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.

Categories: Boston    Tags: ·

“I have lived alone in the woods”

Thoreau letter - excerpt

The Boston Public Library in Copley Square, where I often go to write, is running an amazing year-long exhibition called “Cool + Collected: Treasures of the BPL” which highlights some of the rare holdings in the library’s collection. The contents of the exhibit rotate every few months, and the current crop is truly remarkable. It includes original handwritten letters by Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Frederick Douglass, and others. It is a hall of fame of American letters! My favorites are an original working draft of a poem by Walt Whitman, with edits literally cut and pasted on the page, and a four-page letter from Henry David Thoreau to Horace Greeley which begins:

Concord May 19th 1848.

My Friend Greeley,

I received from you fifty dollars today. —

For the last five years I have supported myself solely by the labors of my hands — I have not received one cent from any other source, and this has cost me so little time, say a month in the spring and another in the autumn, doing the coarsest work of all kinds, that I have probably enjoyed more leisure for literary pursuits than any contemporary. For more than two years past I have lived alone in the woods, in a good plastered and shingled house entirely of my own building, earning only what I wanted, and sticking to my proper work. The fact is man need not live by the sweat of his brow — unless he sweats easier than I do — he needs so little. For two years and two months all my expenses have amounted to but 27 cents a week, and I have fared gloriously in all respects. If a man must have money, and he needs but the smallest amount, the true and independent way to earn it is by day-labor with his hands at a dollar a day. — I have tried many ways and can speak from experience. — Scholars are apt to think themselves privileged to complain as if their lot was a peculiarly hard one. How much have we heard about the attainment of knowledge under difficulties of poets starving in garrets — depending on the patronage of the wealthy — and finally dying mad. It is time that men sang another song. There is no reason why the scholar who professes to be a little wiser than the mass of men, should not do his work in the ditch occasionally, and by means of his superior wisdom make much less suffice for him. A wise man will not be unfortunate. How then would you know but he was a fool?

The letter ends, “P. S . My book” — Walden, presumably — “is swelling again under my hands, but as soon as I have leisure I shall see to those shorter articles. So, look out.” (You can read a transcript of the rest of the letter here.)

The exhibit has other wonderful things, too, posters and prints and rare books and so on. But to me — to any writer or reader, I bet — to see the actual handwriting of these giants of American letters is to feel their presence. The experience is electric.

If you’re around Copley Square, check it out (through June). If not, the whole exhibit is available online, in glorious high resolution, on Flickr. Lord knows what else the BPL has stashed away in the vault. Very cool indeed.

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.)

Categories: Boston · Crime · Photography    Tags:

There is no sleeping at the Boston Public Library

It is strictly forbidden to fall asleep at the Boston Public Library. I presume this policy is intended to keep the homeless from camping out here, but the homeless know the rules because, well, they camp out here, so it is not the homeless who are primarily affected. It is everyone else. Like me.

Unfortunately, conditions at the Boston Public Library are in all other ways sleep-optimal: quiet, low light, tens of thousands of dull old books. Just about the only way to ward off sleep under these circumstances is eating — but eating, alas, is likewise strictly forbidden at the Boston Public Library.

Security guards, with not much else to do, constantly patrol the library waking up anyone who drifts off. Ever vigilant, they troop past every fifteen minutes or so. Upon detecting a violation, they knock on the table where the offender has laid his head. Then comes a whisper: “No sleeping.” Sometimes even a finger wag.

The BPL sleep police have a thankless task, and it might be better for everyone if we simply changed the rule to “no more than 15 minutes per nap.” The bookkeeping would be unmanageable (how to track when each patron fell asleep? how long to allow between naps until a new 15 minutes is permitted?), but then libraries have always run largely on the honor system.

I will have to leave this matter to the trustees. The injustice of the Boston Public Library’s policy toward drowsy patrons is beyond my capacity at the moment, marooned as I am in the main reading room with a half-edited manuscript, brain-dead from reading the same pages over and over. And over. If I wait for the guard to pass, maybe I can sneak in a quick nap.

