Ressler, one of the first FBI profilers, and the man credited with coining the term “serial killer,” was horrified. If Price gets out, he told me, “you’ll be piling up the bodies.”

But Price did not get out. Today, 25 years later, he remains behind bars, convicted of a series of assaults and offenses he supposedly committed while in prison. I have long suspected that some of these charges were fabricated, but at the very least it is obvious that Price has been absurdly over-sentenced. For example, the state gave him additional prison time for breaking a rule against swearing at correctional officers. Prisoners do that all the time, of course, but Price was the first to have his sentence extended for it. Later, he was given 30 years for contempt because he declined to submit to a court-ordered psychiatric examination.

Have the authorities abused their power to prevent Price’s release? Quite possibly. Should he ever be set free and given the chance to prey on the innocent again? I don’t think so. The ethical dilemma the case poses fascinates me. No matter which side you come down on, you are condoning something that is reprehensible. I wrote the novel to explore the implications of all this.

In real life, this conundrum hasn’t caused any soul-searching in Rhode Island--at least not publicly. Everyone seems content to let Price rot in prison. And who can blame them?

(Right) Author Bruce DeSilva

But a novel is fiction, after all, and Providence Rag is in no way intended to accurately depict real events. In the book, the ethical issue at the heart of the story haunts Mulligan and his colleagues at the Providence Dispatch.

Some people argue that authorities who are faking charges against the killer are perverting the criminal justice system. And if they are allowed to get away with it, what’s to stop them from framing someone else? Besides, it’s the journalist’s mission to report the truth.

Others argue that if the Dispatch breaks the story and the killer is released, he’s bound to kill again. And when that happens, the newspaper will have blood on its hands.

The dilemma eventually embroils Mulligan, his fellow reporters, his editors, and the entire state in a heated confrontation over where justice lies.

READ MORE:Writer Interviews--Bruce DeSilva,” by Kristi Belcamino; “Bruce DeSilva,” by Gerald Bartell (Kirkus Reviews).
Jan 302014
(Editor’s note: Below you will find the 47th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series. It was sent to us by E.A. “Ed” Aymar, who was born in Panama but now lives outside of Washington, D.C., with his wife and their small animal menagerie. Aymar’s first novel, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, was released late last year by Black Opal Books. The essay below supplies some background to that book.)

No antihero is more exciting to me than a kick-ass vigilante. I love the concept of the good guy who goes bad, who fights a moral war against those without morals. As a kid, I devoured the cheesy violence of Mack Bolan and the Punisher comic books (the families of both protagonists had been killed by the mafia), and as I grew older, I kept searching for scarred heroes in literature. So it makes sense that my debut thriller, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, centers around Tom Starks, a widowed single parent desperate to avenge the murder of his wife. Unable to pull the trigger himself, Starks hires a pair of hit men (well, one is a hit woman) to do the job for him. But that job is soon botched, and Tom and his daughter inadvertently become the assassins’ new targets.

Of course, by the time I wrote my novel, my concept of justifiable vengeance had lost its black-and-white simplicity. As a resident of the D.C./Maryland/Virginia triangle, and the child of a parent who was in the Pentagon at the time of impact (but, fortunately, survived), I keenly felt the echoes of September 11, 2001. I lost some of my enthusiasm for revenge when it was played out on a global scale, and in the national debate about which lines were necessary to cross. Furthermore, TV shows born in the same time period--such as 24--that never bothered to question their heroes’ questionable actions, bothered me. Unlike the majority of 24’s critics, only part of my concern was its endorsement of torture; most of my criticism was because of the empty personality of the show’s lead. A driven but bland hero can survive in television and film by his charismatic good looks but, speaking as a novelist, a character like that couldn’t be more boring to write.

Don’t get me wrong; I love tough guys, and tough guys as well as tough woman populate the pages of I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. But my first-person, vengeance-seeking protagonist isn’t part of their world. Yes, Tom Starks wants revenge, and yes, that desire consumes him; but I was often surprised that Tom found himself more reluctant than he initially realized, even as he was dragged into a world darker than he’d imagined. My aspiring vigilante had trouble making the kind of choices his quest required, and I love that about him. He rushes through the pages of the novel and through his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, first seeking and then desperately rejecting the antihero label, while violence thickens around him like a sick fog. I only realized well after the book was written just how much his indecision was rooted in my complicated thoughts about revenge.

And that’s one of the best parts about developing a character, especially a character you get to grow over time (I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead being the first book in a trilogy). The choices Tom Starks struggles with in book one may be a given course of action in books two and three. There’s a lot of fun in this challenge, but you’re always faced with a risk if your character is seeking violence: how far can you extend the sympathy of the reader? And how far can Tom, in this instance, go before he loses my sympathies as his creator? Does his journey have to end in redemption, or does it simply end in an acceptance of evil? After all, there’s a lot of fun in being evil, but life, especially in fiction, needs limits.

This is an antihero path we’ve seen in characters from Hamlet to Humbert Humbert to Darth Vader, and it’s a hell of a joy to write. It’s also a tricky path, because you have to hope that readers stick with your protagonist to the end. And you have to trust that even if those readers disagree with his decisions, they understand and believe them. Even as Tom sheds his morals (or, depending on your point of view, adopts new ones), he has to stay believable, he has to stay human. He can’t scar; he has to bleed.
Jan 132014
(Editor’s note: This 46th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series comes from Kathleen George, a professor of Theatre Arts at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of Taken, Fallen, Afterimage, The Odds (an Edgar Award finalist for Best Novel), Hideout, Simple, and her forthcoming book, The Johnstown Girls. Below, she recalls the evolution of A Measure of Blood, her seventh novel featuring Pittsburgh homicide chief Richard Christie, which is being released this week by Mysterious Press/Open Road.)

I need to fall in love before I write a novel. In the case of A Measure of Blood it happened when I met a gorgeous child, the son of a distant relative of my husband--his half-niece. This woman, let us call her Angie, had wanted a child badly and decided to get pregnant by artificial insemination. She was at the top age for motherhood, but it worked. The child was physically beautiful, smart, too, but a little sad, a little nervous. Everybody at a Thanksgiving gathering wanted to please him, to entertain him, to make him calm and secure. Did he mind not having a father, I wondered. I suspected he did.

