The 21st Century P.I.

Writers who focus on stories about crime are doubtless aware that the job description of today’s private detective has expanded dramatically. Tyler Maroney in his book: How Corporate Intelligence is Reshaping the World, looks far beyond the old-fashioned gumshoe, sitting in his beater, chain-smoking and sipping from a flask outside a no-tell motel. In fact, several of the books I’ve enjoyed most this year take advantage of investigators’ diverse roles–like New Jersey Noir: Cape May, and The Measure of Time.

Says Maroney, who has his own firm, Quest Research & Investigations, America’s 35,000 private investigators “are everywhere,” working for a long list of clients–large companies, government agencies, A-list movie stars, professional athletes, non-profits, sovereign nations, media organizations, and business tycoons. They work for lawyers preparing cases and politicians running for office. Why are they hired? To uncover wrongdoing, right wrongs (real or perceived), satisfy curiosity, and find someone or something, for revenge or competitive advantage. Sometimes the hiring is in a worthy cause, and sometimes it’s merely to feed paranoia.

The book describe a series of interesting cases, among them, helping a civil rights law firm free a wrongly incarcerated client, using computer forensics to ferret out employee fraud, conducting background checks on company executives before a client invests, recovering assets from American debtors hiding abroad, and negotiating with foreign strongmen. In the chapter on a surveillance assignment, he says (and this will be contrary to every television show you’ve ever seen), investigators cannot lie to a subject, they cannot impersonate or deceive. In many states, they cannot fabricate their identities. Despite the many prohibitions, Maroney says, “about once a month in my job, someone asks me to break the law.”

There are good stories here and no doubt equally good ones buried in some of those illegal requests. Enough story ideas to last the decade!

The sheer variety of the work is fascinating, especially for those who write about crime and what it takes to ensure an investigator’s clients “get the hidden information they need. We are lubricant, bandage, and weapon.”

Find it on Amazon or at your local indie bookstore.

A Prosecutor’s Tale(s)

Last week, I had the privilege to be in a Zoom conference with Gianrico Carofiglio (above), a former Italian prosecutor who has turned his hand to writing thrillers. Yesterday I reviewed his newly translated book, The Measure of Time, and in the past, The Cold Summer.

The Measure of Time features lawyer Guido Guerrieri, and readers of the series, who have a bigger context, might have appreciated the character’s dive into the past more than I did (the book was on the Italian best-sellers list for quite a while).

I really did admire The Cold Summer, not part of the Guerrieri series, about a case occurring around the dangerous time the Italian prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were murdered by the Mafia. Those real-life events prompted intense turmoil and social reflection, which made every decision by Carofiglio’s fictional authorities that much more consequential and, therefore, dramatic.

The conversation was launched by Paolo Barlera, Attaché for Cultural Affairs of the Italian Cultural Institute in New York, with questions to the author by Chicago-based lawyer Sheldon Zenner, who has served as both a prosecutor and defense attorney.

Interestingly, Carofiglio said he considered the book as two separate novels, one the retrospective view of Guerrieri’s affair with the woman Lorenza, whose son he is now defending, and the other, the preparation of the son’s case and the courtroom proceedings. If you read my review, you’ll know that I much preferred the latter. The story of the affair was an exercise in melancholy nostalgia, as the protagonist probed the scars of an ideal and thwarted love, “the excitement of discovering things for the first time.”

His observations about the judicial system were fascinating. He thinks all judicial systems are flawed to some degree. They are an imperfect effort to establish what happened at some point in the past, using the tools of science and human memory. We have to remember, he said, that “our freedom is connected to a system that exposes us to mistakes.” He was probably smiling when he added, “The flaws of every judicial system are a friend of story.” Amen to that!

Participants in the justice system—from prosecutors to judges—may be well-versed in the law, but may be blind to other aspects of society, the context in which a crime occurred. You see a reflection of that “cognitive tunneling” in news stories about some legal cases, when the official adopts a single hypothesis that doesn’t admit of any alternative.

When Carofiglio was a prosecutor, he trained the police officers and junior prosecutors he worked with to identify every possible doubt they could think of and address it, through further investigation, expert testimony, or other means. Better them in a conference room than a defense attorney in the courtroom.

The many interesting insights in this session it made me want to read more of Carofiglio’s work and further explore his perspective.

A Notable True Crime Anniversary

Dutch Room, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photo: Sean Dungan

Shortly after midnight, thirty-one years ago today, two fully uniformed Boston policemen were let into the indifferently secured Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. But they weren’t cops; they were thieves. They tied up the two security guards and proceeded to wander the museum, stealing what appeared to be an almost random collection of paintings and art objects, retrieved the video footage from the security system, and departed.

Thirty-one years ago this morning, the daytime security guard located and released his colleagues, the museum staff were brokenhearted, the real Boston police arrived, trailed shortly thereafter by the FBI. While the haul was essentially priceless, it has been collectively valued at more than $500 million. It was the largest art crime and the largest property theft in U.S. history, and it remains unsolved. Netflix is taking it on now; details below.

