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Two days after the Christmas of 1921, a wild little girl named Nadezhda Vasilyevna Popova was born in the Ukraine. She was a lively kid, a perpetual motion machine, born with a burning desire for excitement, for adventure. When she was 15, she found that excitement by joining one of the Soviet Union’s many flying clubs. She trained as a pilot, and then began working as a flight instructor. She was all set to sail through peaceful skies for the rest of her life—and then, a few months before her 18th birthday, World War Two began.
Nadezhda thought she might join the war effort as a pilot, but she was barred from enlisting. There was a sense in the Soviet Union—and in plenty of countries involved in both sides of the war—that sending women out to the front lines to die was, morally, or at least aesthetically, displeasing. The place for women in the war was at home: working in factories, rationing the sugar.
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Whatever frustration Nadezhda felt at being turned away from the job morphed into rage, agony, and a burning sense of patriotism in June of 1941, when Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, taking over her parents’ home and turning it into a Gestapo police station and, worst of all, slaughtering her brother. For the rest of her life, Nadezhda would remember seeing German pilots come screaming over the streets of her hometown, gunning down women and children as they tried to abandon their homes. “Seeing this gave me feelings inside that made me want to fight them,” she remembered later.
The war had been political before, for girls like her. Now it was personal.
* * *
Unfortunately for the Russian army, but thankfully for girls like Nadezhda, Russia soon changed its stance on the whole women-can’t-fight thing, as they desperately needed more bodies to swell their country’s ranks. By October of 1941, Stalin was forming three female pilot regiments, one of which was called the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. 19-year-old Nadezhda was thrilled when she was allowed into the 588th, and was immediately plunged into a grueling training program, during which she was expected to learn in a couple of months what male pilots were given years to absorb. When she and her fellow pilots weren’t learning to corkscrew through the sky, they were facing skepticism or outright sexual harassment from the male pilots, who felt irritated and threatened at the fact that all these young women were suddenly participating in their world.
Before long, it was time for her first mission. She crept out into the night, in one of the cheap little planes that all of the female pilots were given. Her mission was to drop two bombs on the Nazis, one tucked beneath each wing of her plane. But something went wrong, and she watched in horror as two of her friends were shot from the sky and plunged to their death. When she returned to camp, she was instantly given another mission. There was no time to mourn her friends. There was only the war. And so her new life began.
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Her job was a brutal one. She and her fellow pilots—most of them teenagers or women in their early 20s—flew planes that may as well have been made of paper: they were old cropdusting crafts, flimsily built out of plywood and canvas, and the cockpits were open, so that the women didn’t just have to worry about Nazi antiaircraft guns; they also had to fight against frostbite. There was no budget for the female pilots, and so they wore old uniforms handed down from disgruntled male pilots, and old boots that were so big on them that they had to stuff the toes with scraps of cloth just to be able to walk. They flew at night, two to a plane, and their equipment was minimal: just a map and a compass and their own eyes, peering sharply through the darkness. They had no defensive ammunition on their planes—no way to return fire. To avoid the enemy’s bullets, they had to plunge into a nosedive and pray. The whole regiment could have been a joke—young girls with pink cheeks, rattling through the sky in junk planes—and yet to the Nazis, they represented Death herself.
In the mid-1980s, back when I was a single guy, I moved into an apartment on the beach in a small Florida town named Englewood. I spent a year living on the beach with no TV set. Instead I read 100 books, listened to a lot of music and swam nearly every day.
But after a year some friends of mine started telling me I really ought to go buy a TV set. There was this new TV show, they said, that was unlike anything they’d ever seen before. They couldn’t stop talking about it. Week after week they bugged me about it until finally I gave in and bought a TV set, just so I could watch this show they were all talking about.
Its name was Miami Vice. And like my friends, I quickly became addicted to it.
Premiering 35 years ago this September, Miami Vice ran for five seasons on NBC. It starred Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas as James “Sonny” Crockett and Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs, two South Florida cops whose duties involved wearing designer clothes, driving fast cars and going undercover to bust up drug cartels and gun-running operations, all to the beat of the hippest music the ‘80s could provide. They were backed up by a multicultural squad of two male goofballs who provided some comic relief and two female detectives whose usual assignment involved dressing up as prostitutes.
My favorite character, though, was their boss, Lt. Castillo, played with stone-faced super-cool by Edward James Olmos. He wore all black, and he was so terse he seemed to do all his acting with his eyes. His baleful glares were so convincing that a Chicago Tribune reporter found it remarkable that the actor could, in fact, laugh and smile. (He had once been a stand-up comic!)
Compared to long-running shows like Law & Order (20 seasons) or Murder, She Wrote (12 seasons), Miami Vice wasn’t on the air but for a minute. But it changed the landscape of all the television crime shows that followed it (and no, I don’t just mean Cop Rock). Its greatest impact, though, was that it changed the physical landscape of South Florida.
There’s a legend that Miami Vice started with a two-word concept written on a napkin by NBC programming wunderkind Brandon Tartikoff: “MTV cops.” The truth, as usual, is more complicated.
The idea actually sprang from the fertile mind of Anthony Yerkovich, who spent three years as a writer and producer on the popular police procedural show Hill Street Blues. His imagination had been fired by reading a story in the Wall Street Journal that mentioned one startling fact: One-third of all unreported income in the United States moved through South Florida.
Yerkovich’s first impression: “That must be a misprint.” He did the math and came to an astounding conclusion: “That means one-half of 1 percent of the nation’s population is responsible for 20 percent of the under-the-table money. That is fascinating. Statistically, that’s a 40-to-1 disparity. Any area that generates 40 times more unreported cash than the rest of the country is worth writing about.”
Meanwhile, he discovered, forfeiture laws allow police agencies to confiscate property that had been used in crimes—such as expensive cars, clothes and boats—and then reuse them in stopping other crimes.
What if, he thought, the forfeiture laws allowed the cops in Miami to go undercover and use the Ferraris and Lamborghinis that the upper echelon drug dealers drove, the Armani jackets and Ferragamo shoes they wore, the Donzi speedboats they piloted while bringing in cocaine?
The two-hour pilot didn’t look like anything that had ever been on TV before. Prior cop shows had a muddy color palette befitting their grim and gritty subject matter, and a backdrop on one show looked much like the backdrop on another. They were interchangeable. Not Miami Vice. This new show was all bright colors and gleaming surfaces, reflecting the dictum of executive producer Michael Mann: “No earth tones.”
In the first five minutes of the show Crockett’s partner, played by a painfully young Jimmy Smits, gets blown up by a car bomb. Crockett winds up working with a New York cop—Tubbs—to track down the ruthless Colombian drug kingpin who killed both Smits and Tubbs’ brother. Toward the end of the episode, there is an extended sequence where the two are driving a Ferrari through the twilight to meet with their target. As they cruise along the neon-lit asphalt without talking, the soundtrack plays Phil Collins’ haunting “In the Air Tonight.” It seemed like a music video had somehow wandered into a drama about guns and drugs—“MTV Cops” indeed.
This new show was all bright colors and gleaming surfaces, reflecting the dictum of executive producer Michael Mann: “No earth tones.”
Critics raved about it, and it began to build a hip, young audience that copied its fashion sense, even to the point of imitating Johnson’s three-day stubble. Johnson was the show’s break-out star. That became evident when the crew was shooting a scene on the water, far from shore, recalled Elayne Schmidt, who now produces Hallmark Channel romantic comedies, but started her career as an assistant to the producers.
The camera crew was on one boat, Schmidt said, and Johnson on the other. Suddenly, she said, a third boat appeared, one full of female fans who kept circling and calling Johnson’s name.
“Those girls drove by for an hour calling to Don,” Schmidt said. “We had to call the Florida Marine Patrol to shoo them away so we could continue shooting.”
The show’s growing popularity attracted a list of guest stars that is both impressive and somewhat bizarre. To name a few, we saw Pam Grier as Tubbs’ old flame; Willie Nelson as a Texas Ranger; Eartha Kitt as a Santeria priestess; Watergate criminal G. Gordon Liddy as a mercenary; Melanie Griffith as a madam; Bill Russell as a crooked judge; and James Brown as a superstar singer/UFO cult leader who might also be a government agent or maybe just a hallucination (it’s complicated).