A few years later we found out that the boy’s mother was seriously ill and needed constant medical care. She was unable to care for the boy any longer. We were not young enough to take him and make a life for him (though I wished we were). Thankfully, other relatives of the right ages stepped in. But for me a plot began to form. What if a mother died leaving a child she’d had through artificial insemination with no one, no relative to claim him? And what if the clinic that had helped her to become pregnant had a policy of not revealing the sperm donor; what would happen?

That question then became: What would happen if a single mother were murdered and the man who did it wanted the child? Stalked the child. Got the child. What would the police have to go on?

At first I thought I would set the novel in New York (even though my Richard Christie series is completely set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), because the actual person who inspired the story lives in that city. I began researching Child Services in New York and learned quickly that it is a tough system, insisting on immediate foster care, no wiggle room. Hard on the child, but also hard on my novel’s plot. So why, I asked myself, could a woman not get pregnant at a fertility clinic in New York and live her life in Pittsburgh? Ah, I was back on home ground and it felt good.

I created a mother out of several people I’d known. I saw Maggie Brown as a woman who loved her kid, who was always tired (from holding down three jobs), an artistic type--a painter who was getting discouraged about painting something she really believed in. She often let her son, 7 years old, mess with computer games and video games because she didn’t have the energy to stop him. She never told him anything about his father (and the fact is, she knew almost nothing about him from the clinic). So both she and her son, Matt, are surprised one day when a man from her past approaches them in a supermarket parking lot, furious that she didn’t tell him he had a son. The boy witnesses the angry confrontation. He wants to know if the man is his father. His mother tells him the man is not. A few months later, she’s dead and Matt has no one.

I keep writing about “parentified” children--those children who need to be strong, adult before it is time, because they either have damaged parents or no parents. These parentified children have appeared in all my books to this point, but perhaps most memorably in The Odds (2009). In that novel, four children are living on their own, managing to get to school and to find food, because they do not want to be separated. They are the Philips kids--Meg, Laurie, Joel, and Susannah. And they are definitely adults before their time. A good number of people fell in love with them (as I had, as I had to do to write that novel) and asked me for more of them. But I couldn’t just force another story out of them. I wanted to visit them again … but how? Why? I found a way to bring them in for some scenes of A Measure of Blood. Who could be more sympathetic to bereft Matt Brown? Meg Philips knows how to talk to him. It was terrific fun to be able to bring her back.

(Right) Author Kathleen George

But my main team is still there. Commander Christie, his pal Detective Artie Dolan, his partner, Colleen Greer, and her lover, Detective John Potocki. And this case particularly shakes Christie. Seven years old, abandoned and parentified? He’s been there. He identifies. So he becomes overly involved in Matt’s case, trying to find him the perfect family. All the while he asks these questions: Who was Matt’s biological father? Who killed Matt’s mother? And are they the same person?

The couple Christie puts Matt with as hopeful adoptive parents have echoes of my husband and me. It’s easy to figure out the psychological connections in that invention! I made Jan Gabriel a theater director (as I have been) and she is directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream (one of the Shakespeare plays I did not do) in the Charity Randall Theatre (where I spent much of my life). It was strange and wonderful to be able to bring in so much of my theater self to this novel. I set scenes in my office in the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt. And at the park across the street. And at the 7-Eleven down the street. And as things unfolded I had Jan do what I would have done to keep Matt safe. She cast him as the changeling child in the play so she could keep him near her.

But I know how those rehearsals are--people coming and going, the monomania of rehearsing. And Jan does not keep Matt safe. He’s gone. That’s the turning point of both the novel and of the boy’s life.

READ MORE:What Is Kathleen George Reading?” (Writers Read).
Aug 122013
(Editor’s note: This 45th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series comes from Evanston, Illinois, author Sam Reaves. A former president of the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, he has worked as a translator and a teacher, and has published 10 novels thus far--half a dozen under his own name, and three others as “Dominic Martell.” Reaves’ most recent book is the neo-noir crime thriller Mean Town Blues (2008), but in the piece below he recalls his efforts in crafting a previous novel, Homicide 69, which was re-released last month in e-book form. You’ll find it offered by Amazon as well as by Smashwords.)

You never stop learning. In 1991 my first novel, A Long Cold Fall, was published by Putnam. It was a more or less hard-boiled tale about a Chicago cab driver, Cooper MacLeish, who gets involved in a murder investigation. It was set mostly in the Rogers Park neighborhood where I lived and there wasn’t a lot of police procedure or insider knowledge in the story. It was a decent first novel, but it wasn’t really a Chicago novel, in the sense that it could have taken place pretty much anywhere. I wrote three more books in that series, each one a little more connected to the city, a little more rooted in the conditions that make it a great setting for writing about crime. I was learning.

I didn’t grow up in Chicago, but when I published that first novel I’d lived there for more than 10 years, reading the papers and talking to people, and I thought I knew a lot about the city. I didn’t, really, but I knew enough to be getting on with. For that first book my research consisted largely of talking to a former Chicago Police Department (CPD) homicide detective, who’d been introduced to me by a mutual friend. We met over coffee and he was gentle with me; I could see the amusement in his eyes as the expanse of my ignorance became apparent to him. I mined the information he gave me for another couple of books’ worth of faked expertise.

I got distracted by other things for a while, writing very different books under a different name, but then in 1997 I came across a book in my local library that got me energized about Chicago stories again. The book was called The Enforcer, by William Roemer, formerly the head of the FBI’s organized-crime squad in Chicago, and it was a biography of Tony Spilotro, the Chicago hood who was sent out to Las Vegas in the 1970s to watch over things and made so much noise that he wound up getting whacked and then immortalized in a Nicholas Pileggi book and a Martin Scorsese film (1995’s Casino). Roemer had butted heads with Spilotro in Chicago early in his career, and though he wasn’t much of a prose stylist, he certainly had the goods on Spilotro and his Outfit pals. I’d been aware of Chicago’s entrenched organized-crime culture, of course, but had never really gotten interested in it as a source of fictional material. Now it hooked me. When I finished reading Roemer’s book I realized I had been sitting on an inexhaustible fount of inspiration for a crime writer.

