The Strangler

The Strangler unearthed

strangler

In the news today: Albert DeSalvo’s remains will be exhumed for DNA testing in one of the Boston Strangler murders. (Boston Globe story here, Times here.) DeSalvo confessed to thirteen murders, but his confession was riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies, and has always been doubted. Hard not to think of my own novel The Strangler. While researching then publicizing my book, many, many older Bostonians told me how vividly they recall the terror in the city during the Strangler panic.

Image: “Sept. 3, 1962: Boston police detectives worked through the night trying to solve the Strangler case after Jane Sullivan, 67, was discovered on Aug. 30, 1962, throttled to death in her apartment. She was believed to be the sixth victim….” Boston Globe.

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Demolition of Boston’s West End

West End

Chambers and Barton Streets, July 19, 1959 (via).

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The backlist is back

The success of Defending Jacob — now in its 17th week on the Times bestseller list, at #23 for ebooks, #24 for hardcovers, among the longest runs on either list — has had a nice byproduct: there is renewed interest in my two earlier books, Mission Flats and The Strangler. Both are being reissued in the U.S. today as trade paperbacks (the larger paperback size) with lovely new covers. The new covers, I think, are truer to the books than the original designs. I particularly like the new Mission Flats cover. If you’re interested in buying either book online, the links are here for Mission Flats and here for The Strangler. Better yet, go to your local independent bookstore.

All good news. There seems to be no other kind lately, for which I am very, very grateful. Thank you. Truly, to all the people who have made Defending Jacob such a roaring success — the many hundreds of thousands who have bought it, read it, passed it around, talked it up, discussed it in book clubs, sent me such kind messages — thank you. It’s been a great run and there’s no end in sight, with the paperback edition still to come and (fingers crossed, if we’re lucky, don’t want to jinx anything, but maybe, just maybe…) the movie. Stay tuned.

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Missing the West End

West End demolition

Architecture critic Robert Campbell has a nice essay in today’s Boston Globe asking “What makes the memory of this neighborhood so durable? Why do the people, half a century later, still feel that they are members of it?” Of course, the demolition of the West End figures prominently in my novel The Strangler. (Photos: Boston Globe.)

West End demolition

(Images: Boston’s old West End under demolition, ca. 1958-60.)

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West End Memories (continued)

Reader “Leonard in Florida” writes with another memory triggered by reading The Strangler:

My father played the numbers with a guy by the name of Brownie in the West End for years. He naturally had a formula for figuring the number. One night he came home with a paper bag with $4,000. He had hit a four-number hit, which I believe paid about $30 to the penny, whereas a three-number hit paid $30 to a nickel.

$4,000 in 1950 would be about $36,000 today, according to the inflation calculator. Not bad. (Leonard’s first contribution is here.)

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West End Memories

A reader, Leonard in Florida, emails a memory of Boston’s old West End, which figures so prominently in The Strangler.

When I was a kid in the 1940’s, my grandfather and father had an egg store at 203 Chambers Street in the West End. It was a landing spot for refugees. There were all types of people, and religions. I remember a Syrian-owned store where the owner spoke in Yiddish to my dad as they didn’t want the customers to know what they were saying. I also remember when my father used to deliver eggs to Charlie S___’s family store in the South End and they were booking numbers and cashing checks as a business in their store.

More West End memories here.

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Life Magazine Photos of Boston’s Strangler Days

Rickerby - Boston Stranglings

A trove of remarkable photographs of Boston during the Strangler siege. The photos, which are eerie and beautiful, were taken by Arthur Rickerby for Life Magazine. View the whole collection here. Above: A woman wears a hatpin in her sleeve to defend herself against the Strangler, 1963. (Another here.)

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The Perils of Advertising

Rummaging through my computer recently, I came across this ad (PDF) for The Strangler. It ran in the New York Times and the Boston Globe on February 6, 2007, and in the weekly Boston Phoenix at the same time. There was a radio spot airing that week, as well, which was very fun to hear while riding in the car. Some other advertising, too.

