Thursday, May 27, 2010

El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles. Los Angeles. The wild, wild west indeed. Before the city, there was the 'hell hole of the west', the most violent place at the end of the Pacific Special. The place where everyone went when they had no place else to go. When you were driven out of everyplace else, you went west, just like Horace Greeley told you to. And once you hit Los Angeles that was the end of the road.

Los Angeles always attracted the outcast, the misfit, people on the run and people seeking change. There's never been anything normal or ordinary about the city of Angels or the people who inhabit it.

The first law in L.A. was a volunteer group of men who formed the Los Angeles Rangers in the early part of the nineteenth century. Unpaid, they lived off the largess of others for their equipment. The unit lasted roughly four years, then disbanded, leaving the already violent Los Angeles without a police presence. The county was overrun with bandits, gamblers, murderers and rustlers driven south by northern vigilantes. Vice of all kinds was not only legal, it was taxed.

To fill the void, the Vigilance Committee was formed in 1836. On October 13, 1854 Pinckney Clifford, a prominent businessman, was robbed and murdered by David Brown, a well-known bandit. The city Marshall jailed Brown, but the Vigilance Committee intended to take care of the killer. Mayor Stephen Foster intervened and convinced them to wait for the trial. But though convicted and sentenced to hang in January 12, 1855, his attorney convinced the California Supreme Court to grant a stay of execution. Instead another convicted murderer, a half-breed Indian was hanged.

Now provoked beyond reason, the Vigilance Committee, led by Mayor Stephen C Foster (who resigned his position to lead the lynch mob) forcibly removed Brown from his cell and hanged him. When Foster ran for re-election he was voted back in as Mayor on a landslide. Only in Los Angeles, you say? L.A. was also the first major metropolitan city to recall a Mayor from office, but that, as they say, is another story.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Review of TERMINATED, a novel by Simon Wood

TERMINATED is another brilliant Wood thriller. Who goes to work expecting to be terrorized and nearly driven mad? Work is supposed ot be mundane, even boring. Not in Simon Wood world.

In Gwen's world, a loving mother, with a wonderful husband and a 'miracle' daughter, born after they had given up hope of having children falls afoul of a sociopath. Years earlier Gwen was stabbed by a would be rapist. The rapist was jailed and Gwen believed her injuries would prevent pregnancy. It also left her with the determination never to be victimized again.

When Gwen, as newly promoted supervisor, gives a much deserved bad performance review to Stephen Tarbell, who thinks her job should have been his, Tarbell goes ballistic. After a confrontation doesn't make her change her mind, he attacks her in the parking lot after work, pulling a knife on her.

She escapes and reports the attack. Her company brings in a private security firm to investigate and convince Gwen not to go to the police, that the matter will be taken care of quickly. But Tarbell is no ordinary disappointed employee. He fumes and convinces himself Gwen not only took his job, but is out to ruin his life. He decides to teach her a lesson.

Thus begins the unraveling of Gwen's life as Tarbell's schemes grow more and more complex. Tarbell's sanity unwinds. His attacks escalate. Gwen grows desperate as Tarbell begins to threaten her family. She has to stop him. But Tarbell is wily and Gwen is desperate when Tarbell systematically destroys Gwen's life and drives away all her friends and allies.

This is nerve wracking reading. I sometimes found the tension almost unbearable. Wood is definitely a master storyteller. If you want a read that will keep you up at night then pick up a copy of TERMINATED.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Notable crimes in the 1920s

This is the first in a series of notable crimes that occurred in the 1920s.

Mention the 20s and people think Prohibition and the usual crimes associated with that. Bootlegging. Rum running. Speakeasies and blind pigs and gangsters roaring around in Model T's and Buicks blasting each other with machine guns. Bonnie and Clyde, Bugsy Seigal, The Valentine's Day massacre, Al Capone.

But like today, there were other crimes, more heinous in many ways because they victimized ordinary families and could just as easily be taken from the headlines in today's news stories.

Two of the most notable were the crimes of William Edward "The Fox" Hickman. On December 15, 1927 12-year-old Marian Parker, daughter of a prominent and wealthy Angeleno was kidnaped by Hickman, ransomed and brutally murdered. The second was the disappearance and subsequent fumbling by the LAPD of their search and attempted cover-up of a botched investigation into the missing boy Walter Collins. (This is the true life incident behind Clint Eastwood's movie, Changeling)

Hickman, who called himself 'The Fox' showed up at Marian Parker's school and talked the school officials into releasing the 12-year old girl into his care, telling them her father, Perry Parker, had been in a car accident. Shortly after Marian's father, a banker, began receiving ransom notes. Instead of being straightforward demands for money, the notes taunted the family and signing them with names like 'Death', 'Fate' and 'The Fox'. Hickman also forced Marian to write a note to her father to do as he was told or "You'll never see me again."