Categories: Boston    Tags:

Photographs of the Combat Zone

John Goodman, "The Schlitz Boys," 1978

I stopped by the new exhibit today at the Howard Yezerski Gallery on Harrison Avenue, “Boston Combat Zone: 1969-1978.” The gallery and the show both are small but well worth a visit, even on a raw, rainy day like today.

The exhibit gathers together black-and-white photographs by Roswell Angier, Jerry Berndt, and John Goodman. The photographs all show the people of the Combat Zone — hookers, strippers, pimps, lonelyhearts. Some are posed portraits, some are candid, journalistic shots. There are no empty compositions, no unpeopled streets. It is all real faces, real bodies. The subject is what in the Zone was called The Life.

I have been fascinated by the Combat Zone for a long time and always wanted to write about it. (I did write a short story about it once. More info here.) When my third book is finished — I hope to send the manuscript off to my publisher next week — I intend to pitch my editor on a novel set in the Combat Zone for book four. Maybe this exhibit is a good omen.

In the meantime, if you’re in the area I recommend the show. I have done quite a bit of research on life in the Combat Zone and I have never seen so many images, especially such evocative and beautiful ones, in one place.

Photo: John Goodman, “The Schlitz Boys,” 1978 (gelatin silver print, 16″ x 20″). Click image to view larger.

Categories: Boston · Photography    Tags: ·

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.


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.

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.)

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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


Categories: Boston · My Books    Tags:

Boston’s Wonderful/Terrible City Hall

Boston City Hall

Ask a Bostonian to name the ugliest building in the city, and nine out of ten will say “City Hall.” (The tenth will say something rude to you. If he does neither of these things, he is no Bostonian.) But architects love the building as much as everyone else hates it, and in this case the architects are right: City Hall is a treasure. It is one of the very few truly significant and daring buildings this conservative city has from the entire twentieth century.

What City Hall needs is not tearing down, as the mayor has suggested, but fixing up. It is badly maintained, badly lit, badly furnished. Worst of all, it is surrounded by a barren, windswept, forbidding plaza that is an unqualified disaster.

But reimagine City Hall Plaza as a green space thick with trees and walking paths, a mini Central Park or Arboretum. Or reimagine it as a bustling open market. Reimagine the plaza, basically, as anything other than what it is, so long as it is warm and alive, with City Hall rising up out of it like a stone outcropping of the hillside it’s built on. Not cold and “brutalist” but geometric and permeable and funky — and unabashedly modern. Add shops and cafes to bring people inside, especially in winter. Open the roof as a public space overlooking Faneuil Hall. Imagine City Hall crawling with people like an ant hill or a coral reef or a playground structure! It would be worth any dozen of the forgettable glass boxes or tubes we’ve put up here in the last century.

ArchitectureBoston magazine — itself a little-known treasure of the city — devoted an issue to reimagining City Hall in 2007. Editor Elizabeth Padjen invited me to chip in with a non-architect’s impressions of the building. You can read my piece here (PDF) and the whole issue here [update: link no longer available]. I highly recommend the magazine. The architects’ visions for a renewed City Hall [update: link no linger available] may change your mind about this despised but important building whose failure leaves a hole at the very navel of our city.

(I am in the process of gathering up some of the scattered pieces I’ve written over the years and linking to them here on this blog. That way the good people at the Library of America won’t have to hunt around for my collected works when the time comes. I’ll link to them all using the tag Other Writing.)

Photo credit: “Upsidedown Ziggurat” (licensed under Creative Commons).

Categories: Boston · Design · My Other Writing    Tags:

Ten Views of the Combat Zone

Esquire napkin story

Since it looks like this blog is going to be a permanent thing, I’m going to try to gather up some of my other writing here. I don’t do a lot of writing outside my novels, and what I do is mostly for book publicity. But some of it is worth a second look, I hope.

