Researching Gangsters to Gadgets
To paraphrase the memorable line from the movie Goodfellas: As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to write about gangsters.
The idea started when I was five years old. My grandmother, Mary, had been born in the early 1900s and told me how she grew up in the same neighborhood as James Cagney. She was always careful to point out that they were never friends, but she knew him by sight and reputation.
I was about five or six at the time. She could’ve told me they were great friends and I would’ve believed her, probably to this day. But her honesty about a casual connection to a cultural icon stuck with me and lent a lot of truth to the many stories she’d eventually tell me about her life.
She and my grandfather, Arthur, raised four children through the tail end of the Roaring Twenties and the bitter struggle we’ve come to call The Great Depression. Over the years, she worked in a brewery and in various factories during a time when they actually used to make things in New York City. My grandfather was a bookkeeper for a brewer and also played the piano in silent-movie houses in the years before Hollywood made “talkies.” My grandmother spoke about lean times and struggling to put enough food on the table for five people, but she was careful never to complain.
My grandparents’ story wasn’t unique. Most people of their generation had similar experiences and troubles. But hearing my grandmother tell it gave me an early appreciation for an important era that has since been skewed by various popular stereotypes. The 1920s and 1930s weren’t just about swanky nightclubs and fast cars and tough-talking thugs with tommy guns. It wasn’t about Jimmy Cagney or George Raft or Edward G. Robinson shooting it out with the police, either.
Her stories gave me a curiosity about that era that I later explored when I decided to try my hand at writing. I realized I wanted to tell a different kind of story from the police procedurals or the legal thrillers that always seemed to be popular. I decided to write of the era I’d spent a good portion of my early childhood hearing about.
I wanted to know more than just what I’d been told. I didn’t want to rely on my boyhood memories. That meant research and lots of it. The more research I did, the more I discovered that the 1920s and 1930s were a far more complicated era than I thought.
It was a postwar era in which the nation and the rest of the world were still reeling from a global conflict that saw 37 million people dead or wounded by the time it ended in 1918. The United States entered the conflict late but still managed to mobilize a force of over 5 million and suffered more than 250,000 casualties by the time it was over. Many of the returning soldiers had been wounded by bullets or shrapnel or suffered from the effects of mustard gas. They suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder back when they still called it “shell shock.” A largely naïve, isolated nation was suddenly forced to confront the grim realities of the world beyond their neighborhoods and cities and states. That realization didn’t happen in a vacuum and it had a profound effect on everyone alive at the time.
Prohibition became the law of the land after the war ended, giving birth to what we have come to call the Roaring Twenties. A war-weary populace willfully broke the law and lived as they chose. Women went to speakeasies unescorted, and the roots of a belief in equality began to take hold. But after nearly a decade of excess and post-war jubilation, the Roaring Twenties came to a crashing end as the Great Depression settled over the land.
At best, this is a cursory summation of the important events of time, but even in its brevity, it shows how life during the ’20s and ’30s was more than just fancy cars and bootleg booze. My research gave me an appreciation for a time I already loved and I wanted to do justice to it in my own way.
That’s why I chose to tell Prohibition from the point of view of the anti-hero: Terry Quinn, a professional killer trying to determine who is attempting to destroy his employer’s criminal empire. He’s not a cop looking to save his city. He’s not an earnest DA looking to wipe out corruption. Quinn is a criminal fighting to maintain his way of life. He’s an imperfect man for an imperfect time. He isn’t someone you’d want to sit next to on the subway or run into in a dark alley, yet the reader relates to him. Why? Because he’s ultimately trying to do the right thing, even though the right thing happens to be illegal. My research showed that people liked to cheer for the bad guys back in the 1930s, and I wanted to write a story that made a modern audience do the same thing.
I’d done so much research into the era that I decided I didn’t want to write just one novel about it. I’d created characters I wasn’t ready to leave behind. That’s why I set my next novel, Slow Burn, in New York City in the aftermath of the events of Prohibition. It’s told from the viewpoint of a supporting character in the first novel: corrupt detective Charlie Doherty. He’s very much a product of the Tammany Hall system I’d learned about in my research.
Once upon a time, Tammany Hall ran New York City. It was a notorious political machine that was more concerned with graft and stealing than the public good. I wrote it in the first-person narrative to reflect the public’s weariness with political corruption, along with the fears of the growing financial crisis that became The Great Depression. The book also details the tense mood and eventual civil unrest that occurred as jobs and food grew in short supply.
How did my research about the 1920s and 1930s help give me the idea for a techno-thriller set in the modern world? Because many of the same themes from that time are still relevant today. The country is once again weary from war. The underserved classes are struggling to be represented. People fear an uncertain future, and a distrust of government is leading to increasing civil unrest.
With Sympathy For The Devil, I didn’t want to write a story that simply updated the social conditions mirrored in my earlier work. I chose to write a techno-thriller showing that our fears have grown to include modern concerns, such as privacy and surveillance in a digital age. The setting might be modern, but the overall themes of struggle and loss are still the same.
If the research I’ve done for any of my novels has shown me anything, it’s that things aren’t that much different in the early twenty-first century than they were in the early twentieth. My grandmother may have not lived long enough to use the Internet or hold a smartphone, but I think she’d understand many of the same challenges people face today. We may live in a digital world, but we still have analog problems and concerns.
And just as it has always been, it’s up to us to find a way to make the best life of it as we can.