I started reading everything I could find about the Outfit, and I started talking to people again. I networked and cold-called and went to meet people and listened as they tried to educate me. I plotted, researched, and produced a novel in eight months, the fastest I’ve ever worked. The novel was Dooley’s Back, the story of Frank Dooley, an ex-cop coming back to Chicago after a self-imposed exile to find that his former partner has a gambling problem and consequently a mob problem. That mob problem is the mainspring of the plot.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s mob problem had begun to seem to me like a potentially rich literary theme. You can’t understand Chicago without knowing its history as a wide-open frontier town that exploded into a major metropolis in a few short decades, entrenching a culture of corruption that endures to this day, though much attenuated by successful federal prosecutions. Chicago is considerably cleaner than it used to be, but it has been irrevocably shaped by the vice and corruption that lay at its heart from the beginning. And there’s a great deal of human drama in that.

Within a year I was working on a prequel to Dooley’s Back, a book on a larger scale. This one was a big-picture attempt to capture a whole era. Set in 1969, it featured Frank Dooley’s father, Mike, an old-school homicide dick working a mob-related murder case against the background of the rapid and traumatic social changes of the late ’60s.

I had gotten interested in the succession struggle that took place in the Outfit as Paul “The Waiter” Ricca and Tony Accardo got old and attempted to retire while leaving some kind of stable regime in place. No Ottoman palace or third-world dictatorship ever saw more intrigue and backstabbing. I fictionalized elements of the struggle and used them as the basis of the novel, entitled Homicide 69, in which I sought to capture the city’s culture of corruption at a moment of crisis.

To do that, I needed to speak with people who had been there. Networking again, I was put in touch with a retired CPD detective named John DiMaggio, who had seen and done just about everything over the course of his long police career. John turned out to be the best sort of informant a writer could have. He gave me reams of information about police procedures, circa 1969, reviewed my chapters as they were written, and provided insights drawn from a career spent confronting corruption within the police department.

Another contact of mine was Arthur Bilek, now the head of the Chicago Crime Commission, who modernized CPD training under reform superintendent O.W. Wilson in the early ’60s, before heading the Cook County Sheriff’s Police. In the latter position Bilek confronted Richard Cain, a mysterious figure who rose high in Chicago law enforcement--despite notorious mob ties--before dying in a high-profile hit in 1973. The fictionalized character of Cain is at the heart of the plot of Homicide 69. Over a memorable lunch one day, Art sketched out for me the labyrinthine connections between cops, politicians, and mobsters of that era, scrawling an intricate diagram on the paper mat covering the table that I wish I had had the sense to collect and keep.

It was a priceless education. The lesson for me as a writer was that you have to do your homework. My books got better as I learned more about the city I lived in, exploring its ethnic chemistry, geography, rivalries, tensions, and power relationships. You can make a lot of things up, but if you aspire to write fiction that will last, it has to be firmly rooted in reality. A real novel with a chance to transcend its genre conveys something true about people and their environment. And to accomplish that you can’t just sit at the desk and recycle ideas from other books. You have to go out into the real world and talk with people. It’s an education, and it has to be a continuing one.
Jul 122013
(Editor’s note: This 44th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series comes from Los Angeles-based freelance editor Elaine Ash, better known to crime-fiction readers as Anonymous-9. While helping David Cranmer launch the Webzine Beat to a Pulp back in 2008, Ash wrote short works of fiction, 11 of which were gathered into the 2011 e-book The 1st Short Story Collection. Her storytelling has earned her a variety of commendations, including Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Short Story on the Web Award in 2009, the 2012 Readers’ Choice Award from The House of Crime and Mystery, and a couple of Derringer Award nominations. With Cranmer, Ash edited Beat to a Pulp: Round One [2010]. She currently pens a blog, Ashedit, and is the author of Hard Bite, which New Pulp Press released in June, and about which she writes below.)

Why did I write this book, my book, Hard Bite? I ponder this while sitting in the smoldering ruins of my modest back-house rental (an illegal garage conversion; this is the new California). As smoke coils in the corners it occurs to me that I wrote Hard Bite because I had to. Because I’d be branded a dilettante and a failure if I didn’t. “Writer” is what I’ve always called myself, feeling a fraud but nevertheless categorizing myself with a label the world understands, and at some point you’ve just got to put up or shut up. Something readable must be produced. So I flung myself at the task like a spawning salmon braving the rapids, refusing all the paid work I could afford to turn away while researching and revising and obsessing ... until the barest minimum word count eked onto enough pages to qualify as a novel. Manuscript in hand, short though it was, I knew it could move faster. Fifteen thousand slow-moving words were excised and replaced with 10,000 words that moved, ripped, exploded, cried, and howled. Now I had something.

What’s the story behind the story? I formulate an answer while perspiring in the humid California gloom of June, glowing embers from the most recent fire illuming my one-room house here and there--never fear, a pan of water is at hand in case a fire flower blooms, and they do occasionally. ... Still, turning on the battered air conditioner isn’t an option, even though power is included in my meager rent. My writing desk is positioned too close to the A/C unit and cold air blows across my vulnerable neck while the rest of me threatens heat stroke. I live in this hovel because I write. Because I write, the book finally came. Gentle reader, is a picture coming clear?

I had an idea for a character and the voice of a character, and it was all good fun until I committed to writing the book full-length and discovered that I knew nothing about serial killers and police procedures, the Mexican Mafia, or “life on wheels,” as people in wheelchairs call it. Research was called for, and in Los Angeles every scruffy screenwriter has exhausted normal avenues for conducting it. Talking to cops, dropping by stations, going on jail tours--all that stuff is out-of-bounds to any L.A.-based writer with less than a three-picture deal with Paramount or at least a two-book deal with Random House and an agent at Trident. So I had to be inventive and sly and do things such as lie my way into the coroner’s office and pretend to wait for a friend with a freshly dead relative, so I could eavesdrop on the staff and catch snatches of phone conversations. I can’t tell you what else I did or the Fifth will have to be invoked ...

So why did I write this story? Because I had the voice of a paraplegic man in my head, and he was struggling for recognition, struggling to prove he was still a man who stood for something. Although Dean Drayhart’s body was damaged, his free will and sense of justice were unscathed. His voice was so strong that I needed to create a whole world for him to shout from. Dean pushed me on and on, stumbling through the dark, scrambling for research to flesh out the chalk outlines he drew in my head.

