Category Archives: Mayra Montero

Who Tells Your Story?*

As this is posted, it’s 61 years since mobster Albert Anastasia was murdered in a barber’s chair in New York. This particular murder caught the interest of Mayra Montero, whose novel Dancing to ‘Almendra’ takes a look at that murder, putting it into the perspective of Mafia activity in New York and Havana at the time. In that novel, journalist Joaquín Porrata hears of this murder, and believes it’s because Anastasia got too interested in other Mob bosses’ interests in Havana. But Porrata’s editor points him to another story instead. When that story proves to be related to the Anastasia killing, Porrata is more determined to find out more about Anastasia. It takes a change of employer, but Porrata finally gets the chance to look more deeply into the murder. When he does, he quickly finds that some powerful people want to shut him up.

Montero is by no means the only author to have been inspired by a murder or other news event that perhaps didn’t get worldwide press at the time, but is nonetheless of interest. And sometimes, those stories can make for an engaging novel. It takes skill, because such stories do need to be credible. But when it’s done well, it can make for an absorbing read.

James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential begins with a real-life incident. On Christmas Day, 1951, a day later called ‘Bloody Christmas,’ seven civilians were brutally attacked by members of the Los Angeles Police Department. It took a groundswell of protests and demands for action before the department investigated what happened. Discipline and indictments followed, but not until the department was basically forced into action by the public outcry. Ellroy explores this incident through the eyes of three very different police officers who play different roles in it. Then, he follows those officers’ careers, and shows what happens to them two years later, when there’s a late-night shooting at a diner. The novel follows the investigation of the shooting, and also shows the fallout from Bloody Christmas.

In 1998, Colorado police detective Dale Claxton was murdered by a group of right-wing militia activists. There was a massive hunt for the fugitives, and several law enforcement groups, including the FBI, were involved. But those responsible for Claxton’s murder were never apprehended. Many people believe that’s because of FBI bungling, although that’s never been proved. This real-life murder is part of the inspiration for Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger. In that novel, Navajo Tribal Police detectives Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn investigate a theft from a Native American casino. A group of right-wing militia activists have stolen the money to buy arms, and of course, the FBI and local police want to find them. At first, a part-time casino security officer, Teddy Bai, is believed to have been the ‘inside person’ in the job, but he claims innocence. It turns out that this robbery is connected to an old Ute legend, and to murder.

Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross has as its inspiration the real-life 1929 murder of a Düsseldorf prostitute. At the time, Peter Kürten was arrested, tried and convicted of the crime. He even confessed to it. But, although he was guilty of other murders (he was dubbed ‘The Düsseldorf Vampire), he later recanted his confession. And there was no direct evidence linking him to Emma Gross’ killing. Kürten was executed in 1931, and Emma Gross’ real killer was never found. Seaman explores this case through the eyes of his sleuth, Düsseldorf Detective Inspector (DI) Thomas Klein. In the novel, Klein thinks he has finally found evidence that links Kürten to several murders. But there is one murder, that of Emma Gross, that is still unsolved. It could be that Kürten is guilty of that murder, but Klein has come to believe that’s not the case. It could also be that another man, Johann Stausberg, is guilty. The police originally arrested him for some of the crimes, but then Klein seemed like a more likely possibility. Or, Emma Gross could have been killed by a completely different person. Klein starts to ask questions; and, eventually, he gets to the truth about this murder.

There are other cases, too, that, perhaps, don’t get the media attention that the Crippen case in the UK, or the ‘Zodiac’ case in the US did. But that doesn’t mean they’re not interesting. So it’s not surprising that authors are inspired by them sometimes.

In fact, there’s even a crime fiction series that features this sort of inspiration. Lynda Wilcox’s protagonist, Verity Long, is assistant/researcher for famous crime writer Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. Her job is to look up unsolved cases that might serve as the basis for a new novel. And sometimes that research gets her involved in solving those cases. Her work also gets her involved in solving present-day cases, some of which are tied to the unsolved cases she researches.

