From Holmes to Sherlock: An Interview with Mattias Boström

Mattias Boström Won Half the Prizes on his US-Tour

An interview with Sölve Dahlgren. Published by Boktugg, 29 April 2018

Translated from the Swedish by Dean Hunt, 30 April 2018

Photo: Anna-Lena Ahlström

This past weekend author Mattias Boström traveled to the United States, having been nominated for two prestigious prizes for his non-fiction book Från Holmes till Sherlock [From Holmes to Sherlock, published by the Mysterious Press in the US]. He won one of them —the Agatha Award for Best Non-Fiction [at Malice Domestic, an annual fan convention in the metropolitan DC area that celebrates the traditional mystery.]

It is not easy to distinguish between all the various honors and prizes around the world.  We reported earlier that Mattias Boström had been nominated for the Edgar Prize (named after Edgar Allan Poe [by the Mystery Writers of America]). The Edgars have been handed out since 1946.  In 1971, Sjöwall & Wahlöö received the Edgar for Best Crime Novel for Den skrattande polisen (The Laughing Policeman) —the only Scandinavian book that has ever won an Edgar.

In addition to the Edgar nomination, Mattias was also nominated for another prestigious prize— the Agatha Award (named after Agatha Christie).  Furthermore, both prizes were given out in the USA within two-days, in New York and Washington DC respectively.  It was Friday night, Swedish time, when Mattias participated in the Edgar Award ceremony in New York.

“It was a magnificent evening with over 600 guests at the dinner and many of the USA’s foremost crime writers were present, all of them dressed to the nines. A festive atmosphere reigned.  When the prize ceremony had begun, my heart started to pound even more, but when we came to my category Best Critical/Biographical and it was announced which book had won — and it was not mine —my heart calmed down. Remarkably enough, I did not feel disappointed, something that I usually am in such situations. Being nominated for an Edgar is a win in itself, so I am still tremendously pleased.”

The winner was Lawrence P. Jackson’s Chester B. Himes:  A Biography.

Did the right book win in your category and have you read it?

“It was absolutely the right book that won, and it was also the very book I’d guessed would win. I have the book at home but have not been able to read it yet.  What I have understood is that it is indeed an important biography about an equally great and important author.  Moreover, it is a more academic and analytical book, while the purpose of my book is to entertain. I will never be able to write in any other manner. So whether I take home any nominations or prizes in the future depends in part on what people want out of a non-fiction book.

Has the nomination opened any new doors for you as a writer?

The doors have certainly opened, but I don’t believe I will be seeing too much from it until I write a new book that’s suited to an international market.  Still, the nomination helps to get people to take notice of the book and read it, in particular when the comes out in an American paperback edition in August.

How big is Sherlock Holmes today and what is it about the books that have made them survive when many other books written at that time are out of fashion?

Today, there’s a greater interest in Sherlock Holmes than there has been since the 1970s. At that time, a blockbuster Holmes-pastiche and a theatrical play in London and in New York were the starting point; today it is mainly the BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch that has gotten huge numbers of people interested in the detective. But other movies, TV series and books have also contributed to the boom that has been taking place the last eight years, Mattias Boström says.

“That Sherlock Holmes has held up so well 130 years after he was created is due to his being so versatile and malleable —he can be recast in numerous and different ways to suit modern consumers of entertainment.  A development that has really been going on ever since the 1890s, while at the same time he lived on in his original form. Apart from Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s win there are only five Scandinavians who have succeeded in being nominated for an Edgar:  Peter Høeg, Anne Holt, Jo Nesbø, Karin Alvtogen and non-fiction author John-Henri Holmberg. But how big are the Edgar Awards?  It’s not something we talk about in Sweden at all. Perhaps because Swedish authors rarely are nominated.

“For an American author it is the finest prize there is.  It is enough to be nominated in order to have it as a permanent title for life:  ‘the Edgar-nominated author’ or ‘the Edgar-winning author.’  It is blurbed on the front cover of all the books and used in all the PR and marketing materials. Everyone I’ve spoken with here in the US says it has enormous significance, especially as a door-opener,” Mattias Boström says.

Even though he did not win an Edgar, just the nomination itself has had significance and a concrete effect.

“It has been the ultimate confirmation that the book I have written truly has lasting value.  Scads of congratulations have streamed in since it was nominated in January and many have taken notice of the book; in Sweden, too. Quite concretely, the nomination has meant also that Piratförlaget will publish the new version of the book in the fall, the edition that has come in the USA and has 25 new chapters!”

And Matthias Boström’s trip to the US wasn’t over, either; he traveled on to Washington, D.C. to be present at another prize ceremony. He was, it turns out, also nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Non-Fiction.  This is the first time since the prize was established in 1989 that a Scandinavian author has ever been nominated in any of the categories. Agatha Awards are given out to honor the traditional detective story in Agatha Christie’s spirit.

And this time it was Mattias Boström who took home the prize.

“It is a tremendous honor, especially when you consider how many books of non-fiction about crime literature and true crime come out in the US.  The Agatha Award is one of the finest detective-story prizes one can win and it felt fantastic just to be nominated. Moreover, winning an Agatha as a Swede is something I couldn’t have dreamt of doing,” Mattias Boström said in a press release after receiving the prize Saturday night Swedish time.

Piratförlaget published Från Holmes till Sherlock in 2013.  Earlier, it had been awarded Svenska Deckarakademins pris (The Prize of the Swedish Detective-Story Academy) for the year’s best book of non-fiction and was nominated for Stora fackbokpriset (The Great Non-Fiction Prize) and has come out in Danish, Norwegian and German.

In 2017 the book was published in a revised and expanded version in the USA and Great Britain with the title From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon. Consequently, in September Piratförlaget will bring out this revised and expanded edition again.