But back to the questions implied at the beginning of this essay: How did I come to be sitting in my own home while it burned? Who set the fire? What about 9-1-1? The answers lie in four simple steps to concocting noir fiction that came to me some years ago. I always employ them before writing anything that has to be good. Good and original. Not only good and original, but something more on top of that. An energy thing, a truth thing; a driven, raw quality that threatens to go off the rails at any moment but holds on by its fingernails as the plot twists and careens--BOOM! Perhaps sharing my helpful hints will solve the mystery ...

Author Anonymous-9, aka Elaine Ash

Step One: In solitude, I organize my writing area. In case the computer crashes or worse, distracts me, two pens are laid out, just in case. A pad of lined paper is also helpful.

Step Two: I set fire to the area. The room must get good and scorched--dousing too soon drowns the muse. Smoldering embers in a few places are OK--there’s nothing like the threat of combustion and smell of smoke to inspire a noirist.

Step Three: Sifting through the ashes of my possessions, I grab whatever material is left to write upon. I am prepared, if the computer and pens are destroyed, to open a vein and write with my own blood on the sooty wall--blood and grime contribute mightily to noir. Anything I write at this stage pulses on the page because it contains the four five essential elements of the genre: loss, pain, desperation, and the will to live. Let’s not forget a glimpse of mortality.

Step Four: These preparations have linked me in spirit to lions of the genre such as James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson--if not in talent and craft, then in willingness to reduce my life to ashes for the sake of art. Smoke swirls and I hold a cloth over my mouth as the three enemies of noir are banished from my consciousness: levelheadedness, dignity, and esteem. Reckless abandon courses through my veins. The computer is a charred lump, so I pick up a pen ...

And those, dear reader, are the conditions under which I wrote Hard Bite. Or at least it felt like those conditions. Every word here conveys a kind of truth. At this juncture you may feel some sympathy for me, even pity. Please save it for those who want it. Instead, click this link and read a few of the 43 rave reviews (mostly) for Hard Bite at Perhaps you’ll then click the “Buy” button and acquaint yourself with the paraplegic Dean Drayhart and the characters who people his world. It’s a deal at $4.99 for digital, or splurge on a paperback for a trifle more.
Jun 242013
(Editor’s note: This 43rd entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series comes from Linda L. Richards, an author and resident of British Columbia, Canada, who also serves as the editor of January Magazine and contributes frequently to The Rap Sheet. In the essay below, she writes about Death Was in the Blood, her new, third novel in a succession of historical mysteries set in Los Angeles. It follows 2008’s Death Was the Other Woman and 2009’s Death Was in the Picture.)

I don’t remember participating in the creation of Kitty Pangborn.

I’ve talked about this before.

I was in a period of reading a great deal of classic noir fiction. More than my share. And amid all the drinking and testosterone-informed shenanigans, I began to see her there, at the edge of things. A voice of sense and sanity (a feminine one, of course) in a rough-edged world peopled by men who’d seen too much and had paid too high a cost in a war years past--one they still carried around with them, emblazoned on their souls.

Men like that, they’re good men, but broken sometimes. It can be as true now as it was then. We’re luckier now, at least some of the time. We have words for things; acronyms even. And we know that post-traumatic stress syndrome can do funny things to a soldier’s mind and heart. But during the first half of the 20th century? They didn’t have words for such problems back then. “He’s busted up inside,” someone might say. Or, “You mean that Theroux boy? He ain’t been right since he came back. There’s nothin’ wrong with him, you understand. But he ain’t been right at all.”

These men--these big-hearted yet shadowy and broken men--loom large in the work of some of my favorite wordsmiths. Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon, et al.) is racing from demons, I’m sure of it. We don’t really know that. Hammett never says, but one can imagine that Sam Spade’s story was influenced at least in part by Hammett’s own. Hammett had enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1918 and served in the Motor Ambulance Corps until he contracted Spanish Flu and then later tuberculosis. Hammett lost his health to the military, and it seems entirely possible he lost more than that. And certainly, the detectives he later wrote about were broken in ways the author never clearly defined, but that we could sense, all the same. Lost boys, in a way. Lost in distant lands and never to find their way back, even when they made it all the way home.

So during all of this noir reading, I began to see that it was not possible for the lost boys peopling that field of fiction to actually be accomplishing what they seemed to be accomplishing. The drinking they were managing all on their own. The occasional womanizing, sure, they were doing all right with that. But, as people, it often seemed they were so shattered, it was unlikely they could keep businesses together. Yet there it was, in tale after tale: their name on the door. Phones ringing. Clients more or less standing in line.

When they were out of the office, though--drinking, or womanizing, or even out on a case--who was looking after things then? And who was keeping it all together, just running the day-to-day business?

I don’t even remembering what wild and crazy hat I pulled Katherine “Kitty” Pangborn out of. The name, I mean. And the girl, as well. Suddenly, she was just standing there, tidy threadbare office suit, sensible shoes, and all. I know she was somewhat inspired by Spade’s capable secretary, Effie Perrine. Effie, whom you had the feeling was young and even lovely, yet whose sister-like relationship with Sam was refreshingly free of that often-all-too-tiresome frisson that can muddy up the clearest noir waters.

Although the latest Kitty Pangborn novel, Death Was in the Blood, stands alone (as all my series books have done) and doesn’t rely on readers having enjoyed the books in sequence, I think it is a darker read than those that have gone before. Kitty herself is in a darker place. No longer just happy to have found a way to keep a roof over her head during America’s Great Depression, she’s thinking about her life and about what might have been, and discovering she’s not entirely happy with the result. For me, that’s one of the things that defines Death Was in the Blood most sharply. Meeting the beautiful and privileged client Flora Woodruff, an aristocratic young woman about Kitty’s own age, forces Kitty to examine her own life and the odd turns it’s taken since her father’s suicide led her to find a job working with Los Angeles private eye Dexter J. Theroux.

* * *

A lot of the action in Death Was in the Blood takes place against preparations for the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California. That was, in many ways, a ground-breaking Olympics. It took place at the height of the Depression and a number of countries pulled out because they simply couldn’t afford to send their teams on such a big trip. Less than half the number of participants of the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam competed in L.A. in 1932.