It’s fun, too, to look back now and see how many future stars showed up: Bruce Willis as a smirking arms dealer; Ed O’Neill as an FBI agent; Wesley Snipes as a drug-dealing pimp; Stanley Tucci as a mobster; Viggo Mortensen as a rookie cop; Helena Bonham Carter as a pill-popping ER doctor; and Michael Richards as a loan shark who somehow manages to intimidate Bill Russell.
The writing on the show could be uneven. One episode, “The Cows of October,” revolved around a Cuban spy pursuing a canister of champion bull semen. A two-parter, “Mirror Image” and “Hostile Takeover,” gave Crockett a case of amnesia that left him thinking he really was the drug dealer he pretended to be because sure, that’s completely realistic, right? On the other hand, one called “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” starring Bruce McGill—aka “D-Day” from Animal House—as a deranged ex-cop was later ranked by TV Guide as one of the 100 best television episodes of all time.
But people weren’t watching Miami Vice for the plots. They were watching it for the attitude, the visuals, the music—the feeling it gave them.
Music was so crucial to the show that at one point, a song recorded by the Eagles’ Glenn Frey inspired Mann to commission a script based on it. Both the song and the episode were titled “Smuggler’s Blues,” and not only was Frey’s song featured on the soundtrack, but Frey himself made his acting debut playing a pilot who helps Crockett and Tubbs,.
Mann told the New York Times in 1985 that what set the show apart is that his crew treated each episode as if it were a movie, “so we try to do the same cinematics in terms of art direction, editing and use of music that I would put into a feature film.” He said they tried to create ”a universe, a consistent way of seeing Miami.”
The main thing Schmidt remembers now, she told me, is what a lot of hard work it was.
“It was crazy,” she said. “We worked seven days a week, 18 hours a day.” A lot of that was because Mann “was all about the look of the show….Every single piece (shot) Michael Mann had to have a say on it.”
“If the series didn’t reinvent TV,” critic Elvis Mitchell wrote in Rolling Stone, “then it at least gave the medium total reconstructive facial surgery.”
What was even more interesting is what Miami Vice did to Miami.
Miami Vice cost a little more than the average TV show because every episode was filmed on location, the better to provide a proper tropical setting for the action. Finding locations provided to be pretty easy because any building the producers wanted to use was generally available.
At the time, Miami was anything but glamorous. The place was still reeling from the Mariel boatlift, a race riot, an influx of Haitian refugees, and the rise of the trigger-happy cocaine cowboys spraying each other with bullets while speeding down I-95. The murder rate was so high the medical examiner rented a refrigerator truck from Ryder to hold the overflow of corpses. Miami Beach held nothing but decaying hotels full of elderly people trying to eke out an existence on a fixed income and avoid the junkies out to mug them.
Just three years before the show’s premiere, Time magazine ran a cover story that declared Miami to be “Paradise Lost.” The story included this sentence: “An epidemic of violent crime, a plague of illicit drugs and a tidal wave of refugees have slammed into South Florida with the destructive power of a hurricane.”
The Time cover story nearly killed Miami tourism because people were afraid to visit South Florida. Humorist Dave Barry wrote a story about this for the Miami Herald’s Sunday “Tropic,” magazine. To promote the story, the paper gave out bumper stickers that said: “Come Back to Miami—We Weren’t Shooting At YOU.”
Then, nine months prior to Vice’s debut, the over-the-top gangster flick Scarface depicted a Miami dominated by Al Pacino playing a coke-snorting Cuban who gunned down everyone in sight with his “little friend.”
Local officials were wary of the new drug-oriented TV show, to the point of skipping a preview showing. They feared it would be another Scarface. They were so wrong.
The Magic City suddenly had its mojo back. The number of TV commercials being shot in Miami doubled. Joan Didion showed up to research a book on the city. The Chicago Tribune devoted an entire travel section to the city…
Within a year after the pilot aired, the Miami Herald was touting the virtues of Vice: “The national perception of Miami has markedly changed, and though the triple stigmas of crime and drugs and refuges have not vanished, they have been overwhelmed by visions of fast Porsches and neon nightclubs and ripe young flesh on the beach.”
The Magic City suddenly had its mojo back. The number of TV commercials being shot in Miami doubled. Joan Didion showed up to research a book on the city. The Chicago Tribune devoted an entire travel section to the city, with the pun-ishing headline “Sun Over Miami.”
The spokesman for the city’s tourism council knew the reason. It was the attention that Vice’s directors and producers paid to the look of the show.
“In other shoot-em-ups,” he told the Herald, “the background is treated only in the most incidental way. Here, the background is treated as a co-star.”
Or as Dave Barry put it: “Miami Vice made Miami look cool.”
And then the show that changed the look of television changed the look of its home city, too.
The show’s influence started with the opening credits, where Jan Hammer’s electronic rat-a-tat theme played over scenes of prancing flamingoes and muscular jai alai players.
One eye-catching shot showed a new condominium tower, the Atlantis, which had a hole in the middle of the building where there was a palm tree and a red spiral staircase. That fleeting glimpse of a distinctive building made its architectural firm, Arquitectonica, into a hot property.
The greater miracle is what it did with the buildings that didn’t look so unusual, at least at first.
Because of Mann’s attention to detail, each shot required a tremendous amount of “set dressing,” Schmidt, said. That was particularly true in South Beach.
“South Beach had a lot of hotels that were closed or just in disrepair,” she recalled. “I was shocked that (the owners) had let the properties get so run down.”
The production team often didn’t bother with permits—no one was around to object to them filming. They would swoop in and turn one of the decrepit places into a glitzy nightclub or an elegant ballroom. They would paint over the dark and dingy walls, turning them blue and yellow and aqua, freshening up the look and making architectural details suddenly pop out. Bikini-clad models filled the empty hotel swimming pools. Suddenly, everything looked colorful and attractive.
Activists from the Miami Design Preservation League had been lobbying for years for the Miami Beach to refurbish its historic Art Deco hotels. Miami Vice helped them achieve their goal.
“The show helped save South Beach by broadcasting the architectural charms of its long-neglected Deco hotels to millions around the globe at a time when city fathers wanted nothing more than to tear it all down for condos,” the Herald wrote 30 years later.
In a way, Miami Vice became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Remember all that unreported income Yerkovich read about? Seeing the version of Miami depicted on the show gave some investors ideas about where to spend all their ill-gotten gains.
The producers of Miami Vice had pulled off the Florida dream: They told a lie that came true.
Soon the phony nightclubs and swank hotels that the show’s designers created in all those the run-down buildings actually began popping up in real life, like a Potemkin village turned 3D. South Beach became a sought-after address, a place to find the beautiful people. The place has never gone back to its old look. Miami and Miami Beach have continued to enthrall visitors with their international appeal and glitz.
The producers of Miami Vice had pulled off the Florida dream: They told a lie that came true. To Schmidt, that’s the show’s lasting legacy. The terse dialogue, questionable plots and music-video scenarios have faded away, as have the famous fashions.
“Those pastel shirts aren’t going to last forever, but what happened to Miami Beach will,” she said. In fact, she noted, it’s become so popular that the pendulum has swung the other way. “Now,” she said, “you can’t afford to shoot there.”
On July 14, 1939, the longshore leader Pete Panto disappeared into a dark sedan with some “tough mugs” in Brooklyn. In the 80 years since his murder he has haunted the waterfront and its novels, plays, and films—most recently Arthur Miller’s long-lost drama The Hook, which had its American debut in Brooklyn this summer.
On the few existing pictures of Pietre ‘Pete’ Panto he wears a dark fedora, black mustache, and an easy smile that sometimes showed a gap in his teeth. His face suggests a more lighthearted person than the battling saint remembered after he had led a revolt of Brooklyn dock workers. “Pete became a saint like they carry on St. Anthony’s Day,” a veteran of many waterfront battles, Vincent ‘Jim’ Longhi, declared decades later. “Everybody knew who did the job on Pete.”
Panto had arrived on the waterfront some time in the middle thirties, then underwent a period of breaking in as a longshoreman. By 1937 the 26-year-old Panto had secured his union card and a regular job at the Moore McCormack line’s Brooklyn pier 15. At the foot of Brooklyn Heights, the Moore-Mack pier jutted into the East River just upstream from the cabled span of the Roeblings’ Brooklyn Bridge and looked across to the bottom of Manhattan and the Staten Island ferry sheds.