Mattias Boström is one of Scandinavia’s leading Sherlock Holmes experts and in 2007 was inducted into the foremost Holmes society, The Baker Street Irregulars, where he has also been awarded prizes for his writings about the detective.

So what happens now, will you become a full-time writer and write new Sherlock Holmes novels in a bungalow in Thailand?

I’ve never been attracted to Thailand – I’m more a Scotland man – and we’ll just have to see how the combination job and writing plays out over time.  Really, though, I don’t think that there will be a big change. I’ve toyed with the thought a little about writing novels instead and doing it on a regular basis, but after now having spent the last few years writing a turn-of-the-century detective story (it is almost finished), I have come to realize it’s easier to write entertaining non-fiction literature.  We’ll see. It really depends a great deal on what ideas I get. The books of non-fiction I am planning cut very close to the novel form in their telling, Mattias Boström says.

 

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2018 Anthony Award Eligible Titles

This list is not exhaustive. I’d suggest readers reference Steph Post’s Anthony 2018 page or Do Some Damage

(A) indicates a title also nominated for an Agatha Award. For anthologies, I name the editors. If I’ve understood the rules right, duplicates are allowed (example: Best, First, Original Paperback)

Best Novel

  • Bruce Robert Coffin, Beneath the Depths
  • Micki Browning, Adrift
  • Louise Penny, Glass Houses (A)
  • Renee Patrick, Dangerous to Know (A)
  • Steph Post, Lightwood
  • Alex Segura, Dangerous Ends
  • David Swinson, Crime Song
  • Rob Hart, The Woman from Prague
  • Allison Brook, Death Overdue (A)
  • Ellen Byron, A Cajun Christmas Killing (A)
  • Annette Dashofy, No Way Home (A)
  • Margaret Maron, Take Out (A)
  • Nik Korpon, The Rebellion’s Last Traitor
  • Ivy Pochoda, Wonder Valley
  • Claire Booth, Another Man’s Ground
  • Tom Pitts, American Static
  • James L’Etoile, Bury the Past
  • Danny Gardner, A Negro and an Ofay
  • Jordan Harper, She Rides Shotgun
  • Denise Mina, The Long Drop
  • Ann Cleeves, The Seagull
  • The Force, Don Winslow
  • Clea Simon, World Enough
  • Bill Loehfelm, The Devil’s Muse

Best First Novel

  • Micki Browning, Adrift (A)
  • Hank Early, Heaven’s Crooked Finger
  • Winnie M Li, Dark Chapter
  • M. Burns, The Plot is Murder (A)
  • Kellye Garrett. Hollywood Homicide (A)
  • Laura Oles, Daughters of Bad Men (A)
  • Kathleen Valenti, Protocol (A)
  • Kevin Catalano, Where the Shines Out
  • Chris Irwin, Ragged

Best Paperback Original

  • Eryk Pruitt, What We Reckon
  • Angel Luis Colón, Blacky Jaguar Against the Cool Clux Cult
  • Lori Rader-Day, The Day I Died
  • Thomas Pluck, Big Bad Boogie
  • Annette Dashofy, No Way Home (A)
  • Gabriel Valjan, The Company Files: The Good Man
  • Casey Doran, The Art of Murder
  • Terrence McCauley, A Conspiracy of Ravens
  • Rhys Bowen, In Fairleigh Field (A)
  • Jessica Ellicott, Murder in an English Village (A)
  • Jon Bassoff, The Blade This Time
  • Edith Maxwell, Called to Justice (A)
  • Susan Ella MacNeal, The Paris Spy (A)
  • James Ziskin, Cast the First Stone

Best Critical or Nonfiction Book

  • Jess Lourey, Rewrite Yourself (A)
  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • Tatiana de Rosnay, Manderley Forever (A)
  • Martin Edwards, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (A)
  • Matthias Boström, From Holmes to Sherlock (A)
  • Monica Hesse, American Fire (A)

Best Short Story

  • Bill Baber, “No One Heard” in Betrayed
  • Susanna Calkins, “Trial of Madame Pelletier” Malice Domestic: Murder Most Historical
  • Sarah M. Chen, “Missouri Waltz” in  Just to Watch Them Die: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Johnny Cash
  • Dana Cameron, “Episode IV: Raven and the Cave Girl vs. Dan Malmon!” in Killing Malmon
  • Jen Conley, “God’s Gonna Catch You Down” in Just to Watch Them Die
  • Micki Browning, “Thicker Than Water” in Busted
  • Christine Bagley, “On A Winter’s Night” in Snowbound
  • Maurissa Guibord, “The Explorer” in Snowbound
  • Greg Herren, “Keeper of the Flame” in Mystery Week Magazine
  • Renee Pickup, “Thirteen” in  Just to Watch Them Die
  • Connie Johnson Hambley, “Black Ice” in Snowbound
  • S.W. Lauden, “25 Minutes to Go” in Just to Watch Them Die
  • S.W. Lauden, “Reunion” in Killing Malmon
  • Paul D. Marks, “Bunker Hill Blues” in Ellery Queen
  • Paul D. Marks, “Windward” in Coast to Coast
  • Karen E. Olson, “The Boy” in New Haven Noir
  • Renee Pickup, “Salsa Verde” in Switchblade Issue 2
  • Debra Goldstein, “The Night They Burned Down Ms. Dixie’s Place” in AHMM. (A)
  • Art Taylor, “A Necessary Ingredient” in Coast to Coast (A)
  • Art Taylor, “Fairy Tales” in Black Cat Mystery Magazine
  • Mary Lederman Sutton, “Far End of Nowhere” in Fish Out of Water
  • Mary Lederman Sutton, “Home Front Homicide” in Malice Domestic: Mystery Most Historical
  • Mary Lederman Sutton, “A Family Affair” in Killer Wore Cranberry
  • James L’Etoile.  “When the Music Stops” in Betrayed
  • Shawn Reilly Simmons, “Burnt Orange” in Bouchercon Anthology 2017
  • Alex Segura and Dave White, “Shallow Grave”
  • Travis Richardson, “I Know They’re In There!” in The Obama Inheritance
  • Gretchen Archer, “Double Deck the Halls” (A)
  • Barb Goffman, “Crazy Cat Lady“ in Black Cat Mystery Magazine
  • Barb Goffman, “Whose Wine is it Anyway” in 50 Shades of Cabernet (A)
  • Gigi Pandian, “The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn” (A)

