Jul. 10, 2009

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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