Hell down in Texas, Willeford, Prison Fiction, and Plucklyn Plook Fest

Before anything else, my heart goes out to everyone affected by Hurricane Harvey. I was hit by Superstorm Sandy and my in-laws and Lousiana fam were hit hard by Katrina and the Baton Rouge floods last year. I gave to Team Rubicon and bought supplies for a local charity, and I hope you will, too. This is beyond politics. Some of my fellow New Jerseyans are pointing out that Senator Ted Cruz is still decrying Sandy aid as “pork”, but the point is, we are better than him. And Texans don’t deserve any ire meant for their senator, who even GOP politicians openly call names George Carlin was famous for reciting.

What I love about my crime family is they pull together and help each other. Murder by the Book, a Houston bookstore, dodged the flood this time (they weren’t as lucky a year or so ago, but recovered) and were giving out free WiFi, cookies, water, A/C, and phone charging to neighborhood people. Consider buying a book from them, they ship! And they sell this frickin’ awesome GO TO HELL, I’M READING shirt (also in red, green, gray, with other logos)
Go To Hell, I'm Reading T-Shirt

So, what have I been up to? Editing my hipster Nazi craft beer cozy. Anyone who says cozies are easy can consult the adage regarding flying donuts. I also wrote two articles this week, one regarding Charles Willeford’s rarest published book, A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided, which unfortunately was prescient as I headed in for a medical procedure this week that men of my vintage are supposed to get. Good news, no cancer! My mother’s side has a proclivity for it, so I’m glad. So glad, I wrote this post.

At SleuthSayers, I wrote about Prison Fiction and Prison Reality, because I want to read more stories about the 2.3 million Americans who are in or go through corrections facilities in the United States, whether it’s jail like Riker’s, private prisons, state run facilities, juvenile, immigrant detention, and so on. It’s too big a subject to ignore, and crime fiction is the genre that has always tackled such issues. I talk classics and new stories, such as Jordan Harper’s She Rides Shotgun, a cracking good read. The next Jay book is largely set around Louisiana’s Angola prison–I visited the rodeo for that reason–so I’ll put my money where my mouth is.

Last but not least, Brooklyn Book Festival (aka BKBF) is the weekend of September 16th, and I will be signing at two tables on Saturday 9/16, if you’d like to drop by. I’ll be at the Mystery Writers of America table from 10:00AM til noon, and at the Down & Out Books table from noon until 2:00PM. I’ll have copies of my books, some swag, and I’d love to meet you there.

You missed it, but Thursday we had a super-sekrit Noir at the Bar: Killing Malmon edition at Shade, to celebrate crime fiction fans and reviewers Kate and Dan Malmon. We all read stories from the upcoming anthology Killing Malmon, which benefits MS research (Kate has MS). And we all kill Dan in entertaining ways. Mine involves a deli dispute with a Jersey goombah who’s in Minnesoder, and criminal misuse of feminine hygiene products. A great time was had by all. Hector Acosta’s “Ketchup Lover” killed me, and I can’t wait to read more of Todd Robinson’s Studs Winslow story. It is insane pulp goodness. And there’s more by Rob Hart, Angel Colon, Hilary frickin’ Davidson (who kills it as usual… if you’re not reading Hil, check out Blood Always Tells), Dave White, Alex Segura, Josh Stallings, Holly West, Brad Parks, and many more. It will be released soon, here are the full details.

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Malmon swimming upstream

Have a lovely Labor Day weekend, and remember to help folks in Texas who will be having the worst Labor Day weekend, if you can.

Let’s get Nutley… Crime and Goombah Gumbo at TAPinto Nutley

Reporter and Louisiana native Pennie Landry was kind enough to interview me at TAPinto Nutley, a local news site for my hometown, where Bad Boy Boogie takes place. Being a Cajun out of water like Jay Desmarteaux makes her the ideal interrogator!

Hop on over to read about Crime, Nutley, and Goombah Gumbo.

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You call that a shank, eh? The Canadian Penitentiary Museum

My friend Andi Jones, artist extraordinaire, Mad Max post-apocalyptic road warrior, Gamma Terra enthusiast, Vault Dweller, and collector of illegible dice, visited the Canadian Penitentiary Museum. And I’m jealous. Because while they don’t spend much time on Maple Syrup Heists (which are a thing) they do have a great collection of prisoner-made makeshift weapons that put ‘Murican ingenuity to shame. You call that a shank, eh?

They made a frickin’ crossbow out of toothbrushes and it works:

Canadian Prison Crossbow

Now,

You can see more photos and read about Andi’s visit on his Tumblr, Black Ray Gun, which gives me a daily dose of Mutants from 2051 A.D. I’ll definitely try to drop by the museum when I am in Toronto for Bouchercon. It’s almost 3 hours from Toronto, but I can take an alternate route…

And if you want to read a great crime novel set in the bush up in Canader… I recommend Rob Brunet’s Stinking Rich. It’s hilarious and thrilling, like Hiaasen moved up north.