Best Anthology

  • Killing Malmon. Down & Out Books. Editors: Dan and Kate Malmon
  • Betrayed. Authors on the Air Press. Editor: Pam Stack
  • Noir at the Salad Bar. Level Best Books. Editors: Verna Rose, Harriette Sackler, Shawn Reilly Simmons
  • Snowbound. Level Best Books. Editors: Verna Rose, Harriette Sackler, Shawn Reilly Simmons
  • Just to Watch Them Die. Gutter Books. Editor: Joe Clifford
  • Malice Domestic: Murder Most Historical. Editors: Verna Rose, Rita Owen, Shawn Reilly Simmons
  • The Obama Inheritance. Three Rooms Press. Editor: Gary Phillips
  • Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles Presents LAst Resort. Down & Out Books. Editors: Matt Coyle, Mary Marks, and Patricia Smiley
  • Passport to Murder: Bouchercon Anthology 2017. Down & Out Books. Editors: John McFetridge and Janet Hutchings
  • Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea. Down & Out Books. Editors: Andrew McAleer and Paul D. Marks
  • Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4. Level Best Books. Editor: Elizabeth Zelvin.

Online Websites or Blogs

Bill Crider Award for Best Novel in a Continuing Series

(At least 3 published books in series, the book published in 2017 can be one of the 3)

  • Joe Clifford, Give Up the Dead. Jay Porter Series
  • Matt Coyle, Blood Truth. Rick Cahill Series
  • Cynthia Kuhn, The Art of Vanishing. Lila Maclean Mystery Series
  • Lynn Marron, ORR: Murder Genetically Engineered: Grace Farrington Mystery Series
  • Karen E. Olson, Betrayed. Black Hat Series
  • J.D. Rhoades, Hellbound on my Trail. Jack Keller Series
  • Patricia Smiley, Outside the Wire. Pacific Homicide Series
  • Nancy Cole Silverman, Room For Doubt
  • Dave White, Blind to Sin. Jackson Donne Series

Link to Do Some Damage for this category and other nominations.

 

 

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Killing Malmon is Kenny from South Park meets Groundhog Day

Poor Malmon! Dan Malmon is a cross between Kenny from South Park and Phil in Groundhog Day. He dies somehow every time. 30 creative crime fiction writers had a lot of fun chalking the outline around Mr. Malmon. You know you’re in for a good read when you laugh when you shouldn’t and you’re just waiting to see how Dan will meet his demise. Spoiler Alert: Dan Malmon dies, duh. Oh, Dan’s wife Kate frequents the area around the yellow Crime Scene tape.

Dan catches no breaks. Everyone wants him dead for a reason. Two guys argue like wise guys from Goodfellas about how to best kill Dan (Eric Beetner). Dan ends up in a Marvel Comics universe in Josh Stallings’s story, which includes a cameo from crime writer Ms. Christa Faust. In another story that is as surreal as a Coen Brothers movie, our mensch Dan is the unintended victim of the Pogo Stick serial killer (Hilary Davidson). Watch out for Kit Kats! If you have ever suffered in line at Starbucks and heard an absurd order when all you wanted was a simple coffee, you’ll achieve sweet release with Ed Kurtz’s “Nebbish.” Dan the schmuck. Like a Trainspotting or In Bruges dark comic vibe next time Malmon appears on the slab? Angel Luis Colón will introduce you to Blacky Jaguar. Will he or won’t he dodge his fate in Sarah Chen’s “Masterpiece”? We know the answer. Dan is that guy with the red stapler in Office Space in Holly West’s “Money for Nothing.” He gets lucky before he’s unlucky. Want to practice your Spanglish chops before tackling Gabino Iglesias’ Zero Saints, then turn the page with Hector Acosta’s “Rojo Muerte.” Danny Gardner’s “Straight Fire” will tell what it feels like to be the only black guy in Wonderbread Wonderland with a hot new book (he’s the author of A Negro And An Offay), while hankering for an Old Fashioned and ribs until Malmon enters the picture. Dan is the shlimazel who tries to order a pastrami in Thomas Pluck’s “Russian Roulette.”

There is some profanity. All I can say is that 1) a lot of people love this Dan Malmon, even if they want to kill him on the page, and 2) this is a charity anthology that directs proceeds from sales to the National MS Society. I’m also convinced Malmon loves Kit Kats. Last point: the publisher Down & Out Books must believe in keeping it in the family because it’s fast becoming a reputable stable for up and coming talent. Many of these authors have been nominated or won prestigious awards. The anthology concludes with three previews of works from Jack Getze, J.J. Hensley, and Trey R. Baker. They don’t kill Malmon.

Amazon

Down & Out Books

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Every story is worth reading to #EndDomesticViolence

This is a hard review to write, and not because the stories are a mixed bag, and not because the writing is bad. No; in fact, the writing is that good, the stories are that compelling, and— wow, this collection is twenty-one body blows with a novella for the knockout punch. Excuse the allusion to boxing, but the subject of this anthology is Domestic Violence; its purpose is to raise awareness and funds for victims of Domestic Violence. Shy of 500 pages, Betrayed showcases the insidious horror and terror DV visits on women, children, families, and the corrosive damage it inflicts on first-responders and those working in the legal profession and social services.

