An article filed from the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Monday featured a great story from Scottish crime novelist Philip Kerr, who had a strange run-in with a Russian cop while researching a novel in the former Soviet Union. Without giving too much away, it involves bottle of vodka, a naked man, a frightened translator, and a frozen lake. Working on my own books over the years, I’ve had several interesting experiences. The most memorable ones are associated with the writing of my first published effort, On the House. The book details the murder of Michael Malloy in Prohibition-era New York by a gang of bumbling killers nicknamed the “Murder Trust.” Malloy survived multiple attempts on his life—each one more outrageous than the last—without realizing anyone was trying to kill him.
I spent quite a bit of time in New York researching the book. Many hours were spent in the basement of the Bronx courthouse, reviewing trial transcripts and other official papers. One afternoon, while I was going through a stack of folders, a rather large gentleman with his own pile of documents took a seat opposite me at the same table. He wore an ill-fitting suit that looked two sizes too small for him. His shirt, buttoned no more than midway up his chest, revealed a large gold pendant on a clunky chain. Nearly every finger boasted a thick glittery ring. He immediately struck me as a character out of “Goodfellas,” a sort of walking cliché. When I looked up at him, he smiled by way of greeting. I did likewise and returned to my research materials.“What are you working on?” he asked in a New York accent that seemed totally appropriate to the way he was dressed.
When I filled him in, he told me he was familiar with the Malloy story. Most people who grew up in the Bronx, he said, knew it. To be polite, I asked him what he was doing at the courthouse—and, with great enthusiasm, he told me.
“I’m researching a case, too,” he said. “Mine!”
It turned out that some years back this gentleman was accused of breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s apartment and stealing a number of valuable jewels (I immediately stole another glance at his fingers). He was eventually picked up by the cops, charged, and convicted. He claimed to be innocent of said crime and hoped to find something in the case files with which he could overturn his conviction.
“Sounds to me like you need a good alibi,” I said, entertained by the story.
“Oh, I got a great alibi,” he said. At the same time some “loser was tossing my ex’s panty drawer” (his words), he was on the other side of town having sex with the victim’s sister. He did not phrase this in a g-rated manner—and, to this day, I have no idea what it means to have “porked the dog legs” off someone. But this guy had apparently done it and was proud of the achievement. The sister had refused to testify on his behalf because she didn’t want her sibling to know of the tryst. Having shared this rather sordid episode with me, the gentleman fished a business card from his pocket and passed it my way. His name was Pete, and he worked for what appeared to be a loan agency.
“You’re a loan officer?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Let’s just say I work in collections.”
I immediately got the hint and stopped asking questions. Pete, however, kept up his friendly banter and wanted to know how long I’d be in town. When I told him a couple of days, he volunteered to be a tour guide of sorts and promised to show me a New York most people don’t get to see. This, he said, would entail visits to a high-end brothel, a member-only club, and suppliers of whatever commodity I desired. When I told him my girlfriend would most likely disapprove, he said, “I ain’t gonna tell her.” This would be the point in a movie where an angel appears on one shoulder and a devil on the other, each urging me to follow their respective moral path. In the event, my sense of decency got the better of me. I thanked Pete for his kind offer but ultimately declined.
When I returned home to the Bay Area, I finished writing the book and shipped it off to my editor at Penguin. It hit stores in October 2005. One of the would-be killers in the story was a Bronx taxi driver named Harry Green who was paid a small fee to run a drunken Malloy over one frosty evening. For various reasons, Green failed in his objective. Subsequently, he was the only member of the Murder Trust not to meet their end in Sing-Sing’s electric chair. Shortly after the book’s publication, I received a very nice email from an elderly woman in Berkeley who had read the book and enjoyed it. Would I care, she asked, to meet in person? This woman was non-other than Harry Green’s widow. I was quite flabbergasted by the whole thing and naturally agreed to see her. Mrs. Green (I don’t want to reveal her first name for privacy’s sake) invited my girlfriend (future wife) and I to dinner at her daughter’s house.
Having spent more than a year writing a book about a gang who plots a fiendish murder, I wondered jokingly if I wasn’t being lured into a trap. Would the Green family tarnish my food with anti-freeze (as the Murder Trust had done to poor Malloy)? Or, would an aggrieved member of the clan try to run me over as I approached the house? In the event, it was a lovely evening. The dinner was a backyard barbecue. A long table had been set; the centerpiece was a diorama featuring a toy taxi running over an action figure. The Greens were wonderful people. Harry’s widow, then in her eighties, was a real firecracker with a great sense of humor. She met Harry after he had served ten years for his involvement in the Malloy case. She described him as a good man who had made a very bad choice. Upon his release from prison, he spent the remainder of his life on the right side of the law, working in various professions. I wish now I could remember all the details, but my notes from the evening are packed away somewhere!
At the end of the evening, as Katie and I got up to leave, the Greens gave me the toy taxi cab from the table’s centerpiece. It still sits on my writing desk today.
On the House unfortunately went out of print several years ago, but I hope that someday it makes a return. If it does, I’ll add an “Afterword” and detail the man Harry Green became.