 

 

The Art of Cracking a Safe

 

While the rest of us were eating hot dogs in puff pastry, popping champagne corks, or wearing goofy 2017 sunglasses, two intrepid thieves hammered their way into a diamond merchant’s digs on 36th street in Manhattan, blocks away from phalanxes of NYPD officers, and opened two safes, cleaning them out of $6 million in merchandise:

“a team of burglars broke into a jeweler’s office on West 36th Street on New Year’s Eve. The crime was widely reported for its scope — the thieves made off with $6 million in diamonds and other gems — and its brazen timing, occurring as the ball dropped six blocks away in a neighborhood teeming with police officers. Surveillance video showing two people hitting a sixth-floor door with hammers was taken immediately after midnight, the police said, when the sound of cheers would have most likely drowned out any banging.”

I love a good safe cracker story. After reading Agatha Christie Ms. Marple novels on my English teacher’s spinner rack, my introduction to crime fiction was Michael Mann’s movie THIEF, starring James Caan as a professional burglar dueling with the mob. Loosely based on criminal Jean Seybold’s (pseud. Frank Hohimer) memoir The Home Invaders, it is rough and flashy like an uncut diamond. The book is much different. Mostly they broke into rich homes and stuck a gun in people’s face. It all fell apart when a Senator’s daughter was the victim and was assaulted. So don’t buy the honor among thieves line. (Save that for Bernie Rhodenbarr, Lawrence Block’s bookstore-owning burglar.)

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There’s many ways to open a safe. Nitroglycerin, drills, sledgehammers. In THIEF, James Caan’s Frank famously cuts open a bank vault with a thermal lance. Our daring safe crackers, according to this fine article by the NY Times’s crime beat reporter Michael Wilson, did not force their way into the safes. Investigators think they got the combinations from the installer (or that’s what they’re telling the press). Another theory, mine, is that they just cracked the safes. This isn’t something every Joe can do, but check out fellow Jersey boy Jeff Sitar. Here he is, cracking a bank vault in five minutes:

 

Jeff is the best public figure who cracks safes. He offers his skills to people who have lost their combinations, with proper documentation. But how many can do what he does, or close to it, who have chosen a different career path?

It makes one wonder, and appeals to the desire for “hidden knowledge” that drives much of my favorite crime fiction: where we get a tour into the dangerous outlaw world from the cozy confines of our safe European homes. If you like books about safecrackers, I can recommend two of my favorites: The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton, and Young Americans, by Josh Stallings. Two short, great reads.

Do you have a favorite novel about a safe cracker? Share it below!

 

Robert Durst, triple murderer? The Jinx.

Yesterday Robert Durst was arrested in New Orleans on suspicion of murder of Susan Berman, in California in 2000. He was charged with illegal possession of a handgun, as he is a felon.

Robert DurstI began watching HBO’s documentary THE JINX (directed by Andrew Jarecki, of Capturing the Friedmans) when it aired six weeks ago. The case was new to me, but I quickly caught up on it. Robert Durst, the son of a billionaire real estate magnate, was the only suspect in the disappearance of his wife. Her body was never found, and according to police, no real investigation was made by the family, despite their copious resources. Robert was “estranged” from his family; evidence of threats against his younger brother Doug, who was given control of the business, was given. He has a restraining order against Robert, who is known to carry handguns.

In 2000 in California, Robert’s friend Susan Berman was found shot in the head, only after an anonymous letter to the police was received, saying “where to find the cadaver.” Friends of hers believe she had information on the disappearance of Durst’s wife, and that was why she was killed.

In 2001 in Galveston, where Robert was living as a woman by wearing a wig and claiming to be mute, he was put on trial for murdering and dismembering his roommate, whose torso washed up in a nearby body of water. He admitted killing him “in self defense,” and said he was drunk while he methodically dismembered the body, paid the rent up front, and disposed of the remains. Because in Texas some people need killin’, the jury believed this, and acquitted him.

A more detailed explanation of this trial, by Matt Pearce of the L.A. Times, can be read here.

Spoilers follow in the next paragraph.

The documentary depicts Durst being shown new evidence linking him to Berman’s murder, and at the end of the episode, forgetting that he still has his mike on, Durst goes to the bathroom and mutters to himself, ending with, “what did you do? killed them all, of course.”

And then it fades to black.

After the final episode aired, he was arrested. He has a habit of fleeing on bail and has nearly limitless resources; he spent $1.8 million on his Galveston defense. It will be interesting to see if the new evidence in the Berman case will get a murder conviction to stick. He all but confessed on tape, if Jarecki protrayed it truthfully. Durst was not on camera at the time. There will be plenty of reasonable doubt if this is brought as evidence. Voice analysis, and so on. The Berman evidence rests largely on handwriting analysis, and that can be countered as well. There are few smoking guns, and with the resources he has, the passage of time, and the lack of evidence at the crime scenes, his next trial may accomplish nothing except give Jarecki material for his next documentary.

Visiting Alcatraz: So Close to Freedom

I wrote n article for Criminal Element on Alcatraz past and present, Ai Weiwei’s art exhibits and meeting a former inmate when I visited the island last year.

Read it here:

Visiting Alcatraz: So Close to Freedom

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The Dirty, Criminal Past of Grand Central Terminal

I went on a guided, behind the scenes tour of Grand Central Terminal with some crime writers during BookExpo America. Danny Brucker was our guide, a boisterous and funny character out of a Westlake novel. Plenty of photos, trivia, and lesser-known history  at my Criminal Element article, ‘The Dirty, Criminal Past of Grand Central Terminal.’

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