Sunday, March 15, 2015

THE REAL (& VERY TOUCHABLE) ELIOT NESS

Depending on your age, if you know the name Eliot Ness, you probably see him in your mind’s eye as actors Robert Stack, Kevin Costner or, from a 1990s TV reinvention, as Tom Amandes: charismatic and incorruptible in all of these incarnations.
ROBERT STACK

TOM AMANDES

KEVIN COSTNER

But none of those gentlemen really attempted to embody the actual Eliot Ness, treasury agent and eventual safety director of Cleveland…also, failed mayoral hopeful in his later-life run for top office of “The Mistake on the Lake.”

THE REAL ELIOT NESS
DURING FAILED
MAYORAL CAMPAIGN
Ness was a dapper and affable man, by all accounts. He was more than a bit of an egoist, possibly even a fabulist, and—ironic for a man noted for his efforts to enforce prohibition—a quite practiced drinker. (Flight from the scene of a DUI crash fatally wounded his public safety director career.)

In short, the real Eliot Ness was a decent man with decidedly clay feet. He never really took the toll on Al Capone various films and TV series would have you believe. He was never the family man depicted on film and in at least one TV series.

Ness scored some real successes in Cleveland in his early days as the youngest public safety director of a U.S. major city, but he was also undermined, at least partly, by his failure to capture the infamous Cleveland serial killer, “The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run.”

ELIOT NESS, THE LAW ENFORCEMENT YEARS

Word on the street is Dennis Lehane is mounting a TV series about Ness that will presumably come closer to the real and “touchable” Ness than previous incarnations ever contemplated.

The first novel I wrote many decades ago, PARTS UNKNOWN, focused on the Cleveland murder cycle—based on tales my grandmother told of the killings when I was a child. I time shifted the action to the 1980s and invested my title character, Chris Lyon, with many of Ness’ weaknesses—a bit of a skirt-chaser…a fairly steady guy but a little too fond of drink…

A few years ago, I returned to the topic of Ness and the Cleveland killings for a recently released Hector Lassiter novel, THE RUNNING KIND.

Ness is an on-page character in that book, and we meet him at something like his nadir. By 1950—the year in which my new novel is set—Ness was very much on the ropes: out of law enforcement and struggling to make ends meet by working in bookstores and at various other odd jobs. His drinking was a big problem, then.


Eliot Ness died in 1957 at the too-young age of 54 from a massive heart attack. His death came very shortly before publication of Oscar Fraley’s “The Untouchables,” which eventually led to that TV series with Robert Stack. Dying before becoming a folk hero was sadly typical of Ness’ later-life lucklessness.

For years, Ness and his family’s ashes lingered in a cardboard box in family member’s garage before eventually being recovered and scattered with appropriate ceremony at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland in 1997.

There’s still strong debate about just how effective a lawman Ness was and whether he deserves his posthumous reputation.

Indeed, last January, efforts to rename the ATF building in Washington, D.C., after Ness went off the rails when faced with some fairly strong opposition, some present-day critics citing Ness’ rather “checkered career” after bidding farewell to federal law enforcement.

THE HECTOR LASSITER SERIES:


ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook

FOREVER'S JUST PRETEND: Paperback/eBook

TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook

THE GREAT PRETENDER: Paperback/eBook

ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook

THE RUNNING KIND: Paperback/eBook

HEAD GAMES: Paperback/eBook


Sunday, March 1, 2015

PANCHO VILLA AND THE COLUMBUS RAID

A few years back, one of the last of Pancho Villa's Columbus, New Mexico, raiders passed.

March 9 marks the 99th anniversary of Pancho Villa's 1916 raid on Columbus, NM, an event central to the plot of my debut novel HEAD GAMES (newly re-available in a definitive trade paperback or eBook edition from Betimes Books!).


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ORDER HEAD GAMES: Paperback/eBook

To mark the anniversary of Villa's raid, a look back at the column I wrote upon word of the last Villa raider's passing:

TONIGHT WE RIDE


Time is a funny thing: stuff that seems so long ago, really isn't. This man passed away last month. A very old man. He lived a lot of the things I wrote about it in my first novel. He experienced Pancho Villa, up close and personal.

1916: That was the year Pancho Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico (that state's version of "Columbus" was, it turns out, named after the city in Ohio) and triggered the Punitive Expedition.


The expedition into Mexico was Woodrow Wilson's kind of foreshadowing of George W. Bush's invasion of Afghanistan in search of Bin Laden. Wilson's incursion across the border stoked a lot of resentment against America on the part of Mexico's people.

Wilson sent 100,000 men down into the desert to chase Pancho Villa: to bring him back "Dead or alive." The chase didn't go well; the quest failed.

In my literary world, one of the men who rode down into the desert after Villa was a young Hector Lassiter, who lied about his age and rode off after Black Jack Pershing into the Mexican desert (all of this fuels my first novel, HEAD GAMES; Hector's "lie" is also based on one told by a real pulp author of some note).