An ad like this is every writer’s dream, of course, and I’d be a fool not to appreciate it. But there is a catch-22: you cannot sell books without publicizing them; but the more you spend on publicity, the more copies you have to sell to turn a profit for your publisher. When you go to sell your next book, the publisher will be looking with a gimlet eye at a balance sheet showing not just how many books you sold but whether you actually made any money. Obviously, advertising expenses count. From an accountant’s perspective, it is better to profit on 25,000 copies sold than to lose on 250,000.

Obviously this sort of old-school dead-tree advertising is going to become quite rare in the grim new low-margin world of publishing. No doubt it already has. It just does not make sense to pay top dollar to broadcast your message to millions of readers in the Times when only a tiny fraction of that audience is your actual target. In theory, at least, the web promises pinpoint accuracy in aiming your ad, and costs far less. The shotgun approach makes sense for mass consumer products like soap and beer. For books, you’re probably better off with a rifle. Or, budgets being what they are, a pea shooter. Most readers, I suspect, are more influenced by word-of-mouth from a trusted friend than by ads like this one, anyway.

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The Street Photography of Jules Aarons

Wrestling, West End, Boston

There is a new exhibition at the Boston Public Library of the street photographs of Jules Aarons. The exhibition is located in the Wiggin Gallery in the old McKim Building, just one flight up from the main reading room where where I have been writing every day. The gallery is secluded, and you won’t find much signage or advertising for the exhibit, even in the library itself. The guardians of the BPL apparently have decided to keep this one a secret. That is a shame but not exactly a surprise. Aarons’s work has been underappreciated for a long time now. He is one of the best photographers you’ve never heard of.

I wandered up to the Wiggin Gallery this morning before work, happy to postpone writing a difficult scene that I have been struggling to complete. In the gallery, two women were strolling past the pictures and chatting. They soon wandered off, and I had the entire exhibition to myself. The room was quiet, not the usual library sort of quiet — footsteps, sniffles, sneezes, whispers — but dead quiet. It was an odd place to see these pictures, which are so alive you half expect the people in them to turn to you and speak. (“Get back to work,” they might tell me.)

It is a mystery to me why Aarons’s photographs are not better known. I am not enough of a connoisseur to comment on the technical proficiency of the pictures, but to me they seem expertly composed and printed. Certainly they are very beautiful. Aarons’s street photography has been compared to the work of Lisette Model, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, and Aaron Siskind, among others. Again, I am not qualified to comment on the comparisons. But I know what I see in these pictures and why I love them: they are alive, authentic, intimate, humane.

Most of the photos in the exhibition date from about 1947-1960, some later. They show ordinary working-class people, often in the West and North Ends of Boston, doing nothing more than chatting on street corners or flirting or lighting a cigarette. Fifty or sixty years later, of course, these people are all gone or transformed by age, but they are utterly alive and present in Aarons’s pictures. To come face to face with them is like traveling back in time. It makes the hair on your neck stand up.

I first discovered Aarons’s work when I was researching The Strangler. His images were always in my head when I closed my eyes and imagined the city during the Strangler period. I even considered approaching him to license one of his images for the book jacket, he so perfectly catches the period feel I was looking for.

aarons3

Aarons, who died recently at age 87, was never a professional artist. In fact, he was a renowned physicist, an expert in an arcane study that has something to do with radio waves in the atmosphere. Photography was a sort of second career for him. One wonders how a scientific mind could create pictures so soulful.

I suspect that, upon moving to Boston in 1947, Aarons found in the crowded streets of the West and North Ends a subject that reminded him of the Bronx neighborhood where he grew up in the 1920s and ’30s. He was at home in city streets. He seems to have enjoyed the bustle of urban life. His pictures are full of kids playing on sidewalks and women gossiping on tenement stoops and young men leaning on parked cars. I may be biased, but to me he seems especially at home in the streets of this city. His pictures of other places — Aarons traveled and photographed widely — do not have the same vitality and dynamism as the early Boston pictures. His images of Paris and, later, Peru are more abstract, more composed, more consciously artistic. I do not mean that as a criticism. An artist has a right to evolve, to work in a different, cooler style. But I do love the early, raw Boston pictures on display at the BPL.

Aarons’s method was unobtrusive. He used a boxy twin-lens Rolleiflex held at the waist, which gave him an unexpected advantage.