The five-mile stretch of Brooklyn shore that ran from Brooklyn Bridge to Twentieth Street was overwhelmingly staffed by lower-paid Italians who worked the less desirable cargoes and piers. Some four thousand dockers labored in “Camarda locals” like Panto’s. Mob-held piers resembled company towns. On the Camardas’ waterfront, wrote Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Burton Turkus, everyone “from candy store proprietor to ship line operator” had “to pay tribute to the Mob.”
Disgusted by the rackets and graft that were a regular part of getting hired, Panto led a growing rebellion of Italian longshoremen against the Brooklyn union leadership of the Camardas and International Longshoremen’s Association President Joe Ryan (whose Manhattan offices were high in the current Google building in Chelsea). In the spring of 1939, when ILA locals like his hadn’t gathered in decades, Panto led a series of increasingly large and rowdy mass meetings of local 929.
Crowding before the piers at night, hundreds of men heard Panto hold forth in increasingly bold speeches demanding greater union democracy—regular shop meetings and an end to the shape up and kickback system. In mid-June, 350 union men heard him speak again about waterfront corruption, and he addressed a larger group of longshoremen on July 3rd. Panto’s speeches (often in Italian) against the gangsters’ set-up eventually caused him to be called to the President Street office of Emil Camarda, who advised him that “the boys” (i.e., Mob people like Albert Anastasia) did not like what he was up to. Panto defied the warning and addressed a public meeting that included obvious spies for Anastasia. Then on the night of July 8th, he surrounded himself with some 1250 longshoremen at a boisterous open air meeting near the piers, the street echoing with the rough eloquence of his Italian speechmaking and the derisive laughter of the men.
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Six days later, on the afternoon of Friday, July 14th, Panto left the Moore-Mack pier at five o’clock and headed home to his rooming house on North Eliot Street, near the high stone walls of the Navy Yard. He was shaving for a later date with his fiancée, Alice Maffia, when someone came to the room with word that Panto had a mysterious phone call at the corner store. Panto made his way downstairs, then returned looking uncharacteristically shaken. He told his fiancee’s younger brother he would be meeting “two tough mugs” or some “men I don’t like” for an hour or so that night, and that “If I don’t get back by 10:00 o’clock tomorrow morning, tell the police.”
At seven that evening a car belonging to Gus Scannivino, one of several Brooklyn ILA vice presidents, appeared before Panto’s building. In the car with Scannivino were an Anastasia man named Tony Romeo, and Emil Camarda himself. Since Panto was not expecting a long meeting he left behind his wallet and empty suitcase and his work clothes were still laid out on his bed. Dressed in his best suit and dark fedora for his later date with Alice, he climbed inside the car with the other men, who had probably all driven over together from Camarda’s office. The sedan rolled away down his Brooklyn street into the summer evening and Peter Panto was gone.
* * *
Panto’s vanishing ignited a graffiti campaign among Italian longies in Brooklyn, who wrote dov‘e Panto? (“Where is Panto?”) on subway and office walls, the sides of boxcars and waterfront warehouses. Leaflets titled, “Where is Pete Panto?” were stealthily dropped by longshoremen before Red Hook shipping offices and social clubs and in the area around the Navy Yard. That summer, the World’s Fair drew thousands to New York, but it was a fearful season along the Brooklyn waterfront, where each sodden corpse pulled from the East River was checked against photos of the hero of the docks. The graffiti campaign gradually drew the interest of strangers to the cause: “Police fear,” wrote the gossip columnist Walter Winchell, “Pete is wearing a cement suit at the bottom of the East River.”
The Brooklyn dock rackets were backed by the violent threat of Vincent Mangano, a waterfront racketeer whose crime group was a progenitor of the long-lived Gambino organization. Mangano had brought in the murder expert Albert Anastasia to protect his waterfront businesses. By the mid-1930s Anastasia managed the execution arm of the syndicate (or “combination,” as its members called it). This systematic squad of largely Italian and Jewish murderers served the newly organized national syndicate and invented the anonymous “contract” killing that’s been a staple of Mob movies ever since.
It wasn’t until Abe “Kid Twist” Reles left the Tombs prison for the Brooklyn Municipal Building early one morning in 1940 that the D.A.’s office first learned the Combination was responsible for as many as 1000 murders nationwide throughout the thirties. “In Brooklyn,” Reles told D.A. William O’Dwyer, “We are all together with the Mob on the docks.” When the full grisly picture of the national syndicate’s killing “troop” finally emerged, the press would memorably name it “Murder, Inc.” with the beefy, dark-eyed Anastasia the outfit’s “Lord High Executioner.”
When the rackets were threatened by Panto’s rebellion, it was a matter of time before Anastasia would be asked to remove the threat.
Wherever Panto believed he was going for a meeting when he stepped into that car, he was whisked to a Jersey house regularly used by Anastasia, where Mendy Weiss strangled him; when questioned later about scratches on his hands, Weiss expressed regret over the killing to a colleague in the business. To Reles he confessed, “I hated to take that kid.”
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Almost 18 months later, in January 1941 Panto’s trussed up body was unearthed inside a canvas sack buried on a chicken farm in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. His friend and successor in the struggle, Pete Mazzie, identified him from the familiar gap in his teeth, and his body was brought back to Brooklyn under guard.
Emboldened by the death verdict, Bals told him as he passed, “Peter Panto is waiting for you.”
The top tier of Murder Inc. was decimated by Abe Reles’s testimony. But before he could testify about Albert Anastasia’s role in the Panto killing he mysteriously fell, jumped, or was pushed from a sixth floor window of Coney Island’s Half Moon hotel where he was allegedly under police protection. (D.A. O’Dwyer alleged that the case against Anastasia went “out the window” with Reles.) But his testimony had sent other top members of the Combination to the electric chair, including Buchalter, the highest ranking Mob figure ever sentenced to death, and Mendy Weiss, who had killed Panto in the Jersey farmhouse. As Weiss turned to leave the courtroom, Capt. Frank Bals, under whose watch Reles’s death had spectacularly occurred, caught the killer’s eye. Emboldened by the death verdict, Bals told him as he passed, “Peter Panto is waiting for you.”
Panto’s brief career echoed in everything that came afterward, both as an inspiration and as a ghoulish picture of what happened to brave guys who stood against the mob. The Panto case later seized the imaginations of many writers who set their books, plays, and movies on the mobby docks.
* * *
Since January 1941, when he was dug up on information from Abe Reles, Panto has died many times in books and movies, most recently this past June, when an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Panto-themed screenplay, The Hook, finally had its American debut on the Waterfront Barge Museum in Red Hook. The Brave New World Repertory Theatre’s production, (adapted for the stage by the Irish screenwriter Ron Hutchinson), opened each night with the audience going through a longshoremen’s shape-up, chosen by a pier boss for the considerable privilege of taking their seats for the human drama.
Vincent Longhi had been Arthur Miller’s guide to the 1940s Brooklyn docks world when he wrote The Hook, and inspired the lawyer character ‘Alfieri’ in Miller’s A View from the Bridge. After The Hook was first turned down by Hollywood as politically unpalatable, Longhi wrote his own Panto-themed play, Two Fingers of Pride. It premiered at the Orunquit Playhouse in Maine in 1955. Although the drama did not jump as hoped to Broadway, it gave an early break to a young Indianan who’d perfected his Brooklyn accent at the Actors’ Studio, Steve McQueen.
Another Panto drama did make it to Broadway only months after his body had been unearthed. Panto rose again in a 1941 play written by two former crime reporters, “Brooklyn USA,” which took on the whole waterfront rackets problem, insofar as a stage play can ever pose much of a nuisance to criminals. For 57 performances it portrayed the excruciating ice-picking death of a Panto-like labor crusader named Nick Santo and featured characters with recognizably scummy antecedents in Murder Inc.
The single survivor of all the play’s prosecutions and deaths was a mob boss called simply ‘Albert.’ “The murder of Santo in a wretched barber-shop late at night is about the most harrowing episode in the theatre for years,” wrote the Times’s Brooks Atkinson. “Nothing could distinguish racketeering from the popular game of murder and mystery better than this one sketch of demoniac violence.” Anastasia may not have been arrested in the death of Panto, but audiences were assured of ‘Albert’s’ guilt night after night.
