Captain Billy

Wilford “Captain Billy” Fawcett was a one-off, a flamboyant character who fought in World War I, became a newspaper reporter in Minneapolis, then started a magazine, Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, in 1919. It was intended to be a joke magazine for servicemen around the Twin Cities, but it took off and gained a national readership. Each issue began with a long piece by Captain Billy, called “Drippings from the Fawcett,” in which he talked about his life. The humor he published was bawdy for the time, and he wrote most of the jokes – especially the ones disguised as answers to questions readers sent in. – Sample:

What is Golf? – Ignoramus

Dear Ig: Golf is a game where old men chase little balls around when they are too old to chase anything else.

Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang sold so well that the Captain got rich, started another magazine, True Confessions, got richer and began hanging out with celebrities. In 1921 he acquired some land on Pelican Lake in north central Minnesota and built the Breezy Point Resort. Throughout the 20s, Breezy Point was a hangout for movie stars and millionaires. Guests included Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Tom Mix, Jack Dempsey and an aspiring politician named Harry Truman, who later bragged about his success playing Captain Billy’s slot machines. The Captain built a dance hall on another lake nearby, and was instrumental in turning what was basically a wilderness into a thriving vacation scene.

Fawcett publications expanded to publish pulp magazines, comic books and Mechanix Illustrated, and was a successful company right up until its sale in the 1980s.

You heard a lot about Captain Billy when I was growing up in St. Paul, and I always wanted to include him in a story. Indian Rose, published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 2009, is loosely based on some tales I heard about him, some other local characters, and their involvement in a bank robbery. Download Indian Rose free, and if you like it try Smoke Got In My Eyes, a novel with the same protagonist, detective Martin McDonough.

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Noir

A newspaper columnist who was kind enough to write about a book of mine once asked me what “noir” is. I know it when I see it, I replied, after a long pause. It was the best I could do, and that was just because I’d seen enough black and white movies that fit the bill to know what they look like – rainy, grainy, at least one world-weary guy in a trenchcoat and one wisecracking,  sultry-looking dame with a steely exterior and a soft heart.

As for written noir, that’s a different story (no pun intended). A lot of detective stories are simply cop procedurals minus the cop, but they’re called noir because they’re detective stories.

I was challenged to write a noir story for an anthology several years back, so I invoked the formula as I understood it. The printed page took care of the black and white. I added a detective protagonist, set it in the 1930s and worked certain moral ambiguities into the plot. It was successful enough to be nominated for the Shamus Award, so I kept on writing stories about that detective. They were published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, in a section called The Black Mask – the name of a magazine that published classic noir back in the day.

When I look at those stories now it’s obvious that some were more noir than others. Indian Rose was the most successful in that respect.

Indian Rose is about a murder, two murders actually, but one is no mystery. The victim lived by a code and chose to violate it, so his days were numbered. The tale revolves around the other one. The detective is hired to find out who killed a 16 year old girl, and in the course of doing so loses his professional perspective to the extent that he wants to avenge her death. How he copes with that is the subtext, and it’s also what stamps the story as noir. It was published in the June 2009 issue of Ellery Queen’s.

Click this link for a free download of Indian Rose on my website. Whatever else that story might be, it’s noir, in my opinion. I’d be interested to hear if you agree.

And if you’re interested, check out my new noir novel, Smoke Got In My Eyes.

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Born Again P.I.

Private detective Martin McDonough was born twice, first in 2005, when he popped into my head after Akashic Books asked me to write a short story for its’ Noir series, then again in 1900, when I began filling him out as a character.

I wanted McDonough to age in lock-step with the 20th century because I had a life in mind for him. It began when he and the century were in their mid-30s, a perfect age for a street-wise PI, and exactly the right decade for a noir story set in St. Paul, a notorious hangout for Depression-era gangsters. The St. Paul police were corrupt, and the protection they offered was priced to sell.

Although McDonough is among the twice-born, he is not a religious man. He’s a fallen-away Catholic and a hard drinker, a type I am familiar with from my own youth when I had some good friends who fit that description, one of whom McDonough is loosely based upon. He waits until late afternoon for his first drink, and takes it at a bar where the cops hang out, thus turning what could be construed as a crippling liability into a major asset. Most of the cops are Irish too, and because they have a lot in common with him, and he has a gift for conviviality, they are forever giving him off the record information. That’s his stock in trade.