The waist level position allowed me to point my body in one direction and the camera in another. It was important to me not to intrude on the scenes which ranged from card playing in the streets to adults talking to one another.

The effect is like spying on real people, unposed, unself-conscious, unaware of our gaze. It is like visiting a lost Boston — precisely the fantasy I indulged in The Strangler. To see that city here, reanimated in Aarons’s photographs, is an electric experience.

Quote is from Street Portraits 1946-1976: The Photographs of Jules Aarons, Kim Sichel, ed. (Stinehour Press, 2002), p. 10.

Photos: Untitled (West End, Boston), 1947-53 (top). Lounging, North End, 1950s (bottom).

For more info about the exhibition at the Boston Public Library, look here. To see more photos by Jules Aarons, look here and here. There is also a Facebook page dedicated to Aarons here.

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Title Trouble

I remember the moment I came up with the title “Mission Flats” for my first novel. It was late, long past midnight. The house was quiet. I lay in bed unable to sleep, which is common for me. (I am a chronic insomniac.) I had been playing around with the word “mission” for the title. The book is about Ben Truman’s mission, his adventure far from home, an odyssey that roughly follows the arc of traditional adventure myths described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The novel also drew on the Boston neighborhood of Mission Hill as part of its inspiration. In fact, I considered both “The Mission” and “Mission Hill” as titles. But a lofty, aspirational, resolute word like “mission” needed a downbeat flat note to balance it. So I swapped in “flats” for “hill,” thinking perhaps of Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. The words fell into place — click — and there it was.

I knew I had it. Right from the start, from that first click, the words “Mission Flats” seemed inevitable, perfect, unimprovable. The proof of its rightness was that the title, rather than just being a sign hung on the front of the book, began to shape the story. The high-low sound of it — Mission (up), Flats (down) — catalyzed the writing. Intentionally or not, I began to write a story to fit it.

There was no such parting of the clouds for “The Strangler.” My own working title for that book was “The Year of the Strangler,” which I still think is a truer reflection of the story. The novel is not just about the Boston Strangler case. It is — at least it is intended to be — a panoramic view of the Boston underworld in the early 1960’s, taking in the formation of the Mob order that would rule the city for the next forty years and also the reconstruction of the city both physically and economically. Alas, my editors, both here and in the U.K., loathed “The Year of….” It sounds like a history book, they said. And because I was inexperienced and too eager to please, I accepted the suggestion of “The Strangler” as more focused, more evocative, and more marketable. Let me be clear: the fault was entirely mine. If I did not like the title, I could and should have said no. I understand that. But I did not, and the title still rankles. It simply does not fit the book.

So this whole business of choosing a title is deadly important. And for my novel in progress, I still don’t have one. No click. No itchy inkling of a Really Big Idea trembling just out of reach, about to reveal itself. Nothing. I don’t even have a working title. On my computer, the manuscript resides in a folder called “Book Three.” This has been going on for over a year.

The problem occupies more brain-space than I can afford to give it. In the sprint to the finish line, my thoughts should be 100% on the story. Instead I churn one title after another.

The candidates fall into some of the usual categories.

  • Wordy, colloquial, faux-conversational titles — oh so trendy at the moment (Then We Came to the End, We Need to Talk About Kevin, It’s Beginning to Hurt, This Is Where I Leave You, all descended presumably from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love).
  • Solemn one-word titles (Atonement, Possession, Damage).
  • Place names (Cold Mountain, Mansfield Park, Gorky Park).
  • Character names (Jane Eyre, Billy Bathgate).
  • Allusions (Tender Is the Night).

Of course, there are as many categories, as many ways to name a book as you care to dream up. These are just the ones I have been turning over in my head.

The title candidates, for the moment:

  • Line of Descent: because the story involves a teenage boy who is descended from several generations of murderous men and is himself accused of murder.
  • Cold Spring Park: the public park where the murder takes place.
  • Jacob: the name of the boy who is accused (probably used in some construction like “About Jacob” or “Regarding Jacob”).
  • The Murder Gene: which the boy and his parents fear he has inherited.
  • Guilt, violence, inheritance, blood, nature: all words rolling around in my head like loose marbles.