In Benjamin Appel’s pulp novel The Raw Edge (1958), Panto appears as Pete Pironi, a Brooklyn docker who pushes back against the racketeers, in fatal defiance of the waterfront code. Some real names appear in the novel, and some are close: instead of the racketeer Squint Sheridan, there’s Squint Donahue, a gunman who’s moved up as a waterfront mobster on the West Side, and still bears the tattoo of dove’s wings on his gunhand. (When he shoots, they seem to flutter.) In dark, leafy Brooklyn there’s the coming clash between ‘Joe the Boss’ Dinetti and Pete Pironi, a troublemaking “wop money couldn’t buy.” The controlling Camarda family are known as the Rosatis, and a version of the fateful meeting between the real Pete Panto and Emil Camarda is dramatized. For anyone who has walked around gentrified Brooklyn today, Pironi’s working-class neighborhood of the late thirties is an old-world departure, with its “soft, whitish, chattering shapes of women” on stoops and “men arguing about Il Duce” and smoking “black twisted cigars.”
Appel’s book was one of a number of realistic works inspired by the New York Crime Commission hearings in the early fifties, from which Budd Schulberg also drew anecdotes and some famous lines for On the Waterfront (“I’ll take it out of their skulls!”). That movie did not begin as the Panto story but rather as an unproduced docu-drama chronicling the Pulitzer-winning waterfront investigations of the New York Sun’s Mike Johnson.
But after Schulberg mortgaged his farm and bought the film rights, the masterpiece he made with Elia Kazan did end up reckoning with Panto’s choice, as all waterfront crime stories must: Panto’s ghost haunts the story of Terry Malloy discovering his conscience in order to fight the racketeers who have both ruined and fed him. A man who started out as heroic as the real-life Panto would be hard to believe in a Hollywood film, where flaws must be revealed in order for us to identify. In life, no one could tell Peter Panto, “Tonight’s not your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.” Panto took a dive for no one, and he died for it.
Nathan Ward is the author of the Edgar-nominated The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett, as well as the earlier Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront, from which some of this was adapted.
My Country Store Mysteries (Kensington Publishing) take place in fictional South Lick, but it’s located in the very real Brown County, Indiana. Readers love visiting Pan ‘N Pancakes, Robbie Jordan’s breakfast and lunch restaurant in the country store full of antique cookware that she renovated. The village residents, from the bigger-than-life mayor to the folksy police lieutenant to Robbie’s sheep-farming gun-toting Aunt Adele, all play an integral role in the books.
Many cozy mysteries are located closer to both coasts, but the Midwest has a real draw. For some readers, it might feel homier, with perhaps a return to a slower pace of life and a more traditional American culture. That’s not to say that real-life issues don’t also exist in middle America, and in some ways the bucolic setting can highlight certain social woes better than in more urban locals.
I took an informal poll of readers, and gleaned the following about why they love cozies set in the Midwest: “A reminder of home and the values of the middle of the country…Gives me a feeling of home…I enjoy reading about all the places I have never been…Small towns are the best, no hustle or bustle…The setting and the idioms…Known for comfort food and friendly people…Ethnic pockets like Amish, Mennonite, Greek, Slavic…Neighbors helping neighbors.”
So, let’s look at five other cozy mysteries set in the Midwest, most of which also are published by Kensington Publishing.
JC Kenney’s Allie Cobb Mysteries (Indiana)
JC Kenney’s Allie Cobb Mysteries from Kensington are set in the fictional Hoosier town of Rushing Creek, which is also in Brown County, Indiana. As do many cozies, JC includes a homecoming in A Literal Mess, this cozy series’ debut: Allie Cobb comes home to Rushing Creek from Manhattan, where she runs a literary agency, just missing the death of her father, who was a successful literary agent. Allie stays when her childhood bestie is accused of murder. The author tells us up front that Rushing Creek is population 3,216, but that an upcoming Fall Festival is about to bring a slew of tourists to town. For those of us who set our stories in small hamlets, that’s one way to bring fresh blood (so to speak) into the equation
Ginger Bolton’s Deputy Donut series
Ginger Bolton writes the Deputy Donut series, another Kensington win, which takes place in fictional Fallingbrook, Wisconsin. We find protagonist Emily Westhill already ensconced in town, running the best donut shop around. She’s close to the police, with a retired police chief father-in-law, a deceased detective husband, and her own past as a 9-1-1 operator. The Knitpickers area a knitting group that meets at her shop, too. Fallingbrook is described as a “quaint and walkable town,” possibly another must for a Midwestern cozy. My hamlet of South Lick certainly is.
Nancy Coco’s Candy Coated Mystery Series (Michigan)
Actual Mackinac Island, Michigan, is where Nancy Coco stages the Candy Coated Mystery Series (from Kensington). The island is less than four square miles, so it’s a small town—but one surrounded by water. What could possibly go wrong? I love the Agatha Christie-approach to murder on an island. Allie McMurphy runs her fudge shop out of the historic McMurphy Hotel, another Midwestern archetype in this history-rich area. The recipes in these books are to die for, and with all the titles having “Fudge” in them, you can bet Nancy’s recipes are on the sweet side. I always have fun testing the recipes for my books, but fudge hasn’t (yet) been among them.
Alex Erickson’s Bookstore Café Series (Ohio)
Heading back south, we reach Pine Hills, Ohio, another fictional burg. It’s home to Alex Erickson’s Bookstore Café series, also from Kensington. Death by Coffee, the name of this midwestern bookstore café (and isn’t that the best premise, ever?), is run by Krissy Hancock and her best friend Vicki. Two darling cats are part of the series, which isn’t unique to the Midwest, of course—nearly all cozies have some kind of pet that plays a role. Small-town intrigues abound, and Krissy’s love of puzzles and mysteries leads her to ferret out answers. Krissy and my Robbie Jordan should get together and talk puzzles—and cats—one day.
Jess Lourey’s Mira James Mysteries
A long-running and popular series is Jess Lourey’s Mira James Mysteries (Toadhouse Books). Lourey started the series with May Day, released one book for each month, and wrapped up the twelve with April Fools. All are true to their Battle Lake, Minnesota setting, right down to the locally made candy, Nut Goodies. Battle Lake is a real town on the lake by the same name—but the 2010 census recorded only 875 residents, so it’s also a true village. While not strictly a cozy, the series has all the elements of amateur sleuth, village setting, and cast of regulars—with a healthy dose of humor thrown in.
Wouldn’t it be fun to gather both Allies, Emily, Krissy, and Mira in Robbie’s restaurant, Pans ‘N Pancakes, to talk about cases they all have solved? Hmm, I feel a new story brewing.
In the village of Hauterives in the south of France, there’s a curious building known as Cheval’s Palais Idéal. For thirty-three years, a humble postman by the name of Ferdinand Cheval laboured completely alone to create his dream palace, finally completing his task in 1912.
The structure is part Arabian palace, part Hindu temple; its entrance is like the gateway to a medieval European castle, with a Swiss-style shepherd’s hut sitting next to it. The whole effect lacks unity, but there is no doubt that this is a perfect rendition of a child’s fantasy castle. Here in Tokyo people worry too much about style, economy, or how they will be judged by others, and that is how they end up with characterless rows of rabbit hutches crammed in together.
Cheval was barely literate. The notes he left behind were full of spelling mistakes. But they were also alight with his burning belief that it was his life’s mission to build this unique place of worship.
According to these notes, he embarked on his project while delivering the mail. He began by picking up any interesting or unusually shaped rocks or pebbles he found while out on his rounds, and putting them in his pockets. He was already forty-three years old at this point. After a while, along with his postbag he began to carry a large basket over his shoulder for the rocks. And then it wasn’t long before he was taking a wheelbarrow out on his rounds.
One can only imagine how this eccentric postman was treated in his dull country village. Every day he took his collection of rocks and worked on building the foundation for his palace.
Twenty-six metres long, fourteen metres wide and twelve metres high—the construction of the palace building itself took three years. And then, slowly and steadily, all kinds of cement statues were added to its walls: cranes, leopards, ostriches, elephants, crocodiles. They would eventually cover all the surfaces of the building. Next, Cheval made a waterfall and three giant statues for the front wall.