Without spoilers: every story is worth reading. Anthologies tend to be a hit or miss affair, so my advice is dip into one story at a time, think about it, and return for another story. Terri Lynn Coop’s “Legal Aid” conveyed the frustrations and the nuances lawyers face advocating for their reluctant victims. Wendy Tyson’s “Soap,” for reasons I won’t explain, reminded me of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but with a twist: Clint Eastwood instead of Jimmy Stewart. Liam Sweeny’s tale, set in Houston, has a noir atmosphere with some humor mixed in, and folds in an ethical decision for his PI. James L’Etoile’s “When the Music Stops” is poetic with its recurring image and metaphor. You may think of Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I did. No spoilers, but D.V. Bennett’s “The Sound of a Wound” reads like an updated “The Most Dangerous Game” from Richard Connell. Bill Baber’s “No One Heard” chronicles ‘trickle down misery’ in simple understated prose, and deviated from the norm in that a mother’s physical and emotional abuse altered a young man’s life.

Elizabeth Heiter’s “The Second Shot” and Allison Brennan’s novella, “Mirror, Mirror” were a one-two combo that hit me hard. Heiter’s courtroom scenes are realistic as anything you’ll read from Scottoline or Turow. You learn why the lawyers ask the questions they do. Allison Brennan’s novella, a story with its double-whammy of a husband and wife — he’s a trauma nurse with military experience he won’t talk about and she’s a cop and both deal with DV — hit me hardest because of the ending. You have to read it.

Betrayed contains occasional profanity and brings the car accidents close to your window. Read. Rest. Return.

Amazon

Authors on the Air

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Big as a phone book, but good enough to dial in Hammett

There is no dearth of commentaries on Hammett’s contribution to crime fiction, or reviews of his Continental Op stories. The foremost value of Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett’s Big Book of The Continental Op, a door-stopper of a book, is its most obvious appeal: all twenty-eight Op stories are in one place. Organized. Annotated. The works. The double-column format is a matter of taste, but a future Kindle version could change the layout. Hint. Hint, Vintage Crime.

Less obvious, though more valuable to me are the essays that preface each block of Hammett stories. The stories are organized chronologically and by editor at Black Mask. This is a rare opportunity for readers and students to learn about a writer’s development. Hammett did not start out as a great writer, but he certainly showed up with an abundance of talent. Hammett was a natural at dialog. He also latched onto the idea that readers, regardless of genre, were tired of ponderous prose. He wrote lean journalistic prose. Hemingway was another such writer. Hammett worked with his editors, and the writing shows that he gave them what they wanted. And they also mentored him, though not with Max Perkins’s kid gloves. Both sides of the desk were clear on one objective: make money. Faulkner’s advice to writers to “write about your postage stamp” is evident in Dash’s hard-boiled creations. Hammett wrote about his days as a Pinkerton detective, but few writers can write to specification. He could.

You’ll notice that, with each successive editor, Hammett’s stories become increasingly violent. His chops for description and dialog sharpened. While one can argue that Hammett wrote to market, ‘sold out,’ the introductory essays make it clear that ill health had driven Hammett to the typewriter. Literally. He didn’t have time to have principles. He had a family to support. Off-and-on again with disability, he scrambled. At one point, Hammett had a ‘real job’ and made the princely equivalent of $50,000 in today’s dollars in 1926, and then he was alone, coughing up blood, isolated in an apartment to avoid infecting his family with TB. His stories earned him a few hundred unreliable dollars a year. With each new editor, he had to prove himself. Hammett honed the voice he already had – and I don’t think any editor or amount of study can give a writer that elusive ‘extra.’

This volume includes the serialization of Poisonville stories that became Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest. I pulled out my Library of America edition of Hammett for comparison, and I was stunned at how the Knopf editors touched every single paragraph. Every. Single. One. Hammett howled and complained (Knopf would later do the same to The Dain Curse). I leave readers to decide which version of Red Harvest they like better. I prefer the Black Mask version.

Note: Otto Penzler and Keith Alan Deutsch’s The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (2012) shows readers what the Knopf editors did to the original text of The Maltese Falcon. My Hammett on Hammett blog post provides a glimpse into the editing process on The Maltese Falcon between Hammett and his editors. Hammett could edit himself, but it’s a real crime scene with what the Knopf editors did to his Op novels, in my opinion. Perhaps, scholars should revisit his five novels and offer fans of crime fiction the original texts.

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Everton is a noir version of George Bailey’s Bedford Falls

The Night of the Flood is a collection of fourteen stories framed around a catastrophic flood in the fictional town of Everton, Pennsylvania. Misdirection is already afoot since the flood is not a natural disaster, but an act of vengeance for a miscarriage of justice. David Brooks at The New York Times once said that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia at one end, Pittsburgh at the other, and Alabama in the middle. Everton is in the Alabama part, and the fourteen authors here do their best in the short fiction format to show characters and situations that could have stepped out of the pages of Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone or J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Each story has voice and style, drama and pathos. No small accomplishment. Be forewarned that there is profanity and violence.

These dark tales will make you think uncomfortable thoughts, of how the judicial system dispenses Old Testament justice rather than New Testament compassion and understanding, of how a small town in America is easily forgotten, swept away because it is poor and invisible. I couldn’t help but think of recent disasters such as the floods in Puerto Rico and the aftermath of Katrina, or the lethal interactions between citizens and Authority, past and present. The worst of times test the individual and society. Readers can choose between cynicism or cautious optimism in the stories. How would you act? What would you do? Everton is a noir version of George Bailey’s Bedford Falls.

