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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

BROOKLYN EASE

YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN


Thomas Wolfe’s short story, Only The Dead Know Brooklyn, appeared in 1935—just three years before his death at age thirty-seven.  Wolfe, a native of the American South, wrote the story in dialect:

You ain’t neveh gonna get to know Brooklyn. Not in a hunderd yeahs. Dere’s no guy livin’ dat knows Brooklyn. It’d take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo. An’ even den, yuh wouldn’t know it all.
There is no guy living that knows Brooklyn—therefore, only the dead know Brooklyn.

I grew up in one of the largest, most diverse cities in the world.  At the same time, I grew up in a place that could hardly have been more small town or more homogeneous.  Where Nick, who owned the corner grocery, knew every kid by name—as did Frank the barber and Audrey at the Laundromat and Mr. Baker at the candy store and Vito who sold fruit on the street out of a horse drawn wagon. Gravesend was exclusively working class, Italian-American, and segregated from other Brooklyn neighborhoods—and it was our entire world until we were old enough to brave crossing its borders.  A baseball park in Bensonhurst, a high school in Fort Greene, a discotheque in Sheepshead Bay, a girlfriend in Bay Ridge—exploration—and savvy about the borough increased exponentially as we grew older, as we took to subways, buses and eventually automobiles. But most other neighborhoods—Park Slope, Canarsie, Midwood, Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, East New York—remained mysterious, some considered off-limits. Brooklyn was a loose conglomerate of autonomous neighborhoods, too vast to ever fully know in a lifetime. Thomas Wolfe from North Carolina was on to something.

I left the bosom of Gravesend and Brooklyn in my early twenties, on an adventure in Ohio called graduate school—and from there my migration, for the most part, carried me further and further west. 
By the time I wrote the first detective novel I was replanted—and Jake Diamond became a Brooklyn expatriate working out of San Francisco.
After three Jake Diamond mysteries, set primarily in San Francisco and Los Angeles, I felt compelled to write a Brooklyn story—return to my origins.  The result was Gravesend, titled for the Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up. It was a more personal journey, and the setting was a very important character in that novel. I felt very comfortable writing Brooklyn—at home, at ease. Brooklyn is unique simply because it is Brooklyn—it is not like any other place—and it is a perfect setting for crime fiction because, admirably or not, it has such a rich history of criminal activity. I grew up around many people involved with organized crime—it was everywhere at every level—and at times I depended on some of these people to protect me from collateral damage. There is no shortage of mobsters in my Brooklyn stories. 
Times have changed in Brooklyn since my formative years, but there is still a heritage that survives through generations of storytelling and family ties.  Even today, there is still something recognizable in the words of Betty Smith from her seminal novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:

There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly—survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.

     Brooklyn is where there are still Brooklyn Dodger fans more than fifty years after the team left for California.
     Brooklyn is where the Brooklyn Bridge starts.
     Brooklyn is where you can take your eight-year-old granddaughter on a rollercoaster you first rode when you were an eight-year-old.
     Brooklyn is Junior’s Cheesecake, Nathan’s hot dogs, and L&B pizza.
     Brooklyn is Coney Island.
     Brooklyn is where the Atlantic Ocean defines summer.
     Brooklyn is stick ball and slap ball.
     Brooklyn is evenings on the stoop.
     Brooklyn is refuge.


Writing Brooklyn gave me an opportunity to remember and reflect, as in this excerpt from Gravesend:

Murphy and his dog walk past John Paul Jones Park toward the Shore Road promenade. A heavy fog engulfs the ancient cannon and the stack of cannonballs left over from another revolution.
They walk down to the water’s edge.
Murphy can hear the scurrying of small animals in the dense bushes.
Ralph is all ears.
Murphy stands at the railing, gazing out at the bridge while Ralph chases shadows.
The massive, concrete piling is the tomb of a luckless construction worker who fell and disappeared into a molten grave. Another immigrant who came to build a new world.
Murphy looks out across to Staten Island, once only accessible by ferry. Beyond the island, New Jersey and California and all of those unknown places in between.
And beyond, the Pacific and all of those unknowable places that Murphy has only read about.
Murphy takes an unsung pride in the fact that people from nearly every foreign land beyond both seas have come here, have carried their children, their hopes and their dreams to Brooklyn.
The Narrows beats up against the rocky shoreline below.