The Martin McDonough story I wrote for Twin Cities Noir was nominated for the Shamus Award, which prompted me to write several more short stories that were published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and then a novel, Smoke Got In My Eyes, that takes McDonough into middle age.

His World War II experience in some ways parallels that of my uncle, who was drafted when he was too old for combat except in a real pinch, which never came. He spent the duration in a camp near Gilroy, Ca. where he and his buddies occasionally hunted deer with their Garland M-1 rifles, but otherwise never squeezed a trigger. He drank some when he went into the army, and had become a full-blown alcoholic by the time he was discharged. There wasn’t much else to do, he told me years later, when he was an AA member and mentor to younger people who had a drinking problem.

That doesn’t sound like something that’s in the cards for Martin McDonough. The novel ends shortly after the war ends. He has taken up residence in San Francisco. He’s hanging out in a jazz joint, and doing some pre-trial investigative work for a lawyer who represents North Beach mobsters (McDonough refers to them as “moblets,” in contrast to the gun-happy gangsters he knew back in the day).

If you’re interested in sampling the McDonough tales, a short story featuring him called “Indian Rose”, first published in Ellery Queen’s, is available free by clicking this link. If you like it, there is a handy link to purchase Smoke Got In My Eyes.

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A Dead Dog’s Teeth

If you wrote feature articles for magazines like I did in the 1990s, something you heard about but rarely experienced is the phenomenon of “doors being opened for you.” If it happens – and it happened to me in 1991 – labor intensive tasks like running down leads, finding phone numbers, cajoling sources to go on the record, finding and copying documents – all the drudgery that feature writing entails (which was way drudgier before the internet) just dissolves. Documents appear in your mailbox, or at your door. You don’t have to call sources, they call you. They start talking, pause, and say things like, “you might want to record this.”

To download the FREE “Indian Rose” short story, click here. The story I was working on concerned Ralph Nau, an eroto-maniacal stalker who once mailed a dead dog’s teeth to Olivia Newton John as a declaration of love. Nau scared a couple of A list celebrities so badly that they contracted for protection with Gavin de Becker, security consultant to the stars. Once de Becker takes over he handles all requests for information, and the answer routinely is no. But in the case of Ralph Nau, who was stalking de Becker’s clients Cher and Newton-John, a strange turn of events made publicizing the situation important. Suddenly doors were opened for me.

The precautions de Becker takes for his clients are so comprehensive that any threat someone like Nau might pose is neutralized. The only risk is to the stalker. In the unlikely event that he penetrates the outer rings of protection his life is in peril, because as a last resort de Becker’s operatives will shoot him. That has never happened (so far as I know), and it was easy to see why when de Becker described his methods. A poor soul like Ralph Nau, who never had a friend in his life, was never alone once de Becker was on the case. Security agents followed him night and day. They sat next to him when he went to a movie, stood in line behind him when he went to McDonald’s for his solitary evening meal, stood watch outside his door when he was in his room (which was practically a shrine to Newton-John) and tailed him whenever he left.

Eventually Nau became so frustrated at his inability to make contact with Newton-John, Cher, or several other actresses he was in love with that he left LA, and went back home to rural Illinois. Shortly thereafter he murdered his eight year old step-brother, a crime for which he’s never been held accountable. He was deemed too disturbed to stand trial, and he’s been in legal never-never land ever since. In 1991 there was some fear that he’d be released from the mental health facility where he was being held, and Nau’s Hollywood victims were afraid he’d be wind up back in LA. They wanted the story I was writing for Chicago Magazine to be published before his case was considered. The story, “Star Stalker”, appears in The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night, published by Calumet Editions.

Last I heard Nau was still in custody in the Illinois mental health system. He remains eligible to petition for release, and does so regularly. He has developed an interest in several female television personalities. He thinks they’re communicating with him through the screen. The letters he sometimes manages to send them are pretty disconcerting, but the likelihood of his release is so remote that they aren’t too worried.