Some of this confusion is self-inflicted, no doubt — paralysis by analysis. At this point, having thought about it too hard for too long, I may not recognize the click when I hear it. Or, more accurately, since in art the eureka! experience is a subjective one — there is no such thing as a perfect title, there is no “right” answer — I may not be allowing myself to think that any title is right, or right enough.

Anyway, the struggle to name Book Three goes on. Cast your vote, if you like. I need all the help I can get.

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A Favorite Review

I don’t want to turn this blog into a sellathon for my books. I am quite bad at self-promotion, probably because it makes me so uncomfortable.

But as I’ve been transferring material from my old web site to this new blog, I ran across a review of The Strangler that I particularly relished and want to share here. It was not widely read, I am sure. It appeared in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, the professional journal of the local bar, on May 28, 2007. I would have missed it myself if some lawyer friends had not pointed it out to me.

I love this review because it was written by a veteran criminal defense lawyer who actually knew Boston in the Strangler era and because it focuses on the accuracy of the historical detail. Factual accuracy is lost on most readers. They show up for the story, as they ought to do. The setting may seem vivid and convincing to them, but they have no way of judging its authenticity and they don’t give a damn anyway.

When I first took up writing about crime, as a former A.D.A. I resolved that my books would be accurate to the last detail. They would be “true.” Cops and lawyers would pick them up and nod their heads in recognition: “That’s how it really is!” I quickly learned how foolish that was. It is more important to tell a good story than an accurate one, better to be credible than authentic, realism is not reality, etc., etc. These are basic rules. But the truth is, authenticity still matters to me, probably more than it should.

Local writer pens novel of killer’s stranglehold on Boston

By Norman S. Zalkind

“The Strangler,” by Newton’s own William Landay, is an extraordinary portrayal of the underbelly of Boston in the early 1960s. It is Landay’s second contribution to the crime-novel genre, his first being “Mission Flats” (the fictional name of a gritty city neighborhood in Boston), in which he showed his skill at turning out a page-turner.

Having grown up in and around Boston when the events portrayed in Landay’s latest work took place, I am amazed at his ability to accurately reconstruct one such history-making event: the tragic destruction of Boston’s West End neighborhood and its replacement with a so-called urban-renewal project that destroyed a vibrant, working-class immigrant community.

Landay’s story of an infamous strangler feels like the Boston-based movie, “The Departed,” with non-stop violence seen through the eyes of the three Daley brothers: Ricky, the skilled burglar; Michael, the Harvard-trained lawyer; and Joe, the World War II veteran, compulsive gambler and Boston cop who is corrupted by his addiction.

The Boston Strangler investigation was on everyone’s mind in the Boston of 1963. A killer had taken the lives of a dozen victims, and the city was shaken.

Landay, a Boston College Law School graduate and a former assistant district attorney, postulates the theory that Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to the crimes (and was later murdered in prison), was really not The Strangler. Many in the legal community agree with Landay’s thinking.

But this attorney/author dismisses any suggestion that his background in criminal justice might explain his facility for writing on that topic. “I am leery of my own credentials,” he told The Boston Globe in a recent interview. “People look at me and focus on the fact that I was an assistant DA and project all sorts of things on my books, as if that is some sort of guarantee of authenticity. But the credential guarantees nothing.”

Nonetheless, Landay can spin a tale of murderous intrigue. “The Strangler” is fast-paced, filled with relentless suspense and mayhem. The Daley boys’ father, a Boston police officer, is killed under mysterious circumstances, and the brothers suspect their father’s partner, Conroy, of the killing.

The story becomes more complicated when, after the father’s death, Conroy moves in with Joe Daley Sr.’s widow, Margaret. More complications arise when Margaret is attacked by a man the sons believe is the real “Strangler.”

Joe, the cop, becomes a pawn for the mob, but he is both good cop and bad cop at the same time. The good-cop side of Joe leads him to investigate the forced removal of families from the West End. When he stands up to the mob, and doesn’t get his burglar brother Ricky to return diamonds he allegedly stole, Joe and Ricky become objects of mob contracts.