I’m grateful to NetGalley for the Advance Reader Copy.

Release Date: 5 March 2018.

Amazon link (PB): http://amzn.to/2qjW6sr

Amazon link (Kindle): http://amzn.to/2CH5mcn

Down & Out Books: http://bit.ly/2lFR4ke

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Back in the Day

It’s an annoying phrase. It really is a bad turn of words that would have you believe the day-to-day living back then was simple, pure, less complicated than today. Anybody with an iota of lived experience would tell you anything that is purported to be simple isn’t; anything pure, won’t be, and nothing is less than complicated, except dying.

That brings us to the point: dying. This story is about death. Plain and not so simple, complicated and not complicated.

Let’s knock the nostalgia stuff out of the way: a murder story needs a place. Town was a place to purchase a Pullman ticket. There was usually one bank, one general foods store, and every respectable town had at least one bar or ‘Social Club.’ In town roads were likely not paved and you could pay a bill with a coin. Couples in town could go somewhere reputable for a bite to eat. A girl was a lady and a woman was a woman and both could teach you a thing or two. A kiss was a kiss and nobody talked about what they did in bedrooms that didn’t involve sleeping. In town murder is a cozy affair, about as close and comfortable as kissing your sister, because everybody knew everybody. In town knowing someone meant you knew a name.

Our murder takes place in the city. The city is an altogether different species of living. Nobody will stop you if you want to drink your gin & tonic at 10am. A night can start at 2am and the day can begin at 2pm. There are restaurants, diners, greasy spoons, pubs, and on-the-fly food-stands for your daily eats. There is more than one newspaper with the same story twisted different ways. More than one road gets you in and more than one can get you out. Nobody knows anybody because they’re usually from somewhere else, working to get by, and living where they can, often with their own kind.

See, some things don’t change about murder. A man has to die sometime, and if left alone he’ll die of something. One day. Murder just hurries it along. Women die every day though. They can pick up a magazine and look at the pictures. They die. They can go out to see the pictures, look up at the screen and they die. Beauty kills.

The why a man dies is an entirely philosophical matter. We’re not talking about the self-ordained kind of death and not the one that the woman upstairs writes on the back of the slip when you’re born. I know God is a woman. It explains the humor in this world, like why flamingos have their kneecaps on backwards. As I was saying about a man and his dying…he could die because he has a cause he believes in, but that really is a lie. What that really means is that a man is willing to put himself in a situation again and again that improves the probability of it happening. Call it possibility and mathematicians will call it probability. Others may call it suicide, and some may call it sacrifice. Dead is dead. Murder is a little more precise than that.

Dying for love? Men may not die for love but they’ll kill for it. Let’s skip this one for now.

In my city the tough guys are the ones that can afford manicures and the deadly ones get themselves pedicures. In this story the murder is over the most obvious cause – sex. There’s your motive.

In this murder there are people: there is a lady, a mobbed-up mick cop, a Jew, a creative-type brother of the lady just mentioned, and a dead WASP. Oh, and there’s me.

I forgot. Back in the day we talked that way. We didn’t say Ms., Irish or Italian-American. In my city the Irish were considered equal if not below coloreds. Life was so bad for the Irish that there were signs hung up in the windows everywhere telling them they ‘Need Not Apply Here. Irish are Unwelcome’ but the mean joke was that the Irish had to see the signs but the coloreds were the ones who could read them. No lie. It took a lot more blood and cracked heads than pulling a pint of Guinness to see an Irishman walking the beat.

Coloreds ran the numbers for the Jews or Italians. Once the Italians either killed off the Jews or the Jews went white-collar and left some version of Shylock to run the neighborhood street corner to feed the anti-Semites there was the rest of us fighting over our daily bread. Nobody wants to talk about these things. Each group had their quarter of the city. The Italians ran their neighborhood like their opera, with a fear of sex, respect for the priest, and every now and then, they put out for display some schlep face down in his bowl of pasta, because he rolled out too much dough that belonged to someone else.

Me? I grew up on the West End with a mongrel mix of Irish, Italian, and some coloreds. Us kids feared the old ladies because every one of them was our Mom and every one of them held authority like the law – more so than the beat cops. Lottie, the colored lady on our block, for example, was one such lady and us kids never called her a shine or a nigger or anything vulgar like that, because if we did there was a gauntlet of apron strings to fear more than Jesus. Today the West End is a place for some nice condos with a hospital facing the river.

Let’s get back to the murder. Oh, and one more thing you need to understand about my city. It’s an old city. The rich folks had their mansions all right. The one thing that separated the rich from the poor back then was a zip code. Wealth lived on the top of the hill and poverty at the bottom. Remember that because it is important. Some things never change.

There was Constance but we called her Connie. Sully was the cop. He retired last I heard. There was Ray. He ended up in San Francisco where walking the hills can give you a heart attack. Lest we forget, there is Charles Davenport III. And then there is me.

Always start with the girl. Constance was a constellation in her own right here on earth. She was a genuine Harlow blonde uptown and downtown, half-class and half-trash if there was a glass of champagne in her hand, in and out of a grape-skin dress. That was her dust-jacket presentation to the world. Connie could laugh and play, like a kid in a pile of leaves. I know because she became my Connie.

A girl had to make a living then and Connie was one of the burlesque queens. Stripper isn’t the right word because burlesque is a lost art form. There was more suggestion with gloves and boa feathers instead of the bump-and-grind shows around today. Gynecology was something that belonged in a doctor’s office and not on a stage or a screen. Burlesque required you use your brain while it worked other parts of you. The end result was it separated you from your money; and on a good night you didn’t mind.