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The Furniture Stripper’s Tale

The Furniture Stripper’s tale is a story of true pathology. It’s hard to say if The Stripper’s paranoia was due to genetics, drug use or constant exposure to methylene chloride, but he was one of the weirdest criminals I ever met in a long career of crime writing.

He was a talented craftsman who restored old furniture, sold it in the Minneapolis antique trade and smoked a lot of weed in the process. Weed is said to make some people paranoid, and it may have had that effect on him, although nowhere near as pronounced as it later became. “He was always shy,” his girl friend told me, “and being around people all the time just got to be too much for him.”

In 1992 the two of them bought an abandoned farmhouse and a few acres in Pine County, a bleak neck of the woods far from the city. It was supposed to be a place to get away from it all for a few days at a time, but to his girl friend’s dismay, The Stripper set up shop there permanently. She continued to come on weekends, always with groceries because he was hesitant to drive to a nearby town for essentials. Over the course of two years he became almost totally reclusive, although he somehow managed to find a connection and started smoking crack obsessively. He used his carpentry skills to turn the farmhouse into a fortress, complete with gun turrets and booby traps rigged to trip loaded weapons.

The basement became a poorly-ventilated workspace, where he continued to strip furniture using the standard stripping agent, methylene chloride, one of the most lethal of all industrial chemicals. He turned out lots of cabinets, chairs and tables, enough to finance his drug habits, which included meth, cocaine, marijuana and a pharmacopeia of downers. The place reeked of methylene chloride, which should have been worrisome, since the maximum exposure a human being can tolerate is well below the odor threshold. Symptoms of acute exposure include giddiness, confusion and delirium. By 1996 he’d begun calling the Pine County Sheriff’s office frequently, usually to report imaginary home invasions, but once to say that Martians had landed in the yard.

The Furniture Stripper’s tale ended about as well as it could have, with a few years imprisonment for a drug charge. I don’t know what became of him after that, but when I spoke with him in the courtroom on sentencing day he seemed relieved. He just shrugged when I asked how he’d managed to assemble the vast arsenal that was confiscated when he was arrested. “Buying guns was easy, he said. “My problem was getting enough stripper to keep working.”Family-Cover-230x335

Duped and Deluded

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a “delusion” is a false belief held without reservation – usually as a result of self-deception or mental disorder – and often leading to harm.

I came into contact with some people in the grip of a delusion when I wrote about a double murder in the small Wisconsin town of Hudson. The perpetrator was a young priest with a messiah complex. He hung himself when he was about to be arrested, and henceforth became known to his followers – who sensed Satan at work when they contemplated his fate – as “The Hanged Priest.”

During his priesthood The Hanged Priest had a coterie of admirers numbering in the dozens. Most of them just liked the way he celebrated the Mass – a lively, one-man show in Latin (pidgin-Latin, he couldn’t actually speak the language but he faked it pretty well), climaxed by a teary-eyed elevation of the Eucharist high above his head for a full two minutes. He wore a monk’s cassock during the performance, and often could be seen on the streets of Hudson in the same outfit.

The congregants who were wowed by his liturgical histrionics were referred to by the other parishioners as “kneelers”, because they knelt while the Host was elevated. A sub-group among the kneelers had all the earmarks of a cult. By the time I interviewed some of them it was well-known that the priest had committed two murders to cover up the fact that he’d been using his ministry to groom young boys for sex. According to investigators, several abused boys had been forcibly prevented from talking to the police by their parents. It wasn’t until those boys reached adulthood and asserted their right to tell the truth that the full facts became known.

I talked to the mother of two boys who were probably (the records are confidential) among his victims. She practically worshiped The Hanged Priest, and did everything she could to convince me that “this holy man” had been framed. She said allegations that he was a pedophile would be laughable if they hadn’t caused the poor fellow such misery, and proudly described how her sons went to night prayers and on fishing trips with him. Later, when an open hearing was held to present evidence of The Hanged Priest’s guilt, and put his motives on record, this same mom knelt at the courthouse door with a rosary in her hand, and shouted that everything the prosecutors and witnesses said were lies. Her husband was comparatively low-key, but just as deluded. “He did everything passionately,” he said of the priest. “Preach, hunt, fish, drink beer. He just reeked passion.”

Of course, he hid his real passion in plain sight, facilitated by a group of people so deluded that they sacrificed their own children.