Former ADA Landay is able to capture the criminal-defense scene the way it was in the early 1960s. The defense bar was dominated by natives of Massachusetts — and Boston in particular. The colorful F. Lee Bailey and others of his ilk — Joe Balliro, Bill Homans and Paul Smith, among them — could definitely have been the lawyer characters in this novel. Boston’s non-white-collar criminal defense bar is today still dominated by locals, but they are nothing like their legal forebears of 40 years ago.

Landay’s constant use of local street language reveals his in-depth knowledge of a storied era and brings color and humanity to his writing. He reveals his relative youth only when he has the Boston detective carrying 9 mm firearms instead of the .38-caliber guns that the police used in that earlier time.

This lawyer novel is most impressive in its focus on crime and the city. It is a great fast read that unfolds like a screenplay. You will be impressed with the way the writer integrates homicide investigations, political corruption, mental illness, organized crime, love, humor and much more. ♦

Norman S. Zalkind is a longtime Boston criminal-defense attorney.

As for that gun, it is the one detail of the book that I changed when The Strangler was reissued in paperback. Joe Daley now carries a .38 as he should, thanks to Mr. Zalkind.

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A “Strangler” Word Cloud

strangler_wordcloud

Just for kicks, courtesy of Wordle.net, here is the text of The Strangler displayed as a word cloud, a visual representation of the most frequently used words in the novel. Not sure how much this tells you, really. The characters’ names dominate, as you might expect. Other prominent topics show up as well: Boston, cops/police, brother. The surprise is that the F-word appears, and not once but twice, including the all-important adjectival or gerund form, fuckin’. I know some authors shy away from profanity even in books that are violent or sexually graphic or otherwise aimed at adults. But to me it seems phony to portray street thugs speaking the Queen’s English, and perverse to blush at using a dirty word but not at lurid descriptions of gory violence. Even so, I hadn’t realized I used the word that much.

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Angiulo, Barboza and fictionalizing the Boston Mob

The animating idea of The Strangler was to recreate Strangler-era Boston, to bring the lost city to life so convincingly that readers would have the immersive three-dimensional experience of actually being there, walking the streets, brushing shoulders with the people. Period authenticity was important: the original working title of the book was The Year of the Strangler.

Of course reanimating the actual city required that a few prominent Bostonians appear undisguised, or nearly so, including gangsters, cops, and politicians. In the original draft, these characters were accurately named and described. The mob boss Capobianco, for example, was called by his real name, Gennaro Angiulo. The historical Gerry Angiulo ran the Boston mob during my childhood in the 1970s. In 1963 and ’64, when The Strangler takes place, he was just consolidating his power.

Gennaro Angiulo, 1967

Gennaro Angiulo, 1967

On the eve of the book’s publication, I got a call from a lawyer at Random House asking about some of these historical figures, including Angiulo. “Is he still alive?” the lawyer wanted to know. Apparently libel laws are stricter when the subject is living. Angiulo was 87 years old then, but still alive in a federal prison. So his name had to be changed. To further insulate the book from a libel charge, Angiulo had to be mentioned by name in the book so we could plausibly deny that my character Capobianco was an Angiulo stand-in. After all, we could argue, there is Angiulo standing next to Capobianco — how could they be the same person? All this sensitivity about the man’s reputation seemed a little ridiculous to me. How was it possible to libel a murderer and convicted mafioso like Gerry Angiulo? But I did not insist, and shortly before publication the character was rechristened Charlie Capobianco. Still the facts remain: the novel’s description of a “born bookie” who became a mob boss — his physical appearance, his biography, his North End headquarters, his bookmaking operation — all are meticulously faithful to the life of Gerry Angiulo. (The libel issue is moot now. Gerry Angiulo died at the end of August, at age 90. His funeral procession required a flatbed truck to carry the 190 bouquets of flowers.)

Continue reading →

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Inside “The Strangler”: The New Boston, 1963

One of the frustrations in writing a historical novel like The Strangler is that so much of your research never sees the light of day. When the book is done, all those index cards so lovingly compiled get wrapped up in a rubber band and tossed into a drawer, and the reader is left to wonder which bits of the story are fact and which are fiction. I thought I might pull some of those notes out of the drawer again and, over the next couple of weeks, share some of the background of the book — where characters or scenes came from, how they developed, what was left out.