Ten Views of the Combat Zone (Boston, 1976)” is a short short story I wrote in 2007 for Esquire magazine’s “napkin fiction project,” which challenged writers to compose a story so short it could fit, hand-written, on a cocktail napkin. The napkins themselves were as interesting as some of the stories (mine is above).

I’ve been fascinated by the Combat Zone, Boston’s notorious old red-light district, for a long time now. I hope to write a novel about is someday soon. I pitched the idea once to my editor, Kate Miciak, as a follow-up to The Strangler. It seemed natural enough to follow a story of Boston’s 1960s crime scene with one set in the epicenter of the city’s 1970s crimeworld, the Combat Zone. Kate didn’t buy it. But we novelists are stubborn as mules when we think we’re onto something good. I’ll try again.

Categories: Boston · My Other Writing    Tags:

Kate’s Mystery Books closes (for now)

Kate's Mystery Books

Kate’s Mystery Books on Saturday

Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge closed on Saturday. Kate Mattes held an event with an army of volunteers who helped pack the place up. I stopped by and chatted briefly with Kate, who told me she plans to spend the next year or so getting her enormous inventory properly cataloged online, as well as digitizing two decades worth of book reviews. Then she may look around for a new bricks-and-mortar location if the conditions are right. In the meantime she will continue to hold author events, and her web site is still around.

It goes without saying that the city is a duller place this morning without Kate’s. Of course any number of bookshops have closed the last few years, but this loss feels particularly sad. I never knew the shop especially well, but it seemed like one of those places. It had the patina of years, and a community of readers had sprung up around it. Places like that can’t be replaced or recreated, least of all by a website.

But there’s no use sighing over the blandification of Cambridge, where a funky overstuffed bookstore in an old rambling red Victorian once would have seemed right at home. Or the general extinction of bookstores run by real, live book lovers. Things change. It sucks, but what can you do?

So I will just thank Kate for supporting me from the day my first book arrived and hand-selling my books ever since. I’m sure there is a marching band of writers out there who feel the same way. Thank you, Kate. We’ll see you around.

Kate Mattes and Robert Parker at Kate's Mystery Books, August 1, 2009.

Kate Mattes and Robert Parker at Kate’s Mystery Books, August 1, 2009.


Categories: Books · Boston    Tags: ·

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.

Categories: Boston · My Books    Tags:

The Definitive Boston Crime Novel: “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”

Yesterday I wrote about the film version of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which I think is the best movie ever made about Boston. Today, over at the Rap Sheet, my review/appreciation of the George V. Higgins novel is up, part of the Rap Sheet’s “Book You Have to Read” series highlighting forgotten classics. Here is a clip:

Elmore Leonard, in his introduction to the Holt paperback edition, recalls reading The Friends of Eddie Coyle when it first came out. “I finished the book in one sitting and felt as if I’d been set free. So this was how you do it. … To me it was a revelation.” Leonard has called it “the best crime novel ever written.”

Eddie Coyle was a revelation to me, as well. I was a young assistant D.A. when I first read it, another Boston College Law grad with literary aspirations. I worked in Cambridge then, across the river from Higgins’ old office. I had never read the book. I was only eight when it came out, and later I was never much of a crime-novel fan anyway. But when I hit the first page, I had the same reaction Leonard did: so this is how you do it.

Read the rest here. Of course calling any book or movie the best of its type is a good way to start an argument, but I did it yesterday so why stop now? The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the best crime novel I’ve ever read.

Best Boston Movie Ever: “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”

Recently I wrote a short appreciation for the Rap Sheet of George V. Higgins’s definitive Boston crime novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The piece will run soon as part of the Rap Sheet’s terrific Friday series, Books You Have to Read, which celebrates forgotten (or never properly appreciated) crime novels. [Update: My article on the novel is now up. You can find it here.]

Fortuitously, Criterion just released a pristine new restoration of the 1973 film version of The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and it is not to be missed. The Criterion DVD brings back a forgotten classic and the best movie about Boston ever.