The story of The Hanged Priest appears in The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night, an anthology of true crime stories I wrote, published by Calumet editions.

Poverty-Stricken

Poor is one thing, poverty-stricken is another. I came to grips with the difference when I wrote about the O’Kasick brothers, a gang of three armed robbers who struck about a dozen times in Minneapolis in the 1950s.

The O’Kasick’s crime spree came to a halt when they got into a gunfight with the police, killed one cop, crippled another one for life and got away clean. At that point they’d stolen more than $20,000 over a 15 month period, real money in those days, yet they barely had cash for gas to make their getaway. They hid out in what is now the Boundary Waters wilderness, where horseflies and mosquitoes feasted on them and they slept in their car for lack of blankets. They weren’t stupid, in fact the leader, Roger O’Kasick, was pretty bright, but they were children of poverty and all the money in the world couldn’t change that.

They had 10 brothers and sisters, a father who routinely beat his sons and raped his daughters, and a mother who, according to an older sister, “fell apart and died one day when we were kids. She wasn’t sick or nothing, she just couldn’t take it any more.” Dad had the boys out boosting car parts when they were eight years old. He sent them to local junkyards to sell what they’d stolen, while he lurked outside and confiscated whatever cash they received. A couple of them went to reform school for those thefts.

One summer day when the O’Kasick brothers were children, a probation officer came around. He was trying to find their father. Dad was out on a bender, but their mom talked to the officer, who took note of her “distraught, downcast demeanor and disheveled appearance.” When he inquired about the welts all over her hands and face, she explained that they didn’t have much in the way of screens, so the mosquitoes bit them. “We can’t sleep at night,” she said.

If they can’t afford to get the screens fixed, poor people find boards or some other crummy-looking thing and use it to patch the windows. Poverty-stricken people lay awake all night and let the mosquitoes bite them.

Roger and two of his brothers started robbing stores in their mid-20s. Roger planned the robberies. They went off like clockwork. In the shootout with the police, which came about due to a fluke when they were on their way to rob a supermarket, it was Roger’s forethought that put them in a position to outgun their pursuers and elude the massive dragnet put in place to capture them. Nevertheless, he was at a loss when they sat in the woods and tried to figure out what came next. His imagination hit a wall.

The O’Kasicks emerged from the wilderness less than a week after they arrived, and made a bee-line for the worst place in the world they could go, back to Minneapolis and their fate. The title of the story I wrote about them is “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night”. It’s in the book by the same title, published by Calumet Editions.

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The Laredo Marijuana Racket

The scam was elegant in its simplicity. It rested on the complicity of federal judges who ignored the Constitution, while prosecutors and defense lawyers conspired to force people who were busted taking small amounts of marijuana across the border at Laredo to plead guilty to a legal fiction – violation of The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

Small time smugglers who were caught at Customs in Laredo in the 1960s were routinely charged with smuggling, possession and violation of the Tax Act. Smuggling and possession carried mandatory five year minimum sentences without the possibility of parole, but there was no minimum sentence or parole restriction attached to the tax charge, which rested on the assumption that upon crossing the border a rational person would present himself to a Customs officer, state that he was in possession of marijuana and ask to pay the tax. You’d be ratting on yourself, that was obvious, but the only advice local lawyers offered was make the deal. Most violators paused long enough to do the math and agreed, even though it sounded fishy.

Parole-eligible sentences were the carrot. Long sentences were the stick. There were dozens, sometimes more than 100 busts for marijuana every week at the Laredo crossing, and they all had to be processed smoothly through the legal system. Those who didn’t take the deal often received draconian sentences.

Parole was abolished in the federal prison system in 1987. That would have been curtains for the Laredo marijuana racket in any case, but it was squashed long before. Read about it in A Note on My Sources, one of the true crime stories in The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night, published by Calumet Editions.

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Crime is a Window Into History

The time and place I’ve written about, St. Paul in the 1930s, is so familiar it’s (almost) mundane, especially to me since I grew up there not too many years later. But the closer you look at what went on, the more remote and foreign it seems.