Let’s start with the epigraph. It is ostensibly a quote from a 1962 chamber-of-commerce-type advertisement which begins, “If you haven’t seen the New Boston lately, you’re in for a surprise — America’s city of history is now a city of tomorrow.”

The epigraph establishes the time and place of the story, obviously. The setting is Boston in 1963, an annus horribilis for the city, the year of the Strangler and the Kennedy assassination. Also, the West End — a neighborhood of old tenements and narrow, twisting streets — has recently been demolished to make way for a massive urban renewal project, so the city is physically scarred as well. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the moment when Boston, a city in a long, steep decline like many other manufacturing centers (Newark, Detroit), began to reinvent itself as the gleaming place you see today.

The epigraph is not authentic. I stitched it together from a few similar ads from the period. I especially liked the one below, which appeared in the November 1962 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The boosterism in that ad copy, with its jet-age hopefulness, makes a laughable contrast to the grungy reality of city life at the time, particularly in this novel.

Similar ironic devices show up pretty frequently. In the movie “The Full Monty,” the opening credits appear over a promotional film touting the glories of Sheffield, England. A montage of mock period footage is used in the closing credits of “L.A. Confidential” as well. I don’t know, at this point, whether I had “The Full Monty” in mind or not, but “L.A. Confidential,” both the book and the film versions, was an important model for my book.

One last thing: While you’re looking at the ad below, take a look at the image of the city, too. How low the buildings are. On the right, the “old” John Hancock building towers over the Back Bay though it is only 26 stories high. Downtown, at the left center, the 1915 Custom House Tower is still the tallest building at just under 500 feet. This is essentially a nineteenth-century skyline. Boston had seen no major construction in fifty years, a period in which the rest of America’s cities were booming. The Prudential Center in the Back Bay, completed in 1964, was the first modern skyscraper built here. (There is a neat image here of the Back Bay skyline in 1963, with the Pru nearing completion.) This fossilized skyline is a clue. It tells you one reason why the city fathers (no mothers then, sorry) felt so much pressure to see the Strangler murders solved: the “New Boston” had to come. The Strangler case arrived at an inconvenient moment.

Anyway, here is one of the real ads I based my bogus epigraph on. You can see a full-size version here.

1962 Boston ad, Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1962 at p. 72A

 

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Walter Cronkite and “The Strangler”

A still from Biography of a Bookie Joint

In the deluge of clips since Walter Cronkite died a few days ago, the same video seems to come up over and over, like a greatest hits collection: Cronkite announces the JFK and Martin Luther King assassinations, the moon landing, the call to withdraw from Vietnam. I’d like to call your attention to a more obscure clip, a 1961 CBS News exposé called “Biography of a Bookie Joint.”

The show — and Cronkite — make a brief appearance in my novel The Strangler. In the novel, a character named Joe Daley is filmed coming out of a Boston key shop that is a front for a bookie joint. Joe is just a bagman for local cops on the take, but his life goes into a tailspin the moment Walter Cronkite announces, “The man coming out of the door now is a detective. We found that he comes from Station Sixteen, Boston Police Department, just a few blocks away.”

What readers may not have realized is that the CBS News documentary was absolutely authentic. I rendered it virtually word for word from a transcript of the original, altering the narration only for pace and to insert poor Joe Daley into it.

Readers also may not realize that the CBS News exposé played an indirect part in the Boston Strangler murders, which began soon after. The documentary caused a scandal in which the Boston police commissioner, among others, lost his job. When the Strangler murders began and were not immediately solved, the city’s loss of faith in its police department led to a critical mistake: the investigation was removed from the experienced police detectives working the case and transferred to a jury-rigged, politicized “Strangler Bureau.” (The whole story is told in a nonfiction account by Susan Kelly called The Boston Stranglers, which is the best single source on the Strangler cases that you’ll find. If you’re curious about the history of the Strangler years, I recommend it.)

When I was researching my novel The Strangler, in 2005, “Biography of a Bookie Joint” was not available on the web. To see it, I had to go to New York where I watched it at the Museum of Television & Radio (now the Paley Center for Media) on West 52nd Street. There I laboriously transcribed the show on a legal pad. But CBS has finally made this historic show available online. You can watch the whole thing below. (The show runs about an hour.) It is a rare glimpse of the old, seamy, unreconstructed Boston that is the setting for my book.