Like Bin Laden many decades later, Villa proved infuriatingly elusive. Once the U.S. lost interest in him, Villa eventually settled down on his ranch, put on some weight, stepped up his womanizing, and started amassing this arsenal.

What he meant to do with all that latter remains a mystery: Villa was gunned down by parties unknown before he could stir up further revolts or revolutions.

A few years later, Pancho's grave was robbed and his head stolen. (Again, all described in HEAD GAMES.) The head remains missing. We'll get back to that, shortly...

Now, I don't consider myself a relic, but I have actually known/met a couple of Punitive Expedition members (both dead for some number of years now).

One I met as a child. The other I met as a young reporter. I spent an afternoon with him hearing tales of the trail and looking through old photo albums only to be told by the lonely old man he forbid any article be written about him.

He just wanted company to pass a summer afternoon. That man, and the other man from my hometown who rode with Pershing, are both name-checked in HEAD GAMES.

I'd come to believe most of the men of that time were long passed. But last evening I ran across this obituary for a man pretty wonderfully named "Juan Carlos Caballero Vega."

He claimed, at the age of 14, to have ridden with Villa into New Mexico that night to attack Columbus. He claimed to have been Villa's young chauffeur. In a sense, his actual story reflects an opposite-sides-of-the-border version of Hector Lassiter's tale.

Vega passed away on March 30, 2010, at the age of 109. He'd hoped to live to see November 20, the centenary of the Mexican Revolution in which he fought alongside Villa.

According to an article in the Telegraph, he attributed his long life to "love," much walking and an active sex life (he remarried at the age of 99).

You can read Vega's story, much of it in his own words, here. An image from Corbis of the old Villista shows a man with some real character etched into his face:

So Vega's gone to whever all the magnificent bastards go.

Pancho's missing head remains elusive.

Interestingly enough, the Wall Street Journal this past week took another look at Villa's missing remains (more than just his noggin, really)... Of course, Skull & Bones (the culprits behind Villa's grave-robbing as posited in HEAD GAMES) also got a mention... You can read that piece here.


ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook

FOREVER'S JUST PRETEND: Paperback/eBook

TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook

THE GREAT PRETENDER: Paperback/eBook

ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook

THE RUNNING KIND: Paperback/eBook

HEAD GAMES: Paperback/eBook



Sunday, February 22, 2015

THE HEAD GAMES INTERVIEWS (PART 3 of 3)


To mark the launch of the Betimes Books' reissue of Head Games in trade paperback and eBook formats, I'm sharing the third of three English translations of interviews I not so long ago gave to media in Mexico regarding the release of HEAD GAMES (LA CABEZA DE PANCHO VILLA) there. 


Original illustration from
Zócalo Saltillo
This interview is with Sylvia Georgina Estrada who is based in Saltillo, Coahuila (north Mexico) and it appeared originally in Zócalo Saltillo. (You can read it in the original Spanish here.)



Q) How did your interest in Pancho Villa’s life start? Why did you decide to write a book about the stolen head of this brave man?

A) I first heard of Villa because a famous fiction writer from my birth state, Ambrose Bierce, disappeared into Mexico allegedly trying to meet Villa. To this day, nobody knows what became of Bierce. There were also two men in my hometown (I use their names in the novel) who were part of the Pershing Expedition, and who chased Pancho Villa through Mexico after the 1916 attack on Columbus, New Mexico. One of them shared a photo album of that campaign with me one afternoon when I was a young reporter. That started me reading novels and histories in which Villa figured, and I became fascinated by him.

Ambrose Bierce

I was also seized by the robbing of Villa’s grave and the theft of his still missing head. As I began to write my novel, I ran across this newish biography about the man who was arrested for stealing the head, and the fact he supposedly did so under the payment of President George W. Bush’s grandfather, Prescott Bush. That suggested the entire plot, in a flash.

Q) Sometimes we forget that people could move history. Do you think that Pancho Villa changed, one way or another, the perception of US about Mexico?

A) In a word, yes. It’s interesting to me to read contemporary newspaper accounts of Villa and his early efforts in the Revolution when he was kind of America’s great hope or favorite son in terms of the various players in your Revolution.

There’s that famous photo of Villa with General Pershing (and Rodolfo Fierro lurking in the background) when Pershing was taking Villa’s measure as an ally or figure to potentially support. Villa was regarded as a kind of Robin Hood crossed with George Washington here, at the time. Then President Wilson chose poorly in casting his lot with other, less worthy figures in the Revolution and the attack on Columbus ensued. And, of course, of all men sent to lead the chase for Villa, it was Pershing. I think Villa has a very mixed reputation in the borderlands and American Southwest to this day. Elsewhere in America, his reputation has drifted back into a more romantic/heroic light.

Rodolfo Fierro


Q) What kind of research did you require to write this book? Did you find something unusual? I like the references to the golden age of American cinema or Yale fraternities such as Skull and Bones.