“The Layover,” a protection racket that the St. Paul police ran for high profile gangsters, unimaginable today, was a fact of life in Depression era St. Paul. Once a gangster paid the requisite fee, the police could guarantee him (very few hers – Ma Barker, a couple of John Dillinger’s girlfriends) city-wide, foolproof immunity from capture by the feds. And the gangsters didn’t have to lay low either. The practical impediments that the police put in place made arrests by the feds impossible in St. Paul. When the feds got so frustrated they simply had to make a move, they tried setting up ambushes and killing the fugitives they were after. That didn’t work either, because the police came to the rescue, but it made for some dramatic shootouts.

Police protecting gangsters wasn’t the only way justice was turned upside down in 30s St. Paul. According to the rules of The Layover, protection was rescinded if a fugitive committed any crimes within the city limits. That should have made St. Paul virtually crime free, but it actually served to increase the frequency of low-end robberies and other instances of what we call street crime today. The presence of celebrity criminals around town spawned a cadre of acolytes whose determination to make headlines trumped any common sense they might have possessed. Car thefts and grocery store holdups became common. Small banks were hit so often that many of them hired armed guards. The situation these wannabees created made the gangsters uneasy, and they often turned in groupies who tailed them around bragging about their exploits.

The feds tried to kill Dillinger at the Lincoln Court apartments in St Paul in 1934, and a wild gunfight ensued. I put it in a novel titled Smoke, published by Calumet Editions. Dillinger escaped with a leg wound. It’s hard to imagine in these days of GPS systems, drones and instant communication, but he and his girlfriend Billie Frechette got away in an easily identifiable blue car by weaving their way down side streets to Minneapolis, where a doctor who specialized in treating gangsters patched Dillinger up. He laid low awhile longer, then headed for Chicago and his rendevous with fate at the Biograph Theater.

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Strange Days in the Saintly City

A gossip columnist who wrote until the 1970s was the last newspaper man to use the appellation The Saintly City to describe St. Paul, but that was the tongue-in-cheek term that everyone, including cops and judges, once used in reference to what was a wide open town in many respects. The protection racket that the St. Paul Police ran for gangsters in the 1930s, and the peculiar culture it spawned, turned the Depression era into St. Paul’s own jazz age. Some of that attitude persisted for decades.

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Crime Lord Dan Hogan

In the 30s, any gangster could pay local crime lord Dan Hogan a fee that varied from $2000 to $30,000 depending on the payer’s means and notoriety, good for two years immunity from arrest and renewable at the discretion of the parties. Hogan split 50-50 with Police Chief John O’Connor. He pocketed the lion’s share of his end, but saw to it that all his men down to the lowliest turnkey at the city jail got a little something. That way they had skin in the game, and when an emergency arose, i.e. an attempted bust by the Bureau of Investigation (predecessor to the FBI), the cops functioned like a well-oiled machine to protect their wards.

“The Layover,” as the racket was called, was common knowledge among the citizenry. They also knew about the upside for them. Protection was a privilege not a right, and any crime committed within the city limits of St. Paul meant revocation. Thus, St. Paul was spared the robberies and deadly shootouts that plagued the rest of the Midwest. Relations were cordial between the likes of John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly and the local citizenry. Daring young folks even pestered the gangsters for autographs, and bought them drinks in local saloons in hopes of hearing tales of their exploits.

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Alvin “Creepy” Karpis

Alvin “Creepy” Karpis got his nickname from his unique autographing style. When a pretty girl approached him at a saloon like The Green Lantern or The Wabasha Caves, he would offer to sign her thigh if she would hike up her skirt while he knelt and slowly wrote his name. According to local legend, John Dillinger witnessed one of these signings, took note of the lip-smacking grimaces and lewd faces Karpis pulled while he was en flagrante graffito, and muttered “Creepy.” The name stuck, mostly because Alvin had a wry sense of humor that his semi-literate colleagues couldn’t appreciate. He also had a bone-chilling smile.

Sometimes the BI tried to ambush gangsters in St. Paul, but the Police usually managed to rescue them. I put a famous shootout between John Dillinger and the Feds into Smoke, a novel I wrote that is set in 1930s St. Paul, published by Calumet Editions. Dillinger escaped with a leg wound thanks to the cops, but the Feds killed him in Chicago a few months later. He never should have left The Saintly City.

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