He was seventy-six when he finally completed his great oeuvre. He enshrined his number one assistant—his trusty wheelbarrow—in the place of honour inside the palace, and built himself a modest house by the front entrance. After retiring from his job at the post office, he took up residence in the house with its excellent view of his palace. Apparently he had never intended the palace to be lived in.
In photos of Cheval’s palace, the materials used to construct it seem to have the soft texture of rubber. The ornamental statues that adorn its whole surface are more intricate than those of Angkor Wat, but the overall form and appearance of the walls are not fixed or uniform. There seems to be no order or balance—everything seems to be in a kind of warped confusion. If you weren’t interested in this kind of thing, you might just see the work of art to which Cheval dedicated the latter half of his life as a worthless antique or maybe even the
equivalent of a pile of scrap metal.
It was easy for his fellow villagers to call Cheval a madman, but there was a clear commonality between the concept behind his palace and the work of the celebrated Spanish architect Antonio Gaudí. Cheval’s Palais Idéal is to this day the only tourist attraction in the otherwise unremarkable village of Hauterives.
If we’re talking oddballs with a mania for architecture, then there is one character who cannot be ignored: King Ludwig II of Bavaria. He is also famous for being the patron of the composer Richard Wagner. His two lifelong passions seem to have been the reverence he had for Wagner, and the construction of his castles.
The Linderhof Palace was one of his architectural masterpieces. Many complained that it was a blatant rip-off of the style of the French House of Bourbon, but after pushing open the revolving stone door in the hill behind the castle and entering the high-roofed tunnel, you realize that the space you find yourself in is one of a kind.
His two lifelong passions seem to have been the reverence he had for Wagner, and the construction of his castles.
The tunnel leads into a magnificent man-made cave with a wide, dark lake. In the middle of the lake sits a boat fashioned in the shape of a pearl oyster. The multicoloured lighting flickers, and at the water’s edge there is a table made from branches of imitation coral. The cave walls are painted with fantastic scenes of angels and cherubs. There is no human being who wouldn’t look at this scene and find their imagination piqued.
It is said that when his beloved Wagner passed away, King Ludwig II buried himself away in this gloomy underground burrow, and took all his meals at that fake coral table while reminiscing about his dear friend.
In the West, there are all kinds of buildings with surprises built in: sliding walls, secret tunnels, hidden passageways. By comparison, Japan has relatively few.
There are a few ninja houses with their secret entrances and exits, but everything in those is designed with a practical purpose.
But there is one, the Nijotei, a strange residence built in Fukagawa in Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake. It seems to have been fairly well known. There were ladders that went right up to the ceiling, glass peepholes in the doors, a pentagon-shaped window in the entrance way.
Maybe the equivalent of Cheval’s Palais Idéal exists somewhere in Japan, but I’ve never heard of one. There is, however, one place I ought to tell you about—the Crooked House in Hokkaido.
At the top of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, on the very tip of Cape Soya, there’s a high plain that overlooks the Okhotsk Sea. On this plain stands a peculiar-looking structure known by the locals as “The Crooked House”.
It looks somewhat Elizabethan with its three-storey main building complete with pillars and white-painted walls. To the east of this is a cylindrical tower the spitting image of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The major difference between this tower and the one in Pisa is that all its surfaces are made from glass. And on this glass is a thin layer of aluminium, deposited by vacuum, or what is known as aluminium mirror-coating. Consequently, when the sun shines, everything that surrounds this tower is reflected in this glass cylinder.
On the edge of the high plain is a hill. Viewed from the summit of this hill, the giant cylindrical glass… or perhaps I should say mirror… anyway, this glass tower and Western-style house look like some kind of fairy-tale castle.
There’s not another house in any direction as far as the eye can see. Nothing but a vast plain of grass the colour of dead leaves, stirred up by the wind. The nearest settlement is a small village situated way past the mansion and down the slope from the plain, at least ten minutes by foot.
When the sun goes down, the north wind roars across the plain, and the glass tower turns golden in the sunset. Behind it stretches the northern sea.
In front of this sea, the gold-tinted glass tower looks as solemn and imposing as any place of religious worship.
Here, the cold north sea is a deep shade of indigo blue. If you were to run down the hill and dip your hand into its water, you’d expect to see your fingers emerge blue with dye. In front of this sea, the gold-tinted glass tower looks as solemn and imposing as any place of religious worship.
Just in front of the main, Western-style house is a large stone patio, dotted with sculptures, a small pond and a flight of stone steps. At the base of the tower is what appears to be a flower bed in the shape of a fan. I say “what appears to be” because it is quite overgrown, and clearly hasn’t been tended for a long while.
Neither the main house nor the tower is currently occupied. It’s been for sale for many years, but it will probably stay that way. It’s less the fault of the remote location; it’s far more likely the murder that keeps buyers away. This particular murder case was a very mysterious one. It caused quite a stir among the crime buffs and murder enthusiasts of the day. So for all of you who have not yet heard it, I am going to tell you the tale of “Murder in the Crooked House”. I believe I’ve done all that’s necessary to set the scene for this strange mystery. The setting is of course a bleak, wintry plain, and that crooked house.
The history of the main building and tower that make up the Crooked House is rather less like that of Cheval’s palace, and a lot closer to Ludwig’s castle, in the sense that the man who built them was a kind of modern-day king—a millionaire with both fortune and influence. His name was Kozaburo Hamamoto, and he was the president of Hama Diesel Corporation. But unlike either Cheval or Ludwig, he didn’t have any crazy tendencies. He was simply a man of very particular tastes, and having money, he was able to indulge those tastes.
The boredom or the depression that plagued such a man who had reached the peak of his career might have been what turned him into something of a recluse. In a familiar story that we might hear from any corner of the world, it seemed that all the gold he had amassed weighed heavily on his mind.
There was nothing really unusual about the structure of the house and the tower. The interior resembled a maze in some ways, but it was nothing too complicated, and once you got your bearings it wasn’t likely that you would get lost more than a couple of times at most. There were no revolving wall panels, underground caves or descending ceilings. The feature that caught the attention was exactly what gave it its local nickname: that from the very beginning it had been built crooked, or rather, leaning at an angle. Thus the glass tower was literally a “Leaning Tower”.
The main house leans at an angle of about five or six degrees off the vertical, not really enough to be obvious from the outside. On the other hand, the inside is quite bewildering.
The building leans towards the south. The windows on the north and south sides are the perfectly normal kind that you’d find in any house, but the ones on the east and west sides are problematic. On these walls, the windows and their frames have been constructed to run parallel with the ground outside. Once your vision adjusts to the strange appearance of the rooms, you feel like a hard-boiled egg that has been dropped on the floor and is trying to roll uphill. It’s a feeling that’s difficult to imagine without having stayed at the mansion. The longer you stay, the more confused your mind becomes.
The lord of the manor, Kozaburo Hamamoto, was reputed to have had a lot of fun at his guests’ expense, watching them try to navigate his twisted home. Quite an expensive way to get some childish laughs.
I think that should be enough information for you to get an idea of the man behind the mansion and to set the scene for this tale.
I recently watched the film documentary The Last Resort because it checked the boxes of all my obsessions. Photographs cataloging a lost Miami Beach, whose postwar population averaged closer to 80 than 30? Check. A charismatic photographer who ended up murdered with a still-murky resolution, his archive nearly vanished forever before a concerted family member stepped in? Check. An appearance by the venerable independent bookseller Mitch Kaplan? Check. Voices and images of Holocaust survivors who wanted to recreate their vanished shtetls with a beachfront setting? Check, most definitely.
And then, a few minutes into the documentary, a woman in white, long blond hair cascading around her shoulders, cats in and out of the frame, appeared. She knew of what she spoke. Of course she did. She’s Edna Buchanan, her voice equally hardboiled and warm, the result of living nearly 60 years in Miami, covering thousands of murders for the Miami Sun and the Herald, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for her coverage, garnering a 1987 New Yorker profile by Calvin Trillin that is so memorable I still find myself sucked into the narrative, enthralled, with each reread.
Her appearance in The Last Resort answered, in part, what I’d wondered about Buchanan for the past few years: what was she up to lately? When would she publish something new? Because the Buchanan I knew best was less the crime reporter and more the crime novelist, though both career facets are inexorably intertwined. I’d first read her work as a high school student during my first proper exposure to crime fiction, along with—to name a scant few—Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, Walter Mosley, Gail Bowen, and Sue Grafton.