That competition in Los Angeles marked the first time in history that an Olympic village was built to house the athletes. It was apparently really fantastic, with dining halls and entertainment centers and even a screening room where the athletes could watch moving pictures of their performances from the day. (And nobody had iPhones, so it was a pretty big deal.) Movie stars would drop by every night and give impromptu shows (so L.A.!), but it was all for the men. The women athletes were housed in a hotel on Wilshire Boulevard and got left out of all the fun--though, in fairness, it should be said that 1,206 men competed, compared with only 126 women.

So all of this is known absolutely: we have first-hand accounts, we have photos and even film. What we don’t know exactly is where this village was, because it was dismantled right after the Olympics concluded and, near as anyone can tell, beyond one structure that ended up--and still stands--at the police academy in Elysian Park, the rest of that trailblazing 1932 Olympic village is gone without a trace.

(Left) Author Linda L. Richards

There is agreement that the village was located in the Baldwin Hills, but it might have been in the Blair Hills, an area that’s now actually part of Culver City. Or it might have been near Crenshaw and Vernon in the View Park area and, according to the Baldwin Hills Park Web site, “One account places the village in the Crenshaw or Angeles Mesa district, in the hills to the west of Crenshaw Boulevard south of Vernon Avenue. The roads Olympiad Drive and Athenian Way in this area commemorate its history.”

From that same source:
The village comprised between 500 and more than 600 two-room dwellings and included post and telegraph offices, an amphitheater, a hospital, a fire department, and a bank. The village was built on between 250 and 331 acres that was loaned by the heirs of the estate of Lucky Baldwin. The buildings were removed after the games.
This account is pretty consistent with what I found in other sources: references to developer and stock market speculator Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin, who died in 1909 but whose fortune--by the early 1930s--was still largely intact. Mentions of the Olympic village being constructed at great cost during the Depression, then mysteriously disappearing right after the games.

But there are enough things not mentioned, or merely hinted at, that if you’re of a certain disposition, your mind fills in the blanks. The construction of a whole village during the Depression--one that needed to look good, yet not be required to stand the test of any significant amount of time? That would have been a plum contract. A multi-million-dollar contract, even in the dollars of the day. One worth killing over? Well, just wait and see.
Apr 302013
(Editor’s note: This 42nd entry in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series reintroduces us to Canadian author J. Robert Janes, who I was so privileged to interview last year. In the essay below, he writes about The Hunting Ground [Mysterious Press/Open Road], his new standalone thriller set during the German occupation of France during World War II.)

A year ago last January I had to undergo a very serious operation on my right eye and was told to keep my head down for at least 10 days. I managed 14, but what does someone who’s used to working every day of the week but Sundays do for all that time?

Out came the clipboard and the manuscript--there was, in retrospect, never any question of what I would work on during my convalescence. You see, The Hunting Ground has been with me ever since 1990, and has been through at least six or seven revisions during those years. It’s the book I first worked on after my thriller The Alice Factor was finally set to be published in 1991. Which was before I started writing Mayhem (1992), the opening number in my Jean-Louis St-Cyr/Hermann Kohler mystery series.

Head down, pencil in hand--for I always compose my stories in longhand and have for the past 43 years of full-time writing--I started in. And yes, I always use one of those rechargeable pencils: HB 0.5mm leads and no others. That first day, I worked for 12 hours straight and totally forgot myself.

Immediately, it all came back, all those doors that had opened in my imagination, opening again and again into Occupied France during the Second World War. Those 14 recovery days eventually stretched into six months of work on The Hunting Ground. And certainly, when I retyped the manuscript later on, I could have used both eyes, had they been working in sync and in focus. However, the operation was a terrific success and I am extremely lucky to have come through it so well.

In The Hunting Ground, Lily de St Germain (née Hollis) is a wife and mother who, in 1938 and living in what she has come to call a “château” on the edge of Fontainebleau Forest to the southeast of Paris, feels increasingly that she must take her children and leave before the threat of war reaches her doorstep. A chance meeting in Paris during the first exodus in September 1939 brings a man named Thomas Carrington into her life. He keeps coming back, but initially it’s not because of his interest in Lily, it’s because of something her son has found hidden--hidden by his papa, Lily’s unfaithful husband, for friends who are no friends of hers. Only when Tommy takes Lily and the children to England, does she discover that he’s an insurance investigator who works for a very old, well-established firm in London that underwrites the underwriters. But, of course, Lily’s husband steals their children back and she has to return to that “château.”

Always I am drawn into the story I’m telling and that, in itself, can be a very powerful thing. And of course, once done, one has to stand back and look at it all from a distance. Sure, some things you might not see even then, simply because you’ve been so close to the work for such a long time. But Lily, as the first-person narrator of this yarn, had--and still has--a lot of meaning for me because, in essence, she spoke of what was happening to so many others. Lots and lots of people just like her hoped never to be drawn into such a war or made victims of that war’s violence, and yet they were. Lily comes to see and live with the very changes war visits upon her, a mother with two children.

She also introduced me to the German occupation of France (1940-1944) and allowed me to open door after door into what is a truly remarkable period of history. And certainly, when I was working again on this novel last year, with a far greater understanding of the history than I had back in 1990, I could have included and dealt with other aspects I’ve come to understand since then. But I didn’t; I wanted the story to be as close as possible to the way I’d written it originally.

Becoming an active résistante, Lily goes on to work with Tommy and others in the search for and recovery of stolen works of art. However, she’s ultimately arrested and sent to the German concentration camps at Birkenau and then Bergen-Belsen, where the past and those recollections of Tommy and the others are all that really keep her going. Always, though, she blames herself for what happened. Finally freed in 1945, her recovery is uncertain. From a clinic in Zurich, Switzerland, she begins sending little black pasteboard coffins to her husband and his friends, and also to one other person, all of whom think her dead and themselves released from any responsibility for what has happened. Telephone calls follow in which Lily tells each of those people that, while they may have been cleared by the Résistance, she’s coming home and they are to meet her at the “château.” But time, which for her, in the concentration camps, has been spent entirely in a memory-packed past, increasingly confronts her with the present, until both are one and the same. To achieve her ends, she’ll have to employ all of the survival skills she learned from the Résistance, as her husband--together with his friends, a Sûreté detective inspector, Gaetan Dupuis, and a former SS Obersturmführer, Ernst Johann Schiller--pursue her in what was once the hunting ground of kings: namely, Fontainebleau Forest.