And this:

It is a cold and cloudy afternoon, the first Friday in February.
The wind chill factor races across the rooftop.
Joe Campo turns away from Detectives Vota and Samson and the small body lying on the tar surface behind them. Campo gazes down at the street corner, directly across the avenue, where his wife stands at the door of their family owned and operated food market. A pair of teenage boys take turns slapping a rubber ball against the west brick wall of the grocery.
Campo’s Food Market is the only grocery, delicatessen, newsstand and produce shop remaining in the neighborhood that is not owned and operated twenty-four hours a day by Korean immigrants or owned by Boston or Canadian entrepreneurs and operated by Indian or Pakistani clerks. Not necessarily a bad thing. Just not the way things used to be.
Little was as it used to be in Gravesend.
Lieutenant Samson stares at Joe Campo’s back and waits patiently.
Joe Campo remains at the ledge, silently.
“Mr. Campo,” says Samson, just above a whisper.
“When we were his age,” Campo says, referring to the boy on the roof, “we would sneak up here to fly a kite; my friends Eddie and Carlo and me. The kite set us back ten cents at old man Baker’s Candy Store across the avenue. We would pick up a bag of penny candies while we were there, when penny candies actually cost a penny, or two for a penny. Tiny wax Coca-Cola bottles filled with brown-colored sugar water. Giant fireballs. Pink and white sugar tabs stuck on strips of waxed paper. Chocolate-covered marshmallow twists. And then we’d pick up hero sandwiches at Nick’s salumeria, before it was Angelo’s and then Vito’s and then ours. Ham, hard salami, Swiss cheese and gobs of yellow mustard on half a loaf of seeded Italian bread still warm from Sabatino’s Bakery on Avenue S. Twenty-five cents each.”
Vota is about to interrupt; Samson stops him with a hand gesture.
Joe Campo looks out toward Coney Island, at the 250-foot tall steel framed Parachute Jump ride that had been moved from the 1939 World’s Fair to Steeplechase Park in the forties. The landmark attraction has not carried a passenger for more than thirty years.
“This apartment house was one of the tallest buildings in the neighborhood. Still is at that,” Campo goes on. “We thought if we started up here we’d be closer to the sky. One of us would have to run down to Baker’s every ten minutes or so for another ball of string, two hundred fifty more feet for a nickel. We would watch the paper kite sail toward the ocean, followed by a long tail we had made out of strips torn from one my father’s old handkerchiefs. We were sure we could fly the thing all the way to Europe, wherever we thought that was. When the long pieced-together string inevitably snapped we were positive that the kite would eventually come down to land somewhere in France or Germany.”



          And from Brooklyn Justice:

At ten the next morning I sat in my office which in turn sat above Totonno’s Pizzeria on Neptune Avenue two blocks from the beach and the ocean that separated me from a thousand places I had only read about.
My great grandfather and Antonio Pero had been childhood friends, since the days at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village when it was the neighborhood grade school for the children of Little Italy before it was a cost prohibitive private school for all but the new upper class.  Pero bought the property on Neptune in 1924, a three story brick apartment building attached to a one story storefront, and opened a pizzeria with a coal-fired brick oven that would become legendary.  It was considered by many aficionados as among the best pies in New York City, never sold by the slice and never traded for anything but cash.  When my grandmother died, and my grandfather Giuseppe Ventura refused to be moved into the home of any of his children, Pero’s son offered him two small rooms above a Beauty Salon in the apartment building adjacent to the pizza shop.  Antonio’s grand-daughter, who had been like an aunt to me growing up, now ran the pizzeria and still burned coal.  When Giuseppe met his maker, and I needed a place to set up my PI business, ‘Aunt’ Carmella let me have the rooms for the same monthly rent they had charged the old man.  I knew she could get a lot more for the space and I told her so.     
“Think of it like a grandfather clause,” Carmella had said, smiling, and we shook hands on the deal.
An ancient window fan was noisily trying without success to battle the elements.  The dog day temperature had already soared into the low nineties and the humidity was off the charts.  I stripped down to what was referred to as a white ribbed tank top by the youngsters and a wife beater t-shirt by the old-timers.  I had given the Widow Lincoln my business card.  After Freddy’s little history lesson I was hoping she wouldn’t call.  I checked the voice mail on the office answering machine.  Nothing cooking.  I phoned Tom Romano, an old sidekick who had connections, and asked for a favor.  He said he would get right on it and we set up a lunch meet for one o’clock at Clemente’s in Sheepshead Bay.  I went through the mail.  All bills, no payments.  I leafed through the sports section of the Post, which took up nearly the entire back half of the rag, looking for any news that might offer hope for the Mets.  No luck.  As it approached noon, I was so hungry I was about to run the two blocks to Nathan’s at the boardwalk for a hot dog appetizer when there was a light rap on the office door.  I threw on my white button down Van Heusen and tucked it into my black Haggar pleated slacks.
Standard advice for writers has long been: Write what you know.
I would add to that: Remember where you came from.
Writing Gravesend and the latest work, Brooklyn Justice, were edifying experiences.
Thomas Wolfe wrote, You Can’t Go Home Again. 
I’ll disagree.
Rather, as T.S. Eliot said:

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
J. L. Abramo was born in the seaside paradise of Brooklyn, New York on Raymond Chandler's fifty-ninth birthday. Abramo is the author of Catching Water in a Net, winner of the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel; the subsequent Jake Diamond novels Clutching at Straws, Counting to Infinity, and Circling the Runway; Chasing Charlie Chan, a prequel to the Jake Diamond series; and the stand-alone thriller Gravesend.  Abramo’s latest work is Brooklyn Justice.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

EVEN FICTIONAL CHARACTERS NEED TO EAT

In mystery and crime fiction, as in life, characters exhibit degrees of good and evil, failure and success, they live and die and, unless they are robots or androids, they need to eat.

Food had always been present and often telling in my novels.  Whether a question of what they eat, where they eat, when they eat, if they have an opportunity to eat—food can reveal much about the characters and their relationships.  

And meetings in cafés and restaurants can make for delicious encounters.

Jake Diamond, the protagonist in four novels, works out of a private investigation office above an Italian salumeria in San Francisco’s North Beach.  Food is always nearby.  COUNTING TO INFINITY begins:

The scent of deep-fried calamari floated in through my office window like an invitation to triple bypass surgery.


The delicatessen also serves to highlight the difference in the eating habits of Diamond and his associate Darlene Roman.  Darlene does not eat meat, while Jake, as all good Russian-Italian-Americans, cannot do without it.  In CIRCLING THE RUNWAY, when Jake voices strong dislike for Darlene’s decision to act as bait for a sexual predator, Darlene reminds him:

You don’t like tofu either, but that never stopped me.


Describing food can add color and taste, and the presence of food can play into the action.  In COUNTING TO INFINITY, Jake describes a meeting with his nemesis in a Chicago airport:

Between the chairs stood a glass-topped table holding a silver tray covered with tiny sandwiches, crackers, and a mound of foie gras that cost some poor fowl a lot more than an arm and a leg. The bread was ink-jet black, the crusts had been cut off, and the beef spilling from the corners was so rare it made tartare look overdone. The crackers were multi-grain, ten or eleven at least.  They had the appearance of untanned shoe leather.  The chopped liver looked as appetizing as corned beef hash.  Granted, I wasn’t very hungry, and I’d had my fill of goose for the day. The cinnamon roll that I inhaled while dashing to make take-off was like eating a down comforter.


Later, the same food tray adds flavor to a physical confrontation:

I began to turn toward the door when a cannonball, which had to be Ralph Battle’s fist, struck me in the back between the shoulder blades and knocked me straight to the floor.  My right elbow hit the food tray, flipping it end over end into the air.  The pâté did a fine job of turning a Norman Rockwell on the wall behind Lansdale into a Jackson Pollock.


Food can help set the occasion.  In CIRCLING THE RUNWAY, as Jake prepares to celebrate St. Joseph’s Day with friends, he considers inviting Darlene to join them:

Darlene would not eat meat, and my dining habits and the variety of cooked animals I regularly brought into the office made it difficult for her to be in the same room. Angela’s dinner table would be a meat lover’s dream, but her salads and vegetable side dishes were legendary and meatless. Joey would surely have the very best Chianti on hand. And the Zeppole di San Giuseppe, fist-sized golden pastry prepared traditionally for St. Joseph’s Day, was a cream-filled miracle even Darlene found tough to resist.


Later, the allusion serves to help Diamond describe a reluctant meeting with a killer:

I would be discreetly followed to the rendezvous, I would be well protected from any possible harm, and then the bad guy would be apprehended and brought to justice. A piece of cake. One far less appealing than Zeppole di San Giuseppe.