A) In a way, all the many college years and those after I spent reading about Villa and the Revolution represent my research efforts. All of my (eight) novels with Hector Lassiter turn on historic events to one extent or another, but I don’t really choose topics or events and then research them to write about them. I have longstanding preoccupations I write books around, so I end up doing more fact checking against memory than digging around for materials.


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On that note, Orson Welles is another of my preoccupations, and in his classic film, TOUCH OF EVIL, that is featured in my novel, Welles doesn’t just direct, but stars in the film as an aging, once macho, grieving widower moving through a dark border town on a dubious quest. In a sense, that pretty much describes my narrator Hector Lassiter’s status in the novel, as well. Skull and Bones required a bit of light research, but it’s a self-declared Secret Society, so it lends itself to informed invention.

Hector Lassiter, by Kevin Singles, from the forthcoming
graphic novel of HEAD GAMES.


Q) Hector Lassiter is a veteran writer and also daredevil, How did you create this character?

A) I first created Hector for a short story contest and that story got a fair amount of attention and was anthologized in a book or two. I decided to take the character and put him in a novel, which quickly grew into a series. Hector started as a kind of blend of the great crime writer James Crumley and a bit of Ernest Hemingway, but evolved quickly into being his own man, who has become known, to his frustration, as “the man who lives what he writes and writes what he lives.”

As the Lassiter series unfolds, I also explore the life of the writer and this notion of a man who lives his life with an eye to how it will play on the page, and more frighteningly, how those around him start to adopt the same attitude and strategies in terms of how they will appear in Hector’s novels. You get some of that in the Villa novel, particularly with the character of Alicia, who starts to model herself after a Lassiter heroine.


Character concept
sketch of "Alicia"
by Kevin Singles
for forthcoming
HEAD GAMES
graphic novel.


Q) What are the satisfactions behind Head Games? The novel was a finalist for the Edgar, Anthony, Gumshoe and Crimespree Magazine Awards for best first novel. I read that you also have more books about Hector Lassiter…

A) I spent many years and wrote a number of other novels before Hector’s first book found an agent, a publisher, and then went on to be translated in many languages. Hector is an engaging character who I never seemed to run out of material about and who constantly surprised me when I was writing him. He appeals strongly to male and female readers who “get” the books and the character. Hector has opened the world up to me and my family, as we’ve gone here and there (Paris, Quebec and other wonderful places), as Hector has gone out into the world through translations and I’ve had to promote the books.

I wrote a total of eight novels about Hector (four have been published here in the States and in Europe; four are pending). Seven of them were complete before the first even appeared. The series is tightly interconnected, yet isn’t chronological in its presentation. I wanted to do what nobody else to my knowledge has ever done, and essentially write a planned, contained series with a beginning, a middle and an end. For me, too many genre writers just reel off an endless cycle of novels around the same character, and, sometimes, the author dies and the series passes into other hands. I’m offering eight novels about this man, his life and times, and that’s all. I don’t want Hector or the series to wind down like some boxer who doesn’t know when to leave the ring.


Q) What do you like about Mexico and the Mexican border? It’s a recurrent theme in your books.

A) I love Mexican culture, art, music…everything. The second Lassiter novel published here in the States, in fact, uses a painting by Diego Rivera, whose rights I negotiated for myself with the Bank of Mexico. Like Hector, one of my favorite songs in life is “Cancion Mixteca,” and my iPod is jammed with various versions of that song ranging from Mexican folk singers, to pub performers, to the great Tom Russell and the American actor Harry Dean Stanton. (Author note: The video below is one I shot in a now defunct, once-beloved Mexican restaurant close by my home.)

Also, immigration is a huge issue where I live, even now, in this still-shattered and ineptitude-driven Obama economy, and it drove much of the news I have covered as a journalist. Most of all, I have a deep regard for Mexican literature and poetry, and read as much of it as I can get my hands on.

(By the way, Hector Lassiter ventures into Mexico, significantly in two others of the seven books remaining.)



A) Head Games is available in the libraries of Mexico and is about a character who is in love, particularly, with the north of Mexico. What would you like to say to your readers?

A) I would thank them first and foremost for being readers. As a journalist and an author, I value every person who still finds the time and takes joy in reading.

Like my character, I am an ardent student and lover of your culture and history, and while I’m writing fiction, I do so always with the notion that fiction can bring us closer to truth than history or nonfiction. That might be a startling assertion for some, coming as it does from a man who is still a fulltime journalist, but it is what I truly believe, and, as they say, journalism is, at best, merely history’s first draft.


ONE TRUE SENTENCE: Paperback/eBook

FOREVER'S JUST PRETEND: Paperback/eBook

TOROS & TORSOS: Paperback/eBook

THE GREAT PRETENDER: Paperback/eBook

ROLL THE CREDITS: Paperback/eBook

THE RUNNING KIND: Paperback/eBook

HEAD GAMES: Paperback/eBook