I still vividly recall that after my first attempt at writing this historical and psychological thriller, I set my pencil aside and asked myself, “Hey, what about a good Sûreté officer in all of this Occupation? Of course, he’d need a German overseer, since everything else did in those days. I’d call him Hermann Kohler but make him only a detective inspector, since Jean-Louis St-Cyr, his French counterpart, was a chief inspector.”

The notion of writing a series attracted me. I knew, though, that if I were to tackle it properly, I had to keep on delivering new installments to bookstores. As a result, I set aside The Hunting Ground and concentrated on the wartime investigative adventures of St-Cyr and Kohler. Yet still, I found myself coming back repeatedly to the tense tale of Lily de St-Germain. Finally, I had that eye operation and those six months of concentrated work on the novel, and it all led to the publication this week of The Hunting Ground--23 years after I started writing the novel.

It’s only the first of two new books with my name on them. Tapestry, the 14th installment in my St-Cyr and Kohler series (following last year’s Bellringer), is due out from Mysterious Press/Open Road on June 4. And The Alice Factor is set to be released as an e-book, also from Mysterious Press/Open Road, on June 5.

So in a sense, for me as well as for Lily, the past has become the present.
Jan 142013
(Editor’s note: This 41st installment of The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series brings back into the spotlight British novelist R.N. “Roger” Morris, who has been interviewed on this page several times and has also contributed pieces to the blog. [Click here to find those posts.] Today, Morris supplies some background about his new historical mystery, The Mannequin House, which has already been released in Great Britain, and is scheduled for publication this spring in the United States.)

“Where do you get your ideas from?” is one of those questions that authors are supposed to get asked all the time. Actually, I can’t remember ever being asked it. That could mean one of two things. Either the source of my ideas is so obvious that the question is redundant. Or my ideas are such that people would rather not know where exactly they come from.

The Mannequin House (Creme de la Crime) is the second of my novels to feature the detective Silas Quinn, an inspector in the fictional “Special Crimes Department” of New Scotland Yard in 1914. Before starting my Silas Quinn series, I had written four novels featuring Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I suppose part of the motivation in creating Quinn was to show that I could write a book around a character of my own. In constructing that character, I wanted to play a little with some of the clichés of a fictional detective. So, yes, he is a detective with a troubled past, and a dark side, as well as being a brilliantly successful investigator. To some extent, I think he uses his police work as a kind of therapy. It just so happens that what makes him feel good and whole is giving in to an impulse to kill, or at least to shoot first and ask questions later. It’s a trait that led one critic (Mike Ripley) to describe him as “a sort of Edwardian Dirty Harry.” I’m not sure how accurate that description is, but it’s one that amuses me.

I have enjoyed embracing, and perhaps subverting, the archetype; I hope readers will enjoy the weird kinks that have emerged in Quinn.

The novel is set in 1914, before the outbreak of the First World War. All the horrors of the 20th century lie ahead, so it’s generally held to be an era of innocence, I think. This is an idea I challenge. It’s the Golden Age of detective fiction, but also a period when art movements such as dada and surrealism were starting to come through. A crucial phase in the development of psychoanalysis, too. And time of social upheaval, as well as political turmoil, in Britain and in Europe, with the war brewing and trouble in Ireland. A period of anxiety and stress, as I imagine it. All of which makes it an interesting time in which to set a book or two.

If I try to trace my fascination with the period, I find myself drawn to a painting called The Menaced Assassin, by René Magritte. Like a lot of teenage males of my generation, I was into surrealism, enough to possess a large art book on the movement. This was one of the paintings in the book. It depicted some bowler-hatted police officers lying in wait for the fictional master criminal Fantômas. I loved the mood of the painting, and the idea of Fantômas, and when the Pierre Souvestre and Marcell Allain novels were released in English by Picador in the 1980s I got hold of a few and read them. I even had a go at writing my own Fantômas novel, my first venture into literary fan-fiction, and in many ways an apprentice piece for my Porfiry Petrovich series. I was struck by the fact that Souvestre died in 1914, so the books they wrote together had a decided pre-war feel. My own Fantômas novel was written with the retrospective knowledge of what was to come, a sense of historical irony.

That Fantômas story of mine was never published, but I felt there was something in the dramatic potential of that specific period. Like most writers, I parked the idea in the back of my brain and let it cook.

Some years later, I was asked to write a screenplay based on G.K. Chesterton’s 1908 novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. Nothing came of the project (except for an unproduced screenplay sitting on my computer’s hard drive), but that strange, surreal book, together with the research I did around it, rekindled my interest in the period. With its themes of alienation and distrust, coupled with a dreamlike narrative, the book struck a chord with me and seemed strikingly modern.

So I had the idea of writing a series of crime novels set perpetually on the eve of the Great War, in which a series of increasingly outlandish crimes--occurring within an improbably condensed time frame--would be investigated. The crimes in the books would presage the terrible destruction to come. Silas Quinn emerged from that strange idea as a suitably peculiar detective.

Crime fiction has always struck me as a sub-genre of surrealism, perhaps because I came at it from a painting by Magritte. My new series takes me deeper into that territory. For inspiration, I turned again to G.K. Chesterton, this time immersing myself in his Father Brown stories, some of which are decidedly surreal (I’m thinking particularly of his story “The Secret Garden,” in which--SPOILER ALERT--a decapitated head from one body is found next to a headless corpse belonging to someone else). Inevitably. perhaps, I decided to incorporate a locked-room mystery, with bizarre elements.

I was also attracted to the idea of setting each novel within a different, defined milieu, which is a standard trope of detective series. You take your detective and plunge him into a world that is alien to him, which he then explores and reveals as he conducts his investigation. The first Quinn novel, Summon Up the Blood, dealt with the world of homosexual male prostitutes, or “renters.” This second novel is set in a fashionable department store.

The theme again feeds into my ideas about the surrealism of mystery and detective fiction. I had this notion of a department store where almost anything could be bought, where every desire could be satisfied in a consumerist dream. While I was researching the story, I read Whiteley’s Folly, Linda Stratmann’s biography of William Whiteley, the founder of Whiteley’s, a big department store in West London. I already had an idea of a character who would be the founder of my own fictional department store, who would be a womanizer and a tyrant. When I discovered that the real William Whiteley shared those attributes, I became intrigued. The fact that Whiteley was shot and killed in his own store by a man claiming to be his illegitimate son clinched it for me. History was trying to tell me something. I knew this was the setting I had to use, this was the story I had to write. All I needed to do was throw in a monkey in a fez.