Food can also serve to add a bit of history to the proceedings. In CHASING CHARLIE CHAN, Jimmy Pigeon and Ray Boyle meet at a landmark restaurant:

“It is generally accepted as a historical fact that the French dip was originally created at Philippe’s in downtown Los Angeles in 1918.
“According to legend, Philippe Mathieu, the French born proprietor, accidentally dropped a sliced French roll into the pan of hot juices while preparing a sandwich.
“The patron, a Los Angeles policeman named French, told Philippe to use the bread as it was. The next day Officer French returned with a group of fellow lawmen, each asking for their bread to be juice-dipped.”
“So,” Jimmy asked, “was the sandwich named after the Frenchman, the bread or the cop?”
“Who cares?” said Ray Boyle.



In COUNTING TO INFINITY, food is also employed to suggest regional cultural differences:

       I suppose I expected Chicago-style pizza to be very thick, that a leftover slice could be used for a step exerciser. In fact, the deep-dish concoction looked more like the pan it was baked in. The crust was a thin circle with high sides, creating a large crusty bowl into which the ingredients were poured. First in was the cheese, followed by the Italian sausage, which Eddie claimed was a must, red bell peppers and Portobello mushrooms. Finally, tomato sauce covered the works. We sat at a pizza parlor not far from Eddie’s place and the ballpark. Eddie assured me the pie was as good as any you could find in the city, that it was shipped in dry ice to customers all over the country.
     “So, I could have one delivered to me in San Francisco.”
    “Sure, if you don’t mind paying sixty bucks.”
   "For sixty dollars, the thing had better do my laundry when it gets there.”


In the stand-alone thriller, GRAVESEND, a scene in a diner introduces pivotal characters and sets up dramatic future events:

“Good morning, gents,” says Bill Meyers, bouncing into Mitch’s Coffee Shop and taking a seat at the counter. “Long time, no see, Gabriel.”
“Been very busy, Bill,” says Gabriel Caine, working on a plate of eggs and home fries at the adjacent stool.
“I’ll have the special, Mitch,” says Bill, “scrambled well and with a little less hair.”
“I add the hair for the extra protein,” says Mitch, breaking two eggs onto the griddle.
“Drop a few fingernail clippings into my coffee cup,” says Meyers. “That should take care of my minimum daily requirement. Been working, Gabriel?”
“Yes. And you?”
“I just started a major renovation over on Ovington Place,” says Meyers. “Remodeling the kitchen and bathroom and finishing a basement. Should keep me in groceries for the rest of the month.”
“How well done do you want these eggs, Bill?”
“Burn them. Are you taking a vacation this winter, Mitch?”
“You bet. A week from today. Thirteen days in sunny San Juan,” says Mitch Dunne. “Which reminds me, I’d better get a sign up on the door saying that we’ll be closed.”
“Closed?” says Harry Johannsen, walking into the shop.
“Vacation,” says Mitch, plating the eggs.
“Where am I going to get stale rye toast while you’re gone?” asks Harry, grabbing a seat next to Gabriel.
“I’ll fix you a few orders to go before I leave,” says Mitch, placing the plate on the counter.
“Where’s the hair?” asks Harry, checking Bill’s food.
“Mitch used it all up in my omelet,” says Gabriel.
“Pass the ketchup,” says Bill.


In BROOKLYN JUSTICE, Nick Ventura is treated to homemade delicacies while recuperating in a hospital from a gunshot wound:

Angela popped in at nine, moved the hospital table into place, and set down a plate wrapped in aluminum foil. I uncovered a perfect frittata—eggs, potatoes, garlic, onion, sweet red pepper and grated pecorino Romano. It was a beautiful sight.
“What, no Thomas’ English muffin?”
“I couldn’t resist, I devoured it on my way over.”
“Did you whip this up?”
“All by myself.”
“It’s a work of art.”
“I can have it framed for you.”
“It looks too good to eat.”
“Well, decide, either eat it while it’s still warm or ask it to marry you.”


And later, a touch of Italian culture:

Angela returned at half past six with a large bowl of Ziti Siciliana. The bowl matched the breakfast plate.
“Whip this up also?”
“I could have, but it was a busy day. I pulled it out of the freezer. My mother never lets me go home from a Sunday dinner visit without taking leftovers. Eat while it’s still piping hot from the microwave in the nurses’ break room. I need to make arrangements for your release. I expect to see an empty bowl when I get back.”
“Or else?”
“Or else I’ll tell my mother.”