There are plenty of interesting cases that don’t necessarily make the headlines, but that are interesting, or thought-provoking. Those cases can serve as inspiration for crime fiction; and, when they’re done well, can keep readers engaged. These are only a few examples. Which ones have stayed with you?

 

ps. Thanks, Mob Museum, for the photograph of Albert Anastasia!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manual Miranda’s Finale (Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story)

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Filed under Damien Seaman, James Ellroy, Lynda Wilcox, Mayra Montero, Tony Hillerman

You Can’t Compete With Murder Incorporated*

One of the most influential films of the last decades has arguably been Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, which premiered 46 (!) years ago. It’s based, as you’ll know, on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name, and traces the fortunes of the Corleone family. Many people consider it a remarkable film; certainly, it’s had a real impact.

But it’s not by any means the only story about members of the Mafia. It seems as though we have a real cultural fascination with Mafiosi, crime families, and their doings. And, if you look at crime fiction, such characters and plot lines are woven into the genre. There are crime families and dynasties all over the world, and there’s only so much room in one post. But here are a few examples.

Puzo’s original 1969 novel, of course, had quite an impact of its own, independent of the film. It features the Corleone family, mostly between 1945 and 1955, and traces that family’s rise to power and its feud with other New York crime families. This novel’s focus is the New York Mafia culture, and its links to the Italian Mafia, and that’s become part of the mythology.

As you’ll know, there were also many connections between the New York Mafia and other crime syndicates and the underworld of Havana during the years before Fidel Castro took power there. There’s an interesting look at those links in Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra,which takes place in 1957. In that novel we are introduced to Havana journalist Joaquín Porrata, who writes for the Diaria de la Marina. He’s accustomed to writing ‘puffball’ pieces such as interviews with performers. One day, though, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia, who’s been killed in a New York barbershop. Anastasia was known as the Great Enforcer of Murder, Inc., and Porrata believes that he was murdered because he took more of an interest than was good for him in some of the other Mob bosses’ dealings in Havana. Porrata’s supervisor doesn’t want him to follow up on that story, though. Instead, he sends him to cover the story of a hippopotamus who escaped from a Havana zoo and was later found dead. When Porrata hears that the animal’s death was likely a message to Anastasia, he is convinced that the two incidents are linked, and starts to ask questions about Anastasia’s death, and about what it suggests about the Mob’s hold on Havana. The closer he gets to the truth, though, the clearer it becomes that some people do not want him to find out what’s really going on.

Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs is the story of Franco family, who moves from Italy to New York City at the beginning of the 20th Century. Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco wants the ‘American Dream’ for his family, so he gets a job in a shoe repair shop, works hard, and within a few years is able to open his own shoe sales and repair shop. The business does well, too. But then disaster strikes. Ben Franco, who by this time has changed the family’s name to Frank, kills a man in a bar fight. That man turns out to be Luigi Lupo, son of notorious Mafioso Tonio Lupo. Frank is arrested and imprisoned for the murder, and Lupo visits him in prison. There, he curses the family, and says that each of Frank’s three sons will die at the age of forty-two, the same age Luigi Lupo was at his death. It’s not an idle threat, either, as Tonio Lupo is powerful, notorious, and ruthless. As the years go by, we see what happens to Frank’s sons, and how this curse impacts the family. And we also see how the Mafia plays a part in what happens to the Frank family fortunes.

Mafiosi make an appearance in Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes, too. In that novel, we are introduced to professional thief John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison and is trying to ‘go straight.’ He changes his mind, though, when he gets the chance to visit a posh Manhattan apartment building. He decides to plan a robbery, but not just of one apartment. His plan will be to rob the entire building. For that, of course, he’ll need equipment, money, and people to work with him. So, for about five months, Anderson makes his plans and gets his team in place. One of Anderson’s sources will be the Angelo family, a Mafia family involved for some time in New York’s underworld. The FBI and other authorities are very interested in anything they can learn about the Angelos’ activities, so they’ve placed the members under electronic and other surveillance. They’ve also got an interest in several other of Anderson’s contacts. The question will be: can the authorities stop this robbery before it takes place? As we get to know the Angelos, we learn a little about how such families work.