By a strange coincidence, there have recently been two period dramas on UK television, both with department store settings: The Paradise on BBC and Mr. Selfridge on ITV. So maybe there is something in the air at the moment that makes early department stores especially appealing. I have a theory that it is linked to the approach of the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1, the moment when the world lost its innocence forever. The promise of wish fulfillment and gratification that a place like The House of Blackley (the fictional department store in my novel) seems to hold out could never truly be believed in again. And yet it is a promise we can’t quite give up on, one we keep nostalgically returning to.
Dec 292012
(Editor’s note: In this 40th installment of The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series, we welcome Libby Fischer Hellmann, a Chicago author with several books to her credit, including Set the Night on Fire [2010] and Easy Innocence [2008]. Below, she recalls the development of her latest novel, A Bitter Veil [Allium Press], which tells of a young student in Chicago, Anna, who falls in love with an Iranian man, Nouri, and subsequently moves back with him to his native Tehran in 1978--not long before the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the rise of the Islamic Republic.)

So there I was at Bouchercon a few years ago. I had just finished my sixth novel and an author friend asked, “What are you going to write now?”

I had no idea. I told him I liked writing about women whose choices have been taken away from them. Who have run out of options. How do they survive without becoming victims? Is it even possible for them to prevail?

As we chatted, a memory swam up into my consciousness. A few years earlier, I’d gone to a high-school reunion. I’d published a few novels by then, and one of my former classmates approached and said that she wanted to tell me her “story.” Like most writers, I’m a sucker for a story, so we grabbed a glass of wine and went into a corner.

She proceeded to tell me how she’d fallen in love after college with an Iranian student. They married and she moved with him to Tehran. Four months later the Shah was deposed, and her life went from wonderful to acceptable, from acceptable to mediocre, difficult, and finally intolerable. After a year or so she was able to flee Iran, returned to the States, and got a divorce.

Now I told my author friend at Bouchercon about my classmate. He promptly suggested I write about her experience.

“I can’t,” I said. “It’s not fiction, and there was no crime.”

He cocked his head and looked at me as if I were a little strange. “You write crime fiction. Find one.”

I took his advice.

* * *

I began by doing research. Usually I’m the type of writer who believes in field trips. I’ve gone to Douglas, Arizona; Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; neighborhoods in Chicago I would never visit alone; even Cuba. But I couldn’t go to Iran. It was--and is--unsafe for an American woman, particularly a Jewish-American woman. I would have been questioning and interviewing people about a delicate time in their country’s history. It’s possible some people might have gotten the wrong idea. It’s possible I’d have been stopped, even apprehended. So a trip was out of the question.

However, not experiencing Iran first-hand was problematic too. How could I capture the setting accurately? The culture? The struggle that erupted when a religious revolution was foisted on a previously (mostly) secular society? Perhaps, I reasoned, the story was better left untold. After all, there already are plenty of books--both fiction and non-fiction--written about that period. Indeed, I’ve included a list of some at the end of A Bitter Veil.

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. After much internal debate, I decided I wouldn’t write the book unless I did enough research to feel comfortable with the evolution, conflicts, and issues of the Islamic Revolution.

Fortunately I’m a former history major. Not only do I love research, but I have always been captivated by the past and how we bend it, learn from it, or ignore it at our peril. And Iran’s Islamic Revolution was one of the most well-covered revolutions in history. It was easy to find chronologies, books, articles, and reactions. I read nearly 20 books on the subject, both fiction and non-fiction. I took notes, read more, watched films, examined photos. A factor in my favor was that the revolution was relatively recent. Many of us remember TV news footage of the Shah piloting his plane out of Iran, followed by the triumphant return from exile of the Ayatollah Khomeini a few weeks later. It was not difficult to find materials.

I also put the word out that I was looking for Iranian Americans who’d lived in Iran during the early years of the revolution. Within weeks I found five people willing to talk to me. Some warned me not to be too critical; others not too gentle. One told me such a harrowing story that some of her history ended up in the book. As you might expect, none of these people wanted their names made public.

After sifting through what I’d learned, I decided I might be able to write the novel after all. The first 50 pages take place in Chicago, so that section wasn’t difficult. Once I moved the couple to Tehran, it became more challenging, but whenever I had questions, I did more research. For example, it turns out that my female protagonist buys two chadors. I discovered a chador shop in Tehran, read about chadors and their headpieces, and incorporated the information into the tale.

When I finished a draft, I sent it to one of the five Iranian Americans I’d interviewed. She vetted the entire manuscript and told me where I’d gone astray. I made revisions. Then I sent it to my editor, who sent it to a second Iranian American for further checking. Finally, when producing the audio version of my story, we checked with yet another person for the proper pronunciation of Farsi phrases.

I was comforted by the thought that I was writing about the era as seen through the eyes of an American woman. What she observed was in large measure what I learned during my research. Some of it was beautiful--for example, the sheer magnificence of the Persian culture. Some of it, less so. In all cases, though, I tried to be faithful to the research.

* * *

There’s one more component to the back-story that made writing A Bitter Veil irresistible. As crime writers, we learn early that “conflict” is the most essential ingredient in fiction. We learn that there must be conflict on every page, even if a character just wants a glass of water and can’t get it.

What triggers more conflict than a revolution? Whether it’s the French, Russian, Cuban, or Chinese revolutions, or what we’re now calling the Arab Spring, nothing shakes the foundations of a society more than internal conflict. That kind of conflict turns some people into heroes, others into cowards. The most satisfying part of writing for me is placing a character in the middle of such a conflict and seeing how he or she behaves.

That happened in A Bitter Veil. Some characters did what I thought they would, but others surprised me with their actions. In fact, I thought I knew who the culprit was when I began the book. But that changed several times during the writing, and it wasn’t until the climax that the perpetrator was unmasked. I hope readers will be as surprised as I was.

The conflict triggered by the Islamic Revolution manifested itself in a non-pluralistic way, as well. Through my research I learned that Persia had been invaded many times over the centuries. However, Persia’s invaders always tended to assimilate the Persian culture rather than imposing their own on Persia. In some cases, the invaders even allowed the Persians to retain a semblance of autonomy. That didn’t happen this time. Iranian customs, culture, and politics changed dramatically.