The setting of a story—San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Brooklyn—can be as an important character as any other.  Similarly, the cultural backgrounds of protagonists and antagonists can add color and authenticity.  Food serves well in contributing to a stronger sense of the flavor of a place and the character of a person.


Good appetite.
















Saturday, January 23, 2016

BROOKLYN JUSTICE

LOOK INSIDE THE BOOK


NICK VENTURA

Nick Ventura is a Brooklyn born and raised private investigator of Italian-American heritage who wanted to be an NYPD detective when he grew up.  Unfortunately, by the time he realized the aspiration, poor decisions he had made in his past disqualified him from that particular calling and he eventually chose to try his hand at gumshoeing.


BROOKLYN



After the first three Jake Diamond mysteries, set primarily in San Francisco and Los Angeles, I felt compelled to write a Brooklyn story—to return to my roots.  The result was Gravesend, titled for the Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up.  It was a more personal journey and the setting was a very important character in the story.  I am comfortable there—in much the same way Dennis Lehane is at home writing Boston and George Pelecanos is at home writing DC.  Brooklyn is unique because it is Brooklyn—it is not like any other place—and is it a perfect setting for crime fiction because it has such a rich history of criminal activity.

As T.S. Eliot said—We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.  That was my experience in revisiting Brooklyn for Gravesend and Brooklyn Justice.


The book began as a short story that went too long but didn’t want to be a full length novel—so I had a novella called Pocket Queens.  When it was done, Nick Ventura wouldn’t let me go.  He drove me to write five short stories involving him.  They appear sequentially—covering a period of ten months—and feature many recurring supporting characters.  Call it what you will.  A collection of shorter fiction.  A novel in stories.  Or simply Brooklyn Justice.

In Brooklyn Justice, through six autonomous yet interconnected stories, there is no shortage of villains—including mob wise guys, professional hit men, corrupt businessmen, gold diggers, drug dealers, corrupt cops, gamblers, extortionists, vigilantes, street punks—but often circumstances, particularly the search for illusive justice, can lead good people to break the law and blur the line between the heroes and the villains. 




                                                 THE PARTS

POCKET QUEENS (August)
When Nick Ventura sat down at the poker game in Atlantic City he figured all he had to lose was the two grand in his pocket and the Coney Island blues—but when he is dragged into a murder investigation he has no appetite for and becomes a target himself, what Ventura loses is his temper.

BUICK IN A BEAUTY SHOP (November)
When a car crash on the street below his office sends his desk lamp to the floor, Nick Ventura runs down simply to assess the damage—but when he finds an envelope addressed to him in the Buick with its dead passenger, Ventura realizes the trouble is just beginning.



THE LAST RESORT (March)
When Nick Ventura reluctantly agreed to help a friend in a jam he was hoping he would just need to get his feet wet—but when his friend is framed for murder, Ventura soon finds himself in over his head.



WALKING THE DOG (April)
When Nick’s old friend John Sullivan wakes up in a hospital bed after twenty days in a coma he is confronted with nagging questions.  Will he ever walk again—and who shot him in the back and why.


ROSES FOR UNCLE SAL (May)
When John Sullivan reaches out to Nick for help it is extraordinary—it is usually Ventura who pesters John for assistance.  To thwart the danger to Sullivan’s family, Nick finds himself once again on the road to Atlantic City.



THE FIST (June)
When a Mob Boss is gunned down in front of a Brooklyn restaurant, Nick Ventura is not particularly interested—but when the victim’s father wants to hire Ventura to find the assassin, he makes Ventura an offer Nick can’t refuse.



If grit, hard guys, and the rhythm of the mean streets is your thing, BROOKLYN JUSTICE has got them in spades and J.L. Abramo is your man.
—Reed Farrel Coleman
New York Times Bestselling author of “Where it Hurts”

J.L Abramo writes noir the way God and Hammett intended—tough, terse and smart.  BROOKLYN JUSTICE is a great read with razor-sharp prose and a compelling cast.  Nick Ventura is my kind of PI.
—Michael Koryta
New York Times Bestselling author of “Those Who Wish Me Dead”

In BROOKLYN JUSTICE, award winning author J.L. Abramo again demonstrates his firm grasp on the language and morality of his native streets, with as many surprises as there are casualties. An ideal follow-up to his acclaimed novel GRAVESEND.
—The Denver Review