If the world enshrined Gypsy Rose Lee for her days at the Addison as the undisputed diva of burlesque then I need to remind you of other legends of tease and taunt, like Little Egypt, and Sally Keith. Connie was what you would call an understudy to Ann Corio, performing at the Howard Athenaeum, the same place where both Booths performed, turning out Macbeth and Hamlet to sold-out audiences. The Howard was near the hill where I told you that the moneyed types live. For the time it lasted – and it lasted quite some time – the rich went slumming late at night and the poor climbed out of their boxes and rented out the top drawer, until the politicians razed the Bulfinch Triangle and built those impersonal cheese-grater granite government buildings.

There were no words to describe Connie on the stage. She was a burning angel under the stage lights. She had her name in neon on the marquee. That became a problem and you’ll see why soon.

Sully. He was a good guy. We were friends even though we walked opposite sides of the street. His old man worked the docks and his mother schooled him at home about matters back in the Old Country. She was not entirely pleased with the school curriculum those days. She wanted her boy to know that the Irish could write. Sully and I had our differences but a drink and discussing books resolved them quickly. Have to say the Irish know how to write. Sully woke up every morning and crossed himself citing Beckett, Joyce, and O’Brien as the Holy Trinity.

We’ll deal with Charles Davenport III later.

Ray. Loved the guy because I had to. He was Connie’s brother. He was a well-dressed sight. Ray always wore the soft colors. First time I saw Ray he was wearing these linen slacks that never seemed to wrinkle, a light pink dress shirt and a dead-canary pullover tied off with a polka-dot ascot. He had a slightly pitched voice that turned your head when you heard it. The way he walked I can’t describe. Ray was the kid you beat up on the playground until Sis came to his rescue. Ray was a delicate kid, an artistic child, and so sensitive that he could gag on his morning toothbrush. That arrangement with Sis worked fine until Ray miraculously developed a jab-and-right hook combination of his own. Sis got time off and spent it understanding the effect her curves in satin had on the rest of us.

Ray had the habit of visiting Connie after her last performance of the night. She’d sign some courtesy autographs for the men in uniform before she went to her room. Despite what people think, sailors were respectable then and waited like kids staring at the gumball machine to get her sinewy signature; and if they were foolish enough to act improper there was Big Bill, one of the coloreds there to teach them etiquette. Bill was a gentleman and a fine Othello who should have had more in life had people been a little more open-minded.

Ray came in one day. “Connie, I’ve got the tickets. Bill Tilden against Don Budge.”

“That’s wonderful, darling,” Connie said, as she took off her earrings and worked her way over to the clamshell screen to shimmy her way out of her dress, “When is the match?” her eyes asked over the lacquered wood.

“In two weeks, Saturday afternoon,” Ray responded, holding his prized tickets to the tennis match.

“Oh, I don’t know, Ray. The girls and I have rehearsals. We have a big show and management is planning to let us know if we have that private show or not. Awfully sweet of you to think of me.” Connie had put on a less risqué number and came out from behind the screen.

“Private show? Connie, I really don’t like these private shows. I know the money is good, but I worry that things’ll get out of hand.” Ray looked down at his two tickets and swept them into one, pocketing them.

“Now, your Sis can take care of herself. I took care of you for years and I understand that you’re trying to make up for it, but I’ll be all right. And besides, I have Big Bill.” Connie tilted her feet into a pair of silver heels that made her walk the skyline.

“Big Bill is a good man, but these men have money. You know that. You also know that if they get hungry they’ll want to eat.” Ray stood there brotherly.

Mae West hips had nothing on Connie when she walked across the room, not that they would affect Ray. “Now, look here, Ray. I’ve got my own mind. You’re right. They have money and they should have manners, too. If any of those Harvard boys get any funny ideas that Big Bill can’t correct himself, I’ll just slap the eyebrows off any one of those overgrown brats. It isn’t Christmas and nobody is going to undo the wrapping unless I say so. Got it?”

Ray turned a shade. Connie pinched his cheek and kissed it. She took his arm in one hand and her sequin purse in the other. That purse of hers was shiny, small, and held her money clip, lipstick, and a derringer, like the one Booth used.

We met up for breakfast over at Joe & Nemo’s over at Cambridge and Stoddard Streets. Breakfast was actually lunch for us but none of us listened to rules, especially Connie. Her one sin a week was one of those famous hot dogs. The place had breakfast and a steak dinner with all the works but Connie always had herself a ‘one all around’ which is a water-cooked dog on a steamed roll with mustard, relish, onions and horse radish. Joe broke a good egg and I loved his spooning the bacon fat over it to brown the eggs something nice. That was my dish.

Ray told me about Tilden. He had two tickets he reminded me. I knew Ray liked my company but I had to decline. Not a big fan of tennis. He tried Sully later but Sully turned him down because he said being seen seeing Tilden would be bad for his reputation on the force.

Now, Charles Davenport III was, as the name tells you, old money. He lived on the hill and once in a while, when he wasn’t making more of it or inheriting it, he came down from his gilded perch to spend it. Charles had a taste for flesh and he used a C note to acquire girls like they were rental properties. Charlie managed to get every girl in the place except Connie.

Connie was no temple virgin nor would you find her in the choir at midnight Saturday Mass, but she was a decent girl. She made her money honestly. The other girls were struggling and they did what they had to do even if that meant the likes of Davenport and his band of bowties.

Charles was a Harvard legacy. His grandfather was a one-dollar-a-year Harvard professor; and rumor had it that if you went rummaging through his closet you might find some Puritans and some floorboards from the Mayflower. He talked proper. He drank tea. He wore his top hat and his bowtie, imported from England. He walked with a cane not because he had a limp but the accessory matched his social status as royalty in the New World. The only thing missing on Charles was that silken handkerchief to pull out from under his sleeve to cover his genteel nose when he passed us poor in the street.