Why? Was it because the revolutionaries were insurgents, not foreign invaders? Was it because there was no choice--Iranians were required to “assimilate” the new republic’s dictums? I’m not sure, and it was a compelling question--one which I ultimately had to leave open.

* * *

Now for the punch line.

I finished the book, recorded the audio, planned my promotional campaign. I had decided early on not to use my high-school classmate as a source, so she knew nothing about the book. When it was done, though, I chose to dedicate the book to her if she agreed. It took almost six weeks for us to connect because she was traveling, but when we finally did, I said,

“Hi. You remember the story you told me about moving to Iran?”

“Iran?” She said. “It wasn’t Iran.”

“Of course it was,” I said. “You fell in love, you got married and moved to Tehran. When it became impossible, you came home.”

“No.” She corrected me. “It wasn’t Iran--it was India.”

“But ... but ...” I sputtered. India?? She’d gone to India, not Iran? How had I screwed that up?

“I can’t believe this,” I said. “I just finished writing a novel about Iran. And it all began with you!”

“Actually, I do believe it,” she said. “I moved to the Punjab area of India, which is predominantly Muslim. The Shiites in India tended to follow and do what Iranian Shiites did. The same customs, the same restrictions. So don’t feel badly; it was a similar situation.”

But of course, I did. Feel badly, that is. I spent a couple of days shame-faced and embarrassed. After a while, though, I realized it didn’t matter. Clearly, it was a subconscious error. I’d written the story I was supposed to write. A Bitter Veil is that story.
Nov 022012
(Editor’s note: In this 39th installment of The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series, we welcome Allen Shadow (aka Allen Kovler), a New York poet, songwriter, blogger, and now author of the e-book Hell City, which Kirkus Reviews called “an entertaining mystery that borrows from the best in mystery and noir, while adding a heavy dose of modern paranoia.” Below, Shadow fills us in on some of his new novel’s history.)

It happened one night. The idea for my novel, Hell City, that is. But as we know, Rome wasn’t built in a single day. So, for the full back story to this novel--one in which the city of New York qualifies as a central character--I’ll have to ask you to join me in the proverbial time machine.

Let’s go back to the era when this author was 5 years old, standing on a rooftop in West Harlem, marveling at the hard dark and light of the Meatpacking District while on a trip to my father’s bookkeeping office--trucks with half cows, men with blood-smeared aprons, crows wheeling under the vaulted girders of the West Side Highway viaduct. Then came the poems, during my college days and beyond. Poems that refracted the chiaroscuro of the city’s façades, the dolor of her teeming but lonely streets. Poems that found their way into many a small-press magazine, into chapbooks. Poems that caused Library Journal to cite my work for its “startling imagery.”

Along the way, I worked in the city’s warehouses, drove her cabs, wrote for her newspapers, and sang in her nightclubs. Her underbelly was my beat, forging a gritty, cinematic prose style.

Then, a decade ago, I put out my first rock album, King Kong Serenade. The record was a paean to the city, with songs about the ghosts of Broadway, of Times Square, of Coney Island, songs with lines like “This is Hopper’s town, Edward Hopper’s town.”

New York was a character, if you will, in that album, and she’s a character once again in Hell City. This novel’s protagonist--a former NYPD homicide dick turned counter-terrorism commander--and his colorful crew patrol a shadowy world of clues that takes them through the city’s grittiest precincts, as all the while Gotham’s great façades loom in the background: old pier houses, factories, hotels--again, the city’s dark side.

Now I can flash forward to that night, the single evening the idea for Hell City presented itself. I can’t reveal the precise circumstances, since they would spoil this thriller’s ending, but I can say the plot surrounds another major terrorist attack on New York City. The action in the novel feels like it’s ripped from today’s news pages. Yes, Osama bin Laden is dead. Yes, al-Qaida is on the run. And, yes, the Middle East and Africa are in turmoil. But, al-Qaida and its many affiliates are metastasizing, reforming new alliances, and fomenting new plots. The question is, can one of these new-generation jihadi groups pull off another “big one” in New York? As the subtitle of Hell City suggests, “Al-Qaida isn’t dead yet. New York may be.”

This time, Americans play an integral role in the new generation of al-Qaida, or Qaida 2.0 as it is called. The American jihadists are inspired by Internet imams who have taken on rock-star personae. Prior to starting this novel, I had paid much attention to such real-life figures as the late Anwar al-Awlaki, who had influenced a number of Americans to commit lone-wolf acts, homegrown terrorists like Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood, and the Christmas Day bomber and his attempt on an airliner over Detroit, both in 2009. There was the Times Square bomber months later. It seemed like there was a new American-led plot every few weeks: Jihad Jane, a Colorado cell with a plot for New York’s subways--the list went on, and it still does.

I realized that the constant drumbeat of high alerts was having a “boy who cried wolf” affect on the American public. The typical subway rider couldn’t keep up with it all. He was becoming inured to the threats and had also decided that al-Qaida was decimated post-bin Laden, that all they could manage was the lone-wolf attack, that they couldn’t pull off another big one like 9/11. So, he went to sleep on the whole thing.

Well, that attitude sounded fairly familiar to me. It reminded me of our original encounter with al-Qaida, the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993. I’m sure there are young adults today who don’t know there even was a “first” attack. I thought about how that botched attempt to bring down one of the towers in ’93 left us with the impression that al-Qaida was the terrorist “gang that couldn’t shoot straight.” To the guy on the subway, it was like, “You #%@! kidding me, a blind cleric from Jersey City? What’s this, the Three Stooges?” So he went to sleep on them, as most of us did. Then--boom, bam, boom--three airliners in three places: 9/11. If that wasn’t a wake-up call on the capabilities and the long-term tenacity of al-Qaida, I don’t know what is.

So one night the scenario that Qaida 2.0 just might be able to pull off another “big one” in New York was born. And so began Hell City, a novel with a vigilante hero, Jack Oldham, who tracks the newest generation of American-born jihadists through the darkest precincts of New York. And while the city’s dark side is in evidence, this novel’s picaresque characters provide for a darkly comic, if terrifying tale. And, perhaps my favorite character, the city of New York, is in play in all her glory.