Britt Montero, Buchanan’s main series character (and clear alter-ego) was salty, lacked bullshit, and was consumed by the work she did, all traits the teenage, introverted, confidence-lacking me longed for. She lived and breathed Miami, like her creator, and the crimes she covered and the people she surrounded herself with, from cops to shop owners, seemed extra. I didn’t know then if I could love the Miami depicted in the novels, but it was already clear to me how much Buchanan did, and that was potent enough.
It would take years, decades, to realize that Buchanan was a mentor figure.
It would take years, decades, to realize that Buchanan was a mentor figure. Someone who left her midsize-town New Jersey roots (along with her mother!) and relocated, in her early twenties, to a city she’d known was home from the first moment after stepping off the plane. Someone who found her way to crime reporting because that’s where the most interesting stories were. Someone who chronicled Miami as the demographics changed, as the crime rate skyrocketed, and then, when it was less taxing to rely on imagination than shoe leather, turned to crime fiction.
Buchanan is an OG Crime Lady, but like all originals, there are rough edges that can’t ever properly be smoothed over. Trillin, in his profile, got at essential truths about Buchanan, the reporter. Here’s where I pick it up, including the parts he skipped, and the parts he couldn’t know about.
Edna Rydzik, as she was known from birth until the short-lived marriage that bestowed her professional name, dreamed of the writer’s life at a young age. Dreaming was a good way to pass the time in Little Falls, New Jersey, a small town in Passaic County just outside of Paterson. It beat going to school, something she despised, as she told the Bergen County Record in 1987: “I dreaded Sunday night because Monday morning meant school. I have never dreaded anything as much since. Covering murders, rapes, and riots is a breeze by comparison.” And it certainly beat thinking about the most obvious future for her: working in a factory, like her mother, or a tavern, like her father, or staying at the Western Electric Plant as a switchboard operator.
The notion of writing about crime came later. The inciting incident happened early in the morning of Sunday, July 29, 1957. Rydzik, then nineteen, was driving her Nash Rambler along Lower Market Street in Paterson when she hit a 58-year-old homeless man named Archie Beal as he crossed the street. As the Herald-News described it the next day: “He landed on the car’s hood, which he dented and bounced into the windshield, which he cracked. Then he slid off the front of the hood and the car, still moving, rolled over him.”
When police and the ambulance arrived, Rydzik’s Rambler still lay on top of Beal. By some miracle he escaped real harm, treated for superficial head wounds before his hospital release. The Herald-News story noted Beal’s recurrent arrests for public intoxication; whether that contributed to his cheating death that night cannot be known. But for Rydzik, the ordeal’s aftermath made a permanent impression: how did the newspaper get so many details about what happened, and why did the cops talk to that reporter?
A decade and a half later, she was that reporter. Edna Rydzik, with a limited future in Paterson, had been wholly subsumed into Edna Buchanan, hard-driving, insatiably curious police beat reporter in Miami. Another short-lived marriage, this time to a cop, added insight, but far less than the daily calls to police stations wondering if there was a crime for her to write about. She liked to note, especially during the book tour phase for her 1987 nonfiction collection The Corpse Had A Familiar Face, that she had borne witness to more than 5,000 murders during her career and thousands more assaults, rapes, robberies, and other violent crimes in addition. (A side note: Buchanan was a guest on Late Night With David Letterman, at a time when authors were more customarily on late-night. It’s awkward to watch, though Buchanan is steely throughout.)
Buchanan in Miami, circa 1993 (AP).
Some of Buchanan’s coverage sticks out more than most. The beating death of Arthur McDuffie, a black man, at the hands of a group of white cops, whose acquittal in May 1980 led to race riots that killed 18 people, wounded many more, and caused all manner of fires in the Miami. Contents Under Pressure fictionalizes this story and inserts Britt Montero into the narrative; because it was published in 1992, many people assumed Buchanan was writing about Rodney King or Reginald Denny. As she explained, and as we now know with bitter truth, police kill unarmed black men in every town, in every state.
There was also Jack Murphy, nicknamed “Murph the Surf” whose theft of the Star of India jewel from the American Museum of Natural History in 1964 made him into a minor celebrity, one that persisted even after he was convicted of the murders of two young women five years later. Murphy was released from prison and speaks on the lecture circuit. Buchanan told an interviewer in 2016 that she’ll still get called up by other journalists for background information, but refuses to take part: “You’re just playing into his hands. All he wants is attention…It’s mean cold brutal murder and he doesn’t need to be aggrandized anymore for it.”
Or the story of Jack Maclean, the self-designated “Superthief” whose brazen heisting masked even more brazen sexual assaults, committed in costume, sometimes in broad daylight. Buchanan reported in the Miami Herald, with barely disguised outrage, that Maclean wouldn’t be prosecuted for the rapes. It took decades, but she was eventually proven wrong on that count.
But the crime story that took over Buchanan’s life for a number of years is one even I have trouble stomaching. It’s the basis for her first book, Carr: Five Years of Rape and Murder, published in 1979, crafted out of more than 120 hours of interviews she conducted with Robert Frederick Carr III, a serial killer and rapist who murdered boys, girls, and women from Florida to Connecticut and back throughout the 1970s. He was caught in 1976 attempting to rape a woman. After his arrest he recreated his cross-country travels with police so that they could unearth the mutilated and brutalized bodies of his victims.
Buchanan covered Carr’s trial for the Herald. After he was spared the death penalty and given concurrent life sentences for the murders of 11-year-olds Mark Wilson and Todd Payton and 16-year-old Tammy Ruth Huntley, Carr begged Buchanan to collaborate on a book. She agreed to do so, rationalizing that a full accounting of his crimes, told in his voice, might give comfort to his victims’ families and prevent similar serial murders from happening again.
It’s unclear whether those families felt that way, but Carr reads uncomfortably because it’s clear how much he revels in the details of his crimes. Buchanan, by documenting them, ends up complicit, as does the reader by reading about them in such graphic fashion. The people Carr killed and harmed recede to the background. But in the intervening 40 years, so has Carr, overshadowed by all of the serial killers to come—including Ted Bundy, whose trail of death ended in Florida in 1978.
Buchanan donated most of the proceeds for Carr to victims’ rights groups; Carr apparently assigned 5 percent of his share of the royalties to a 12-year-old boy tried for murder because, his lawyer stated, “he relates to that boy.” Carr garnered largely positive reviews for the apparent insight into a killer’s mind at a time when this was still novel territory. (The FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit had only begun their research into psychopathic killers; Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, which fictionalized and immortalized such creatures, wouldn’t be published for another year.)
Carr, however, wasn’t pleased with the reception at all. He barraged Buchanan with so many angry, rambling letters she alerted the prison, telling them to cut off contact. When he died in prison in 2007, Buchanan told her former employer, the Herald, that he “was about the most evil person I ever met…It was such good news that he is no longer on the planet.”
No wonder Buchanan, by this time, preferred fictional crime to the real thing. The former she could control entirely. She at the utter mercy of the latter.
Edna Buchanan hasn’t only written about Britt Montero. She tried another series, featuring Miami’s Cold Case Squad and its leaders, Lieutenant K.C. Riley and Sergeant Craig Burch. She’s written standalones, including her first novel, Nobody Lives Forever (1990), and, most recently, the multi-generation epic A Dark and Lonely Place (2011). But she always goes back to Britt, even going so far as to team her up with Riley, Burch, and the Cold Case Squad in The Ice Maiden (2002) and Love Kills (2007).
Britt Montero felt real and larger-than-life at the same time. Reading the first five series books in rapid succession was a trap door into a different mindset.
In fiction, Britt could grapple with clear real-life crime parallels that Buchanan couldn’t commit to newspaper print with the same creative flourish. (Florida, even as weird as the crimes can get, still left something to the imagination.) She could explore her love life on her own terms, especially through her on-again, off-again relationship with Lieutenant Kendall MacDonald. She could, because she was half-Cuban, delve more deeply into what Fidel Castro wrought upon Miami, whether by active investigation or in conversations with friends.