And then there’s Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children move from New Jersey to a small town in Normandy. The four settle in and try to adjust to the new culture, the new language, and so on. But this isn’t a typical American family. ‘Fred Blake’ is really Giovanni Manzini, a member of the New Jersey Mafia. He’s committed the unforgiveable sin of testifying against his former Mafia colleagues in court. Now, he and his family are in the US Federal Witness Protection Program. The plan to start life over in Normandy works well at first. But then, word of the Manzinis’ new location gets back to New Jersey. Now, the family has much more serious problems on their hands than ‘culture shock.’ This novel was the inspiration for Luc Besson’s 2013 film, The Family.

The Mafia has woven into the underworld for a very long time. So it makes sense that we’d see examples all through crime fiction. I’ve only had the space to mention a few; I know you’ll think of many others (right, fans of Andrea Camilleri’s series?). Which ones have stayed with you?

As you know, I usually take my own ‘photos for this blog. But I just couldn’t resist this iconic image of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Murder Incorporated.

 

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Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Lawrence Sanders, Mario Puzo, Mayra Montero, Tonino Benacquista

Something’s Got to Pay Off*

Have you ever been to a casino? They’re designed to be exciting, and to get the adrenaline going. And every detail is very carefully planned so that you’ll spend the maximum amount of time there, and wager the maximum amount of money.

Because casinos are exciting, suspenseful places where a lot of money changes hands, it’s not surprising that they’re also really effective settings in crime novels. All sorts of things can happen in a casino, and they run the gamut from seedy, dangerous places to some of the most luxurious places in the world. So, there are lots of possibilities for an author.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, for instance, we are introduced to London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey. She’s just won a lottery, so she decides to take a trip to Le Pinet, where many of her clients go. She doesn’t have much luck at the casino, but she does meet some of the characters who figure later in the story. One of them is Lady Cicely Horbury. She’s got a gambling addiction, and has the bad judgement to think that her next roll will wipe out her debts. She has a run of bad luck, though, and is desperate for money. So, she borrows money from Marie Morisot, a Paris moneylender who does business as Madame Giselle. When she can’t pay the money back, Madame Giselle prepares to use the ‘collateral’ she has – private information that Lady Horbury does not want her husband to learn. Everything changes when Madame Giselle suddenly dies during a flight from Paris to London. It looks at first like heart failure due to a wasp’s sting. But it’s soon clear that this was murder. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight as Madame Giselle, as are both Jane Grey and Cicely Horbury, and all three get caught up in the investigation.

In the US, several Native American Nations generate revenue by operating casinos on their land. One of them, a casino in the Ute Nation, figures in Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger. In it, the casino is robbed by a group of far-right militia members who want to use the loot they stole to buy arms and equipment. If you know about casinos, then you know it’s well-nigh impossible to steal from them without ‘inside help.’ Deputy Sheriff Teddy Bai works part-time at the casino as a security guard, and the police suspect that he’s in league with the thieves. He claims he’s innocent, and his friend, Navajo Tribal Police detective Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito, believes him. She takes her concerns to Sergeant Jim Chee, and he starts asking questions. It turns out that this case is linked to the past, and to an old Ute legend.

In Michael Connelly’s Trunk Music, L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch investigates the murder of mediocre filmmaker Tony Aliso, whose body is found in the trunk of his Rolls Royce. He was killed execution-style, and all signs point to this being a Mob ‘hit.’ As Bosch looks into that possibility, he follows the trail to a seedy Las Vegas casino – and to former FBI agent Eleanor Wish, who’s become a professional poker player. He and Wish develop a relationship that ends in marriage, and it’s interesting to see how their story arc impacts the novels that come after this one. And in this novel, there’s a really telling scene between them that takes place in a casino.