Let’s be honest: there aren’t that many great movies about Boston, particularly crime stories, though the city has bred more than its share of crime novelists. There are some good movies set in Boston that could as easily take place elsewhere without losing much; The Verdict comes to mind. But movies that aim to capture this city’s unique personality — as, say, L.A. Confidential and Chinatown do for Los Angeles? Or Goodfellas and Once Upon a Time in America are unmistakably New York stories? Those are rare.

The serious competition is all recent. Good Will Hunting is fun but overrated. (Watch it again.) The Departed is just not a serious movie, and anyone who believes Jack Nicholson or Leonardo DiCaprio would last five minutes in Whitey Bulger’s world really ought to turn off the DVD player and come out into the world for a while.

The only real challenger for the title of best Boston movie is Mystic River. But put the two films side by side and Mystic River looks like Eddie Coyle lite — Boston as Californians might imagine it. Mystic River is just too much of everything: a melodrama, pretty to look at, with gorgeous swooping helicopter-cam shots of the city skyline and a platoon of glamorous stars, all of them strenuously, visibly acting. These are the sort of big, emotive performances we now recognize as Oscar bait, Sean Penn’s in particular.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is the real thing. Quiet and dingy, a series of terse conversations in dim bars and gray, leafless parks. It is an ensemble piece, despite having a big-ticket star in Robert Mitchum. Voices are rarely raised. Only two fatal shots are fired. This is the reality of small-time crime life: not high drama, but a wary, exhausting series of risky transactions dimly understood even by the thick-headed hoods on the inside.

With any Boston movie, we have to consider how the difficult Boston accent is handled, too, and here Mystic River flops badly. I saw it in Boston in a theater full of Bostonians, and the audience seemed to require subtitles to understand what the hell these people were saying. Eddie Coyle has a few wobbly moments but mostly gets it right. Alex Rocco, now remembered mostly as Moe Greene in The Godfather, plays a convincing Boston hoodlum. He should: as a pudgy kid named Bobo Petricone he hung around on the periphery of the fearsome Winter Hill Gang.

Eddie Coyle is not perfect by any means. A lot of the dialogue is lifted straight from the novel (that Higgins did not get a screenwriter credit is a travesty), and some of those lines don’t work as well in the actors’ mouths as they do on the page. And the seventies tics — the wah-wah soundtrack, the groovy idioms, “man” and “lover” and so on — can be a bit much, though you might go in for that sort of thing.

It may be, too, that the film appeals to me as a time capsule of a city I remember. To a kid who grew up in Boston, it is a kick to see Barbo’s furniture store. (Any New Englander of a certain age can sing the Barbo’s jingle, which played on car radios incessantly.) And to revisit the old Boston Garden, where Eddie watches the sports god of my childhood, “number four, Bobby Orr — what a future he has.” Just seeing Boston in late fall — completely drained of color, the trees all bare, the grayed-out sunless sky, the people dressed in drab — is enough to make me feel poignant and murderous.

But the main thing The Friends of Eddie Coyle has going for it is Mitchum, speaking the incomparable lines of George Higgins. Mitchum is not the Eddie Coyle of the book. Even in his brokedown fifties, Mitchum is too big and handsome for that. He can’t smother his leading-man charisma enough to quite become a small-time loser like Eddie. So this Eddie Coyle is Mitchum’s own creation. The booklet that accompanies the new Criterion DVD — which alone is worth the price of the disk — says that Mitchum was first offered the part of Dillon, the two-faced bartender. That part instead went to a then-unknown Peter Boyle. Good thing. Mitchum gives the the best performance of his life. He is as quiet and understated as Sean Penn is actorly. There is not a hint of the preening movie star anywhere in his performance. Watch this clip and notice how little Mitchum moves his body or alters his expression, how he communicates a lot while “signaling” very little. The effect is completely convincing. That voice, that smirking wised-up manner — true Boston.


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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