Britt Montero felt real and larger-than-life at the same time. Reading the first five series books in rapid succession was a trap door into a different mindset. I wanted more but Buchanan slowed down, and there were plenty of crime novelists to fill the void. When I returned to her later work, it didn’t speak to me as much, but the embers of what made Britt such an appealing series character still glowed, sometimes brilliantly.
Then, silence. A tenth Montero outing, Dead Man’s Daughter, has been listed on retailer websites for years. Buchanan’s website still claims the book is “almost finished” but that website was last updated in 2012. (Ignore the “2050” publication date, that’s a metadata placeholder signifying nothing.) Unlike her main character, Buchanan hasn’t silenced herself. There are annual appearances at the Miami Book Fair. She won the Florida Humanities Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017. She also wrote an op-ed for the Bradenton Herald, a week after the 2016 election, excoriating the media for its coverage of Donald Trump, that the media was to blame for him winning, and how shocked she was at the “ugly and nasty vitriol” lobbed her way after posting on Facebook her intent to vote for him. (“Donald Trump is not the bogeyman” reads much differently in May 2019 than in November 2016.)
Edna Buchanan is in her early eighties now. Her crime reporting is, and helped create, Miami history. Her Britt Montero novels, especially the early ones, continue to mean the world to me. But Miami is different now. It has been for a long time. There’s no going back to the Miami depicted in The Last Resort. I’m not sure if Buchanan’s authorial silence, now almost a decade old, ever needs to be filled.
My latest novel The Poison Thread revolves around a teenage seamstress accused of murder. Although she confesses to the crime, her bizarre recollection of the events that led to her incarceration leaves others doubting her sanity. Could she be spinning these tales for her own amusement? Or is it a life of terrible hardship that has forced her down this dark path?
The concepts of guilt and innocence have fascinated mankind for centuries. While some of the oldest tales show a straightforward fight between good and evil, the most compelling narratives tend to recognize that the truth is rarely simple. Villains may not be bad in all areas of their life, and even heroes have their shade.
The advance of psychology is certainly one aspect that has helped us understand complicated actions. It is generally recognized by law that mental or even physical illnesses can cause behavior that is ‘out of character’. Yet ‘blame’ for tragedies can seldom be ascribed to an individual—however convenient the idea may be.
The modern writer perhaps has a better conception of how narratives can be manipulated by others. In stories that shift between several characters’ points of view, we get the uncomfortable feeling that guilt could be subjective—or, more frighteningly, that no one is completely innocent.
I have picked a selection of my favorite novels that play with the theme of guilt and will have you questioning your own morality.
The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
Of all court cases, divorce proceedings must top the bill for the most interesting charges and counter-accusations. Both parties will have a story to tell. But when Emily reconnects with her old schoolmate Helen, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage, she naturally takes her friend’s side.
As a pioneer for women’s rights, the faithful Emily is keen to help Helen obtain the separation she craves—a rare event in the 1860s. Yet Helen, reckless and on a crash course for disaster, is not as blameless as she appears.
Based on a real-life scandal, this is one of the most compelling and masterfully plotted books I have ever read. Lies, misogyny, hypocrisy and a good old dash of Victorian sensationalism bring this court-room drama to vivid life.
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier
If there was an award for writing amoral, ambiguous characters, Daphne Du Maurier would surely win it. My favorite novel of hers begins with an orphaned boy, Philip, who is adopted by his elder cousin Ambrose. The two share a happy and mutually dependent life until, one summer, Ambrose travels abroad and marries.
Philip’s natural jealousy deepens into something more sinister as he receives letters from an increasingly erratic Ambrose, suggesting all is not well between the newly-weds. Shortly after, Ambrose dies and his widow turns up on Philip’s doorstep.
This story is a masterclass in psychological tension. The reader is absorbed in Philip’s wild tussle with love, jealousy and suspicion. Du Maurier flips your opinion as quickly as a coin. I guarantee you will be obsessively considering and re-apprising the characters in this book long after it ends.
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
We are often told that evil triumphs when good people do nothing. In her Booker-Prize-winning masterpiece, Atwood explores precisely that. Can you be so caught up in your own life and troubles that your actions inadvertently lead to another’s death?
The tale of sisters Iris and Laura Chase is separated into three narrative threads: Iris’s recollections as an elderly woman, newspaper articles from the past and passages of Laura’s posthumously-published novel. Layer by layer, Atwood peels down to the darkest depths of human nature and its capacity for self-deception. While the story has profound and serious themes, reaching far beyond the relationship between the two sisters, it is nonetheless full of Iris’s acerbic wit.
The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
I am a big fan of Morton’s twisty time-slip novels, and this one delivered a jaw-dropping, gasp-out-loud moment for me.
Teenager Laurel witnesses a crime committed by her mother, Dorothy. Neither of them speak of it, but the weight of this silence will haunt Laurel throughout her life. When Dorothy reaches the age of ninety and begins to descend into dementia, Laurel knows that she must discover the truth about her mother’s past now or never.
Alternating between present day and World War II, this story features Morton’s hallmark beautiful prose, family secrets and wonderful turns of plot. It reveals how little we know other people, most of all those closest to us. I particularly admire how Morton approaches her elderly characters and criticizes those who judge them on current circumstances.
The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood
Fiction set in an asylum often makes us question whether true mental imbalance lies within the patients or the doctors, a device that Littlewood uses to terrific effect in this claustrophobic Victorian gothic.
Our protagonist, mad-doctor Nathaniel Kerner, takes up a new job in the remote Yorkshire moors, where treatments are rather less progressive than he would like. The monotony and frustration of his life are only lightened by the arrival of beautiful Victoria, deemed ‘hysterical’ by her husband.
Aware of how conveniently troublesome women can be put aside, Nathaniel begins to doubt the motives of her incarceration. All his experience warns him not to trust a confirmed ‘lunatic’, least of all one he is attracted to. But can he really be part of an institution that imprisons for monetary gain?
An absorbing tale that plays adroitly with the concepts of reality and trust.
Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver
There is no author like Paver for making the hair prickle on the back of your neck. Her latest gothic novel recounts the dark history of a house on the edge of the Suffolk fens.
We know from early on in the story that Maud’s father Edmund is going to commit a grizzly crime. The question is: why? Shifting between the perspectives of Maud, an intelligent girl growing up in Edwardian England, and her father’s secret notebooks, this novel offers a disturbing glimpse into how fear starts and breeds.
We learn that Edmund is plagued by ‘devils’, a misfortune that intensifies after he discovers a supposedly cursed painting in the local church. But does the fact that Edmund is mentally ill in any way lessen his repulsive character? And is Maud’s failure to prevent his actions the same as guilt? These are just some of the questions posed in this beautifully-written and genuinely unsettling ghost story.
The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola
Mazzola won a prestigious Edgar Award for this, her inspired retelling of the case of Sarah Gale, sentenced to hang as an accomplice for murder in 1837.
The enigmatic Sarah faces incredulity when she asserts that she knew nothing of her lover’s heinous crime, or his hiding of the victim’s body parts. As the prosecution is quick to point out, she had both the motive and the means to kill.
When earnest young lawyer Edmund Fleetwood comes to investigate her plea for mercy, he is astounded to find Sarah will not yield any information to help his case. Why would a woman with a young child, who asserts her innocence, shuffle so resignedly through prison towards death?
Victorian misogyny and classism come to the fore in this intriguing warren of a tale. Although the real life case was never solved, Mazzola provides her own satisfying and believable conclusion.
Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
The clue is perhaps in the title for this one. In a land riddled by the plague, witchcraft and poverty, nine medieval travelers throw their lot in together in a bid to survive. Each one hides a secret—some more dangerous than others.
Like all Maitland’s work, this tale is rich in creepy atmosphere and suspense, offering deep themes and a satisfying mystery at the same time. The reader is tricked time and again by a diverse cast whose character arcs not only explore the concept of mistruth, but also whether it can be morally right to withhold information.
By the end of this dark and fantastical book, the reader finds themselves faced with the scary realization that we are, essentially, the lies we tell ourselves.
See What I have Done by Sarah Schmidt
One of history’s most famous ‘did she or didn’t she’ cases is startlingly realized in Schmidt’s literary novel. We know that one hot day in 1892, Lizzie Borden’s father and step mother are going to wind up dead, but that doesn’t stop this being a tense read.