As you’ll know, Havana was, at one time, a mecca for those who liked casinos. And many of those watering holes were owned by, or at least controlled, by Mob members. That’s one of the plot points in Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra’, which takes place in the years just before the revolution that put Fidel Castro into power. In that novel, we are introduced to fledgling journalist Joaquín Porrata, who works for the Diario de la Marina. Most of what he writes is ‘lightweight’ news, such as interviews with film actors. But then, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia, who was killed in a New York barbershop. Anastasia was known as ‘The Great Executioner of Murder, Inc.,’ and Porrata thinks he was killed because he ‘stuck his nose’ into Mob business in Havana casinos. If that’s correct, then there’s a major story here. But instead, Perrota is told to write a story about a hippopotamus that escaped from a Havana zoo and was later found killed. He does what he’s asked to do, but his interest in the Anastasia murder is renewed when he uncovers a link between it and the hippo’s death – and yes, there is one. Throughout this novel, we see the role that casinos played in Havana’s economy and society during the last years of the Batista regime.

Andrew Nette’s Gunshine State features a different sort of casino. In it, professional thief Gary Chance goes from South Australia to Brisbane when a robbery he was involved in goes wrong. There, he meets Dennis Curry, who runs certain poker games for wealthy people who don’t go to ‘regular’ casinos. Curry wants to rob one of his clients, Frederick ‘Freddie’ Gao, and he wants Chance’s help. It sounds like an opportunity for a big payout, so Chance meets the rest of Curry’s team, and agrees to join it. The robbery is planned, but it doesn’t turn out to be anything like what Chance had imagined…

And, of course, I don’t think I could bring up the topic of casinos in crime fiction without mentioning Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Fans of these novels can tell you that he’s as comfortable at the baccarat table as he is anywhere else. And there are several important and tense casino scenes in the series.

But that’s just the thing. Casinos lend themselves to adrenaline, tension and suspense. And a lot of money is at stake. So, they do make really effective contexts for crime novels, and scenes in them.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Easy Money.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Nette, Mayra Montero, Michael Connelly, Tony Hillerman

Oh, Havana, I’ve Been Searching For You Everywhere*

As this is posted, it would have been Fidel Castro’s 91st birthday. Whatever you think of Castro, his politics or his history, it’s impossible to deny his impact on Cuba and on world politics. And it’s interesting to see how Cuba features in crime fiction. Leaving politics aside (Please! Let’s leave politics aside.), there are some interesting crime novels and series set in Cuba at different times, and they give readers a fascinating portrait of the country.

For instance, Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra’ takes place in 1957 Havana, just before the revolution that will put Castro in power. At the time, Fulgencio Batista is still in power, and his secret police and armed forces do whatever it takes to keep things that way. But at the same time, there is a groundswell of support for a revolution, and plenty of tension in the atmosphere. Against this backdrop, we are introduced to Joaquín Porrata, a fledging reporter for the Diario de la Marina. So far, his assignments have mostly been ‘fluff’ pieces, such as interviews with starlets and ‘lightweight’ news. Then, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia in a New York City barbershop. Anastasia was known as The Great Executioner of Murder, Inc., and had quite a reputation among mobsters with strong links to the Havana casino and club scene. And that, Porrata believes, is the reason he was killed. He apparently ‘stuck his nose’ into other Mob bosses’ Havana interests, and that sealed his fate. Porrata’s managing editor doesn’t think Anastasia’s death is relevant for a Havana newspaper, and instead, assigns Porrata to another story, the mysterious death of a hippopotamus that had escaped from a local zoo. Porrata learns that the hippo’s death was likely a message to Anastasia, and comes to believe that the two stories are linked. When he’s lured away from his employer by the Prensa Libre, he’s given permission to investigate Anastasia’s murder. But the closer he gets to the truth, the more determined some very powerful people are that it will not get reported. Among other things, this is an interesting look at life in Havana just before Castro took power.