I always wanted to send a copy of my book to Cronkite, who spent his last years near here, on Martha’s Vineyard. I never did it. I didn’t have the nerve. It seemed presumptuous for a guy who writes meatball mysteries to approach a certified Great Man. But I wonder what Cronkite would have made of his cameo appearance in a story of old Boston.

Image: A still from “Biography of a Bookie Joint.”

Update 2.13.13: CBS has disabled embedding the video of “Biography of a Bookie Joint,” but you can still watch it here.

Also, I recently stumbled on this AP news story which adds an interesting detail: Abraham Swartz, who owned Swartz’s Key Shop, died in February 1962 at age 81, just three months after the original, nationwide broadcast of “Biography of a Bookie Joint” but before the documentary was aired in Massachusetts.

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Why the Strangler?

A reader suggests that I use this blog to share a little about how my books develop from initial concept to final draft. I’ll try, but readers should understand that a strange sort of apathy descends as soon as a project is finished. When I am writing, I am obsessed with the book being drafted, absolutely submerged in it. Robert Penn Warren once likened this feeling to having a new baby: you want to check on it constantly, feed it, pat it on the head. But the moment the book is finished, I lose all interest. (Do all novelists feel this way? Any writers out there?) Already, my last book seems a distant memory — which often comes as a surprise to new readers, whose experience of the book is necessarily fresher and more vivid than my own. With that said, here is something I wrote a couple of years ago, when my novel The Strangler was first published, about what drew me to the case and to Boston during the Strangler days and why I thought there might be a novel in it.

Years ago, back when I was a prosecutor, I first heard a rumor that Albert DeSalvo might not actually have been the Boston Strangler. At the time, no one outside law enforcement (and precious few inside it) took the suggestion seriously. The campaign to reopen the Strangler investigation rarely made the news, and when it did, the stories often had a smart-alecky tone — as if we all knew better, and only a crank would really believe it.

To my mother’s generation, who were young adults when the case broke, the idea was plainly ridiculous. After all, they’d lived through it. They’d felt besieged during the murder spree and relieved afterward. Then they’d read Gerold Frank’s best-selling book, and even watched Tony Curtis play DeSalvo as a mincing, menacing Boston Strangler in the movie. Now, twenty or thirty years later, DeSalvo was innocent?

As readers of my novel will know, I don’t delve too deeply into the DeSalvo case, let alone pretend to solve it. Like a lot of historical novels that ask “what if?” (Robert Harris’s Fatherland, for example), I simply take it as a jumping-off point for the story: What if DeSalvo really was the wrong man?

What fascinated me about the idea was not the case itself but what it suggested about this city. In Chinatown, screenwriter Robert Towne fictionalized an actual historical scandal involving real estate and the water supply in Los Angeles. In that scandal, Towne obviously saw something emblematic, something revealing about L.A. The Strangler story gave me a comparable shiver of recognition. It seemed to suggest all sorts of things about Boston — at least about Boston in those years when the city was evolving into its current incarnation. My city, too, had a secret history.

But what did the Strangler case say about this place, exactly? That it was brutal? Corrupt? Close-mouthed? Why did the Strangler controversy seem to me a quintessentially Boston story? I don’t have definitive answers, even now, having long finished writing the book. The signature Boston crime stories of my day (I am 43) [ed: 45 now] often involve secrecy and corruption — rot — in the city’s most trusted, impenetrable institutions: the Catholic church in the case of pedophile priests, the FBI in the Whitey Bulger case. From a distance, the DeSalvo case certainly looks like a close cousin to these — another sinister secret deal, another conspiracy of silence. True Boston.

Or is it? You’ll have to decide for yourself. I don’t pretend to know. I think of novel-writing as a way to explore the world, not to pontificate about it. It is a mistake to assume novelists are intellectuals, or reporters bringing the news (about Boston, about DeSalvo, about crime, about anything). We are just storytellers. And the storyteller’s job is to follow his vision, to bring it to life. Whether there is any truth in what he sees … well, that’s up to the audience — you.

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