Following an aborted ransom drop where Hickman knew the police had been alerted. After more threats from 'The Fox', Perry Parker delivered the $1500 demanded, in gold certificates to the arranged drop spot. He arrived in his car and shortly after, a Ford Roadster coming the other way pulled up beside him. Parker tossed the money into Hickman's car. He could see his daughter beside Hickman, eyes open but non-responsive. Parker assumed she was drugged.

Hickman drove away with the money. Once he was some distance from Parker the passenger's door opened and his daughter was ejected from the car. Hickman sped off and Parker raced over to Marian only to discover she was dead. The exact cause of death was never determined, the coroner postulated it could have been asphyxiation or exsanguination. But beyond being brutally killed and, reports suggest, sexually molested, the girl had also been dismembered and disemboweled. She had been dead for at least 12 hours. Other body parts were recovered in Elysian Park as well.

A massive manhunt ensued, with thousands of officers checking out hundreds of tips. A $50,000.00 reward was offered. The police found the abandoned Ford and lifted fingerprints which led them to Hickman, who already had a criminal record for check forging and petty theft. He was finally apprehended when he tried to cash one of the gold certificates in Pendleton, Oregon. Extradited, he was tried, and despite attempting to use the insanity defense (the first time such a defense had been tried) he was found guilty and hanged in San Quentin on October 19, 1928.

To make the case even more bizarre, it was reported Hickman staged the kidnapping to raise money for Bible college. Ayn Rand was apparently so enamored of Hickman as a fine example of her Superman, saying this "What is good for me is right," a credo attributed to a prominent figure of the day, William Edward Hickman. Her response was enthusiastic. "The best and strongest expression of a real man's psychology I have heard," she exulted. (Quoted in Ryan, citing Journals of Ayn Rand, pp. 21-22.) She used him as a model to craft her Renahan, in The Little Street. Apparently she admired him as a the epitome of what a 'real man' should be.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Metamorphosis of a Novel

At the start of 2010 I started research for a new novel. But unlike all the novels I've written before, this one was going to be a historical. After watching a History Channel show about underground speakeasies in Los Angeles during prohibition that were protected by LAPD officers at the door I just knew there was a story there. I began to research the period and was amazed at what I found. Prohibition, instead of what the proponents of it planned or thought would happen, created a nation of criminals. Ordinary citizens, who before the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment would never have considered breaking the law, found themselves doing so regularly and without remorse. The law quickly proved unenforceable and rather than quelling crime and violence, which was one of the goals of the naive temperance movement that voted it in, it proved a breeding ground for the greatest growth of organized criminal activity America had ever seen.

This was a story background ripe for the telling. I knew I wanted the main character to be a cop. A crooked cop, one of the star officers of a very corrupt police force. I also had plans to mix Hollywood into the tale. After all, Hollywood came into its own during Prohibition and the power of the movie studios soon matched the power of the police force and city hall that ran the city of Angels.

But along the way there were changes. I researched numerous stars and found one who fascinated me. Ramon Novarro, a Latino actor who was groomed to replace Rudolf Valentino as the screen lover in the silent movies. Novarro was gay. It was an open secret in Hollywood and a zealously guarded one, since if word got out, his career would be ruined. But though he was never able to publicly admit his orientation, he also never succumbed to a studio arranged lavender marriage like so many other gay actors did so middle America would go on thinking they were 'real' men.

I wanted a Novarro character in my story. Instead of making him a closeted actor, I was going to have him be one of the numerous cross-dressers that also flourish in those days. Some became quite famous. But I planned a twist. My female impersonator was going to be fooling everyone. Including the crooked LAPD officer who would fall in love with her. Originally the story was going to be a tragedy, where the cop killed the impostor when he found out, and was forced to flee the country.

But along the way my characters began to speak their minds. The LAPD officer was still going to be crooked, but the woman he was going to fall for wasn't going to be a fake. She would be a real woman, with her own set of secrets.

I could have forced the characters to fulfill the roles they were born to play in my head, but I think when characters reach a point that they become so real they tell you their story, a good writer listens. Which is what I did. And ended up with Color of Shadows and Smoke, what I think is a powerful story of a bad man struggling to leave his past behind, to change so he's worthy of a woman way out of his league and how their two tragedies intertwine and create a love story.

Right now I'm in the very early stages of a new story idea. That will be the subject of a future blog.