When Castro did come to power, many Cubans left the country and developed their own communities elsewhere. One of the largest ex-pat Cuban communities is in Miami, and that makes sense, given its proximity to Havana. Readers get a close look at that community in the work of Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, who is herself a Cuban-born American. Her sleuth is PI Guadalupe ‘Lupe’ Solano. Solano’s parents emigrated from Cuba because of the revolution, and her father still feels a deep connection to his homeland. In fact, he pays close attention to any radio news he gets from Cuba, so that when the time is right, he and his family can return. The other members of the family also feel close to their Cuban background. They speak Cuban Spanish, eat a traditional Cuban diet to the extent they can, and keep their culture alive in other ways, too. And in several of the mysteries in this series, Solano’s investigations include links to Cuba. So they offer readers a glimpse of life in modern Cuba, and of the relations between people who stayed in Cuba and their families, and those who left.

Leonardo Padura also offers readers a look at life in Havana. His Mario Conde series features Lieutenant Mario Conde of the Havana police force. The first quartet of novels (published in English as Havana Red, Havana Blue, Havana Black, and Havana Gold) takes place in 1989, mostly in Havana. Through Conde’s eyes, readers follow the lives of people who stayed in Cuba and worked to make good lives there. Some stayed because they believed in the revolution. Others stayed because they saw no other option. Either way, the novels offer a look at Cuban life from the perspective of those who stayed on after the revolution. On the one hand, Conde sees clearly some of the serious problems facing the country. There’s corruption where there was supposed to be equity. There’s poverty, too, and shortages. There are other challenges as well. But at the same time, Conde loves his home, his old friends, and his culture. He isn’t at all blind to the failures of the Castro government, but he loves his homeland. For those interested, there’s also Havana Fever, which takes place in 2003, and features a now-retired Conde. Again, as much as anything else, it’s a look at modern Havana. Conde dreams of being a writer, and these novels are as much literary as they are crime fiction, but there are certainly important crime plots in them.

There’s also Paul Goldstein’s Havana Requiem, which features New York attorney Michael Seeley. In the novel, he’s trying to put his life back together after a devastating series of setbacks. He’s got a brilliant legal mind, so he’s starting to regain some of what he lost. Then he gets a visit from Héctor Reynoso, a Cuban musician and composer, whose music was very popular during the ‘Golden Age’ of Cuban music, in the 1940s and 1950s. Reynoso has taken grave risks to come to the US and ask for Seeley’s help on behalf of himself and some composer friends. His claim is that their music was stolen from them, and they want their rights (and royalties) back. And that adds up to a considerable amount of money, too, since the music is still popular and still being covered by contemporary Latin artists. Seeley has a reputation for defending the rights of composers and other artists, and Reynoso’s been told he’s the best. Seeley has his own problems, and at first doesn’t want to take this case. But when he sees how the group has been defrauded, he takes an interest. He goes to Havana and begins a search for the other composers in Reynoso’s group, but before he can accomplish much, Reynoso disappears. Now Seeley is caught up in a web of intrigue with international implications, especially given the always-delicate situation between Cuba and the US. The main plot of the novel has to do with copyright law, rights to work, and other, related, legal issues. But it also offers a look at modern Havana.

There are other novels, too, (I’m thinking, for instance, of Robin Cook’s medical thriller, Crisis, for instance) with scenes that take place in Cuba. It’s a country rich in heritage and culture, and whatever else one might say of Fidel Castro, he left his mark there.

 

ps. Thanks to Condé Nast Traveller for the ‘photo.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Rosalinda’s Eyes.

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Filed under Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Leonardo Padura, Mayra Montero, Paul Goldstein, Robin Cook

Got Clean Away in a Stolen Car*

gangsters-and-mobstersAs this is posted, it’s the 83rd anniversary of two events. One is the escape of John Dillinger from an Ohio jail. The other is the incarceration of George Francis Barnes, AKA Machine Gun Kelly. They were by no means the only gangsters out there. Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd, and Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel are just a few of the other infamous names of the times. Some of these people were members of criminal gangs and groups. Others were ‘lone wolves.’