Told through the perspectives of the unreliable and childlike Lizzie, her sister Emma, housemaid Bridget, and a stranger named Benjamin, this is vivid prose that reads at times like a fever-dream. The characters are achingly real and complex. Not only do we question whether or not Lizzie committed the crime, but whether any motive could actually be justified. Particularly uncomfortable is the suggestion that a killer rarely comes to being in isolation—it could, in fact, take a whole family to raise a murderer.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Perhaps an obvious choice for this list, but McEwan’s masterpiece of searching for redemption is one it is difficult to forget. As we glimpse the hot summer of 1935 through the eyes of the wildly imaginative child Briony Tallis, her elder sister, and the talented but poor Robbie Turner, we are struck by how easily characters can misinterpret events—and more worryingly, convert others to their views.
Self-deception, lies and genuine mistakes conspire to change the lives of the Tallis family forever. In later years, Briony attempts to undo the damage, but events have snowballed. Can she ever be forgiven—and does she deserve to be?
McEwan expertly probes the dark heart of childhood in his creation of young Briony, but she is just one of the astonishingly drawn characters who inhabit this aching tale of love, war and loss.
I was driving home from work very late one night in 2014, fiddling with the radio and struggling to stay awake, when I managed to catch a rebroadcast of This American Life. The story being discussed—about a young Baltimore man imprisoned for the murder of his girlfriend—was not one I was familiar with. But as a longtime fan of both true crime and This American Life, I decided to give it a listen.
It was a wise decision. By the time I was five minutes into the broadcast, falling asleep at the wheel was no longer a looming threat. I was wide awake and hooked; another ten minutes in and I was hopelessly addicted.
At the end of the 45 minutes, when I was still catching my breath (A witness saw Syed in the library at the time of his girlfriend’s murder? What? Seriously?!) I learned that the story was not a one-off, but the first episode of a new podcast called Serial. I was all-in, along with millions of other listeners. And the true crime podcast craze was born.
It wasn’t the first time, of course, that a real-life murder story had captivated non-print audiences. From In Cold Blood’s cinematic incarnation to the hit mini-series based on Helter Skelter and The Executioners’ Song to the lurid docs on 48 Hours and the ID channel, true crime stories have proven fascinating when brought to life on screen. But Serial was different. Downloaded 5 million times within a month of its first episode, the podcast broke iTunes records, spawned countless water cooler conversations (not to mention Twitter trending topics and Reddit threads) and launched a whole new form of true crime storytelling that has garnered countless devotees—myself included.
After devouring Serial, I quickly moved on to the many other true crime podcasts that cropped up in its wake. Dirty John, Happy Face, You Must Remember This: Charles Manson’s Hollywood are just a few of the chilling, satisfying stories that have kept me up at night. And S*Town, a deeply moving, real-life mystery that unfolds in real time and truly changes the life of its host, Brian Reed, continues to haunt me to this day.
Others clearly feel the same. According to Variety, S*Town—which came out three years after Serial, in 2017—garnered 10 million downloads within four days of its release. And the popularity and range of true crime podcasts—from limited-run documentaries to ongoing series like My Favorite Murder—continues to grow.
Why are these binge-listens so irresistible? While there have already been volumes written about our attraction to true crime and how it safely fulfills our hidden desire to see evil up-close, there’s something about having the story told to you that, for me at least, takes that intimacy one step further. While the screen can be a barrier, headphones invite. Instead of spelling everything out with moving images, podcasts force you to use your imagination, the hosts drawing you into their stories as though you’re sitting around a campfire.
The format, too, is addictive. Most of the great true crime podcasts dole out the information in juicy, 30-45-minute installments that are often structured like novels I wish I’d written (I’m looking at you, Dirty John) and build to shocking, satisfying conclusions.
Perhaps most importantly, though, there’s the emotion of it all. Unlike so many journalists and authors, who make it a point to remain objective and invisible when covering real-life situations, podcast hosts don’t hide their feelings. Whether they’re piecing together a defense for a prisoner they clearly empathize with (a la Serial’s Sarah Koenig) or, as in the case of Happy Face’s Melissa Moore, discovering more and more about a murderous relative, true crime podcast hosts invariably have some skin in the game—and that enables the listener to become emotionally involved as well.
For me, listening to a true crime podcast is like having a close friend tell you about an important news story, as opposed to reading about it. The facts may not be as accurate, and the story may not be organized in an orderly way. Yet there’s an excitement there—a passion for the facts as the narrator knows them—that makes you want to hang on her every word.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve chosen to make a true crime podcaster one of the protagonists in my latest book, Never Look Back. A reporter driven by emotions, Quentin Garrison is, like so many of my favorite podcast hosts, part investigator, part unreliable narrator… and the close friend you really want to believe.
Every cell in the human body holds a person’s complete genetic material. Neuropeptides, the transmitters used by the brain to communicate with the body, exist in all bodily tissue, making cellular memory a possibility, says Google. I type in cellular memory heart transplants and Google returns 707,000 hits. Could transplant or gans hold the donor’s memories? asks one article. This is already too much. Way too much. I get up and stand a moment by the kitchen window. Outside, everything is still the same. Rainwater streams off the branches of the spruce trees, the sky is dark and close, the city in the valley is entirely hidden by fog. My breath catches, I have to bend forward to fully fill my lungs. I stay there, and tears drop off the tip of my nose; I just want to be switched off, to stop, to have one moment away from my restless mind and my cracked heart.
I think of Sindre, out in the forest, clutching his rifle, expert eyes trained on an unsuspecting moose. Hooves moving this way and that in the shrubbery, jaw churning, a froth of berry juice and spittle strung from its mouth, soft eyes blinking in the incandescent morning light, sunlight shredded by the dense trees, only seconds left to live. I turn back toward the computer and bring my thoughts back to the notion of cellular memory. What if memo ries, and the essence of a person, are held not only in the brain, or in the soul, but in every single cell of a body? Would those cells then somehow influence or change their recipient in the event of organ donations? I press my face to the window, the cool pane soothing my flushed cheek, and stare out at the bulbous whiteness concealing Oslo beneath it—somewhere out there is a person who received my daughter’s organs. Could it be that they received more than just a life-giving body part?
Once, my thoughts felt straightforward and were easily discernible from one another. Now I visualize them as hungry worms squirming in a can: ugly, and jumbled together. It’s almost 2:00 A.M. and outside the rain has let up, leaving a spent and starless sky. I’ve been here for hours, fixed to the screen, the seconds of the night slowly bleeding away, drinking wine mixed with vodka and cranberry juice in big gulps.
I’ve read about the woman in New England who began having vivid dreams about a man named Tim L. after her heart transplant. She also experienced intense food cravings for things she’d never liked before, like beer and chicken nuggets, and when she tracked down the donor’s family, they confirmed he was indeed a beer and chicken nugget lover named Tim L. I’ve read about the man who married the widow of his donor and then killed himself in the same way as the donor two years later. I read about the guy who turned into an art prodigy after a heart transplant, apparently thanks to his artist donor. I’ve read about the French actress who reported vivid memories of the car crash in which her heart donor apparently died.
Then there was the little girl whose unexplained memories of a brutal murder were so strong and so detailed they led to the arrest of the man who killed her heart donor. All of these people received someone else’s heart. I consider myself a rational person; I don’t know how I could believe in these things, but then, how could I not? I read and read and read, trying to derive some meaning from all the words, and they swim around in my head, bleeding into each other. This concept is so full of possibilities, I can feel myself coming alive again.
The phone is vibrating in my hand, twitching and bleeping, its insistent electronic tune ringing in my ears. I sit up, disoriented, but as I do the room spins and nausea washes over me, bitter splashes of bile shooting into my mouth. I swallow hard, squint at the bright screen, Sindre’s name flashing. It’s 5:52 A.M., and as I slide the but ton to take the call, I just know it isn’t Sindre’s voice I will hear, but someone else’s, calling from his phone to tell me something has happened to him.
I’m right. “Alison?” whispers a man.
“Yes?” Please, please, not Sindre, too. I see him, in the middle of the night, in the forest, not running now, just hanging still, strung by his neck from a black rope looped around a thick, mossy branch, watched by blinking stars and silent, roaming animals. “Tell me, goddammit!” The man is breathing hard into the phone, and his voice breaks as he speaks.