Davenport hired out the hall for the private party. He liked champagne, cigars, and expected with each passing hour that the girls lose their clothing until they had nothing but what God gave them on their first day. Then the real fun would begin behind locked doors and closed windows. Had there been a scream or call for help no cop with the best ears in the city would hear a thing. Big Bill had a full night; and rich, white boys who made in one day several times over what he made all year made him as nervous as a kitten surrounded by unfed German shepherds.

The calendar squares flew off the wall and two weeks later, Saturday appeared. Ray found himself someone to take to that Tilden and Budge match. Him and his friend took the train out of state and had themselves a good time. Sully was at work. I was home balancing the books and planning to read one from Sully’s library. I think it was Flann O’Brien. I had tried Beckett but every time I looked up I lost my place in one of his sentences and had to wind back my brain to remember where I was. I gave up. The evening plan was to visit Connie and take her to Joe & Nemo’s after the private show.

The phone rang. I don’t like phones but my boss insisted I get one. He paid for it so the leash sat on the table. So when it rang I knew it was the Boss on the line. Nobody else called on the exclusive line.

I told the operator, “Put him through.”

“What is it, Sap?” I said all polite to the man who paid my bills. Sap was short for Leo Saperstein. He was a professional gambler. I ran his numbers and if I played out like a good ace he might promote me up to the higher rackets. Sap was a New York Jew, had run with Lansky and Siegel, but after his good friend Arnold Rothstein got clipped he left town. He respected Meyer’s business-sense but Bugsy Siegel and Charlie Luciano scared him. He told me that Arnold was old business and Meyer Lansky was new business but Bugsy and Charlie were murderous thugs with about as much self-control as drunks staring at a full bottle of Scotch.

“Hey, I think you need to get over to The Howard,” he said to me over the phone. We kept our conversations as minimalist as one of those awful canvases in the museums. The cops listened in at times.

“I think there is trouble over there,” Leo said calmly.

“How’d you know if there was?” I asked. “And besides, Big Bill is covering the floor. He knows how to fend for himself.”

He was about to say something but I could feel worry weighing down his voice. I said to him, “C’mon, Leo, I’m sure it’s nothing; and besides, I thought Jews don’t touch phones on the Sabbath.”

Leo cleared his throat. I knew he was a killer if the push turned to a shove and the wall was behind him, but only I could get away with ribbing him about his religion. I heard his bristle, “That’s Orthodox Jews, numbskull. I’m a reformed Jew.”

“All right, all right, Leo. You know I was kidding, right? Keep your yarmulke on, will ya?”

Leo wasn’t laughing. “I’m sorry, Leo. What makes you think there’s trouble there?”

“My cousin called me and said that Davenport was creeping the girls out, seemed hell-bent on Connie.”

“Your cousin?” I asked.

“Yeah, my cousin. He goes to Harvard. He tagged along. He left when things turned sour. I just got off the wire with him.” My brain did a swivel and I almost had to ask, Since when did Harvard let in Jews, but Leo was ahead of me by several paragraphs and answered, “Yeah, he’s the only Jew in Harvard. Spare me your jokes. We had to change his name a little, but that’s another story. If you care about the girl you better get over there pronto. I’ve seen one crazy Charlie in my life and this Davenport is busting up the place something mean, and I wouldn’t put it past him if he’d gut her if he she didn’t give him the sugar for his sweet tooth.”

I had clammy sweat breaking out on the back of my neck. Leo had his way with words so when he said crazy Charlie I knew he wasn’t being poetic comparing Davenport to Luciano. I had asked Leo about Lucky once and the man got as quiet as a nun at high mass. Leo loved his old pal Rothstein and could gab about the man’s impeccable brain and clothes, and mock Fitzgerald for his portraying Arnold as the cartoonish Meyer Wolfsheim, but droopy-eyed Luciano gave him the sweats like Davenport was giving me. I mopped the sweat and threw the handkerchief next to the phone. Looking back at it now, I’m sure that kerchief was a modern day Shroud of Turin.

I rang Sully and told him to meet me near the hall. He needled me but all I had to say was that Connie was in trouble. I said Davenport. That was all it took. “Meet you at the Trick & Joke Shop.” I knew when I hung up that I could count on Sully bringing his Irish charm.

I snatched some poor Joe out of a cab, sticking a fresh twenty in his hand for my rudeness. My mother would be proud if she were alive. I saw Sully in the dark. He wore his London Fog over his uniform.

“How we get in?” he asked me.

“You’re the cop. I thought you guys do this all the time,” I replied, unable to get a grin out of him. Sully stingy on smiles meant someone was going to have a bad day.

“Around back, side alley. We can use the door,” I directed him. His look asked me how I knew so I told him, “Actors used it to break away from the crowds.”

Sully had to ask, “And you use it for your conjugal visits to Connie?” I gave him a cold eye that told him to zip it.

The door gave off a metallic shrill like it hadn’t been pulled since John Winthrop came to town. The place was dark. We heard a bottle break but no idea from where the sound came since the theater carried acoustics well.

We found Big Bill on the floor, cold-cocked and dreaming about the big headache that he would have in the morning. Two of the girls appeared out of nowhere running down the curved hall. They were so scared they had no clothes on and we were too surprised to appreciate it. They were terrified. They told us that most of the Harvard boys had left but there were one or two passed out from drinking. When we had asked where Connie was the girls said that Davenport had dragged her off to one of the private balconies.