Either way, these people were, first and last, criminals. Many of them committed horrible acts, and certainly sanctioned others that they didn’t commit themselves. And yet, they have a certain fascination. Gangsters and mobsters figure in a lot of films, TV shows and series, and books. Space doesn’t permit me to mention all of the crime novels where gangsters figure into the plot. But here are a few to show you what I mean.

Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid, which takes place in early-1930’s Oklahoma, features Jack Belmont. He’s always been a ‘wrong ‘un,’ as the saying goes, and now dreams of being a powerful outlaw, just like Pretty Boy Floyd. If he’s going to do that, though, he’ll have to get past Deputy U.S. Marshal Carlos ‘Carl’ Webster. He’s as determined to put gangsters like Belmont behind bars as Belmont is to be at the top of the ‘most wanted’ list. For each man, it’s as much a personal matter as it is anything else, and it’s interesting to look at the culture that made folk heroes of so many of the outlaws of that time.

Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs tells the story of the Franco family. In 1974, an unnamed art restorer happens to be in the Swiss Alps looking at some of the frescoes at a monastery there. He meets an old man who lives in the care home attached to the monastery, and gets an irresistible offer. The old man promises to tell him a story – a good story – if he’ll tape record that story. The art restorer agrees, and the old man begins. The story really starts at the turn of the 20th Century, when Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco and his family immigrate from Italy. Franco is, by trade, a shoemaker, and soon sets up his business in New York City. He does well, and the family prospers. But then he starts drinking too much. One night, he gets into a bar fight and ends up killing Luigi Lupo, son of a powerful New York gangster. Lupo’s father finds out who killed his son and puts a curse on the Franco family. According to the curse, Franco’s three sons will die at the age of forty-two, the same age as Luigi Lupo was when he was killed. The storyteller than goes on to recount what happened to the three sons, how the curse impacted them, and how it led to the family’s current situation, years later. As the story is told, we learn about the mobsters and gangsters of that era, and how the various criminal families operated.

Before the days of Fidel Castro, Havana was a watering hole for many mobsters and gangsters, and Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra’ uses that context. Joaquín Porrata is a fledgling reporter for Diario de la Marina, accustomed to doing ‘fluff’ stories like interviewing actors. One day, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia, the Great Executioner of Murder, Inc. Anastasia was killed in New York City, but the Mob’s reach is far, and it’s believed he was killed because he was interfering too much with some powerful bosses’ Havana interests. Porrata is taken off the Anastasia story and instead, is told to follow up on a story about a hippo who escaped from a zoo and was found killed. When Porrata discovers that the hippo was ‘a message for Anastasia,’ he is convinced that there’s a connection between Havana’s gangster activity and what happened in New York. The closer he gets to the truth, though, the harder some very powerful people try to shut him up.

Today’s outlaws, gangsters and mobsters are arguably cut from a different bolt, as the saying goes. But they’re still a force to be reckoned with. We see a bit of what they’re like in Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. In that novel, ex-pat Americans Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children move to a small town in Normandy. They’re hoping to settle in and start new lives, but it’s not going to be easy. For one thing, there’s the culture shock. For another, Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mob, who testified against fellow mobsters. In return, he and his family were placed in the US’ Federal Witness Protection Program. When word of the Manzonis’ gets back to New Jersey, the ‘Blakes’ are in serious trouble… There are other authors, too, such as Mario Puzo and Richard Condon, who’ve written books detailing life in the Mob.

What do you folks think? Is there a certain mystique about the gangsters and outlaws of bygone days? If so, why do you think that is? Whether ‘lone wolves’ or members of groups, those gangsters certainly made names for themselves. And they’ve found quite a place in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mitch Murray and Peter Callander’s The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.

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Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Elmore Leonard, Mario Puzo, Mayra Montero, Richard Condon, Tonino Benacquista