Sully and I looked at each other. A private balcony was a sweet view of the stage with plenty of room. The high price also gave the owner for the evening some privacy by providing a door that he could lock from the inside. Unless Sully and I had any ambition to imitate Tarzan the only way up was the velvet curtain and for Connie the only way down was a jump that if she were lucky would break one of her legs like Booth did in DC after he plugged Lincoln behind the ear. There was screaming behind the door. Like an idiot I had to turn the knob to confirm what I already knew. It was locked.

Sully whispered, “I can shoot the knob and we can bust through.”

I didn’t approve, “And what if he panics and pitches her over the side or takes her with him and uses her to break his fall?” We looked at each other and the idea that Davenport would use her as a flying carpet sickened us.

“Here, take this,” Sully said. He handed me a shiv and instructed me to start prying at the wedge and crease where the lock met the wood. I looked at him like his wheel had rolled off his bike and had gone down the street alone. Sully pushed me to my task. “I’ll talk to him and buy us time,” Sully said. “You have a better idea?” he asked me. I got on my knees next to the door and worked like a quiet termite with one sharp tooth.

“Hey, Davenport!” he pounded on the door. “It’s me, Sullivan.”

“Which one? Sullivan is a common enough mick name,” the snarling voice said from the other side of the nice wooden door. Sully smiled for a second. He looked down and he motioned to me to keep digging away. I did.

Sully used his respectful police persuasion. “The downtown Sullivan, the one you pay fifty a week to overlook your fun and games over in Cambridge. Remember now? Daddy isn’t going to be happy about this escapade, Junior, so why don’t we call it a wrap and act civil. Let the lady go and I’ll get you a cup of coffee. Nobody will know and everyone will forget. Get me?”

“I paid for her,” the man screamed from the other side. We heard Connie’s voice saying some unladylike things. Davenport had turned out to be one of those customers who had a broader definition of service on the side.

I was splintering wood with the makeshift knife. The taped handle conformed to my hand nicely. I could tell it had been used but I was afraid to ask, knew I shouldn’t. The knife’s edge was touching the little metal flap that clicks into place. I just needed to push it and turn the knob just right and we would be in.

“Hey Davenport?” Sully yelled.

“What is it?” rich boy bellowed back. The tone of his voice was telling me I had to get the damn door open soon.

“Why don’t you pick yourself another girl? Imagine it, Davenport. The two of you share a nice glass of champagne, an evening out on the town, and when you get back to your place you hold her nice and watch that nice dress of hers drop to the floor. You can read her poetry from Barrett and Browning and treat her to some chocolate and …” I pulled on Sully’s trench and asked him, “What the hell are you doing?” The last thing I expected to hear was the Irish serenade.

His hand turned my head into the door wedge. I got the tip of the knife against the metal and with my other hand grabbed the doorknob. Sully looked down and saw that I was ready. Our eyes met and we agreed that we both would open and charge the room.

The door flung open. I was on the ground crawling and trying to stand up. I didn’t see it but a shot went off. I looked up at Sully but there was no smoke from his gun so I spun my neck the other way, looking for Connie. I didn’t quite see it the way I should’ve because it happened so quickly.

It seems Davenport had Connie wedged deep into the seat. When Sully barged in he saw him and the silver tips of her shoes on either side of Davenport’s head. As Davenport’s eyes met Sully’s Connie’s long white arm emerged out from the velvet underneath with her derringer. She had put the muzzle up and under Davenport’s chin and pulled the trigger.

When I stood up Davenport had already stepped back and was moving backwards to the balcony edge. We heard the thud seconds later. It was an awful sound. Sully and I rushed over to the edge and looked down. Davenport, for all his money, was dead. His body looked like a little contorted puppet down there. He lost a few shirt studs on the way down but the untied bowtie lay nicely on his tipped collar. The coroner man said the bullet hole that let his final thoughts out the top of his head killed him.

The police came and in true city fashion they wanted to haul off Big Bill for killing Davenport. The detectives made a big stink about a colored being bodyguard to a bunch of lily-white burlesque girls. Sully gave Connie his trench coat. I got Leo on the wire.

It all worked out in the end. Big Bill took a bruising at the station but he was let go. Leo knew some judges higher up in the circuit than the ones the Davenports knew. It was nice to see new money beat old money. Leo made all the arrangements. It cost Connie her career in town.

The Davenports weren’t an easy tribe to deal with. When Ray came back he did a brave thing. Like Leo’s cousin he knew the social scene on the other side of the river and made it known that Davenport was doing his version of a Tilden. See, back in the day gay and queer had a different meaning. It was unfortunate then that when someone used the name Tilden it was like mentioning Chaplin. It was a stand-in for moral degeneracy. When the Davenports heard that Ray was willing to get up on the stand and say that he was one of them and that their boy played in the same pond, it all went away rather nicely in the end.

Me? I owed Leo. He did Connie and me a big favor. The big boys were hammering up a tax evasion charge on Leo. Let’s just say that Sully and I looked over the books before the Feds did. With an eraser here and there I made it look like that I had cooked Leo’s books and ran off with some of his money. When the bookworms finally took off their green visors and pulled the chain on their banker’s lamps they concluded I was liable for Leo’s math problem. Since Sully did well with the Davenport case and exhibited his clover charm at every turn, he got bumped up to Detective. I got a nickel upstate but Leo made sure I did only a year.

When I got out Connie was on the other side waiting for me. She was wearing Sully’s coat and inside a paper bag she had brought two of her ‘one all around’ dogs. We were married for fifty-plus years. I’m an old man now but life has been good to me, always been good to me, even back in the day.

*

Shortlisted for the Fish Prize 2010, this story appears in the charity anthology PALADINS, available from both Amazon UK/US. Proceeds are directed to the Multiple Myeloma Foundation (MMF) in honor of Henrietta Furchtenicht  (9 October 1955 — 29 August 2016).

 

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