The museum offered a huge reward—now $10 million. No takers, not in over three decades. From the first, FBI agents theorized the theft was the work of low-level organized crime figures. When the statute of limitations on the theft ran out, the FBI confidently predicted some mug would finally come forward with information. Crickets. Then they said fugitive mobman Whitey Bulger, might hold the key. Whitey was finally nabbed in California in 2011. He died in 2018, without a chirp. They engaged another New England mobster for help, but he died last fall, apparently without providing any. In fact, for thirty-one years, the FBI has periodically predicted an imminent resolution to this spectacular crime, and each time, nothing.

My short story “Above Suspicion” was published in 2018 in the Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine (Issue 26). It suggests an entirely different scenario. My thieves are two Massachusetts General Hospital surgical residents, recruited by a European fence. The docs are impoverished by years of medical training, and, on reflection, happy to have a substantial nest-egg to start their practices. Here’s how it answers the key questions the crime has raised.

1.How did the thieves talk their way into the museum against institutional policy? Do you know any surgeons? If they can’t convey a sense of authority, no one can.
2.Who hired/organized them? A man from Europe, a fence unknown to U.S. authorities or mobsters.
3.Since stealing art is child’s play compared to getting rid of it afterward, what happened to it? They stole items “to order.” The fence pre-sold them to people who aren’t fastidious about provenance.
4.Why did they overlook several more valuable works? Again, the buyers made their choices.
5.Why has no word leaked out? The European believed two doctors, unlike low-level mobsters, would never reveal his crime in a drunken confession or to a stoolie cellmate.
6.Why, with all the valuable art on display, did they steal two low-value Degas sketches? Those works were for them, one apiece, as a reminder.

Fictionalizing a real-life event has constraints. While I could make up the characters and the means for getting the works out of the country (sewn into the upholstery of a couple of showy vintage Cadillacs), I kept the core details of the crime completely true-to-life, fitting my fiction into a box of facts. Each time another FBI prediction falls flat, my theory remains standing. (smile)

I’m eager to see what Netflix does with this story. A four-part docuseries, This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist, is coming April 7.

My reading (Amazon has a three-book deal on these books):

The Gardner Heist by reporter Ulrich Boser, Order on Amazon
Priceless by FBI Art Crime Team founder, Robert K. Wittman – Amazon link
Stealing Rembrandts by Gardner Museum security director Anthony M. Amore and reporter Tom Mashberg. Amazon link

Progress or Peril for Workers?

Warning: This is a post that may well fall into the category of free-association or, less kindly, half-baked. Three magazine articles I’ve caught up on this past week had something to say about the world of work, which seems headed for a collision with the future.

First up was a rather breathless article in the January/February issue of Metropolis (link to article here), about the rapid advances in 3D printing that extrudes cement to create entire buildings. “Companies worldwide are automating the construction of homes, offices, and other structures through techniques like 3D printing, robotic finishing, and automated bricklaying,” which lays down brick three times faster than a human.

“The possibility of automation soon becoming the norm in construction is not so far-fetched.”

Benefits the author cites are: improving construction efficiency, sustainability, and worker safety, while increasing the housing supply and even remedying labor shortages. Still, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7.2 million Americans had construction jobs in July 2018—“the highest employment level for the construction industry in a decade, with 7.5 million jobs projected by 2026. (The prognosticators must not read Metropolis.)

According to one builder, its automated processes can produce housing units in two or three weeks at about 40 percent lower cost than conventional construction and with “almost zero construction waste” (a good thing).

Sounds great, right? But who’ll look out for the people who want relatively good-paying construction jobs, enjoy building things where they can see the results, and don’t want to sit at a desk day in and day out writing software code? “Saving labor costs,” which is an argument implicit in the article but tactfully unstated, means lost jobs.

Impact on Workers

In Wired, a story reported on a 25-year-old bet on the future of technology that pitted one man’s rosy view against another’s dire outlook (both were half-right). A concern of the anti-tech guy (Kirkpatrick Sale, who had just written a book extolling the Luddites) was that technology “stole decent labor from people.” I hope Sale doesn’t read the Metropolis article; he’ll have a stroke.

Finally, historian Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article, “What’s Wrong with the Way We Work,” unearths some even earlier predictions. No less a personage than economist John Maynard Keynes said that, a hundred years in the future (starting date unstated), people would work no more than 15 hours a week, and everyone would suffer from boredom.

“It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person,” Keynes said, “with no special talents, to occupy himself.” Being confined to home during the pandemic has shown that even people with special talents can enter the realms of ennui and discontent.

Meanwhile, we know whose playthings those idle hands are. It’s worth remembering that the majority of people arrested after the January 6 insurrection have a record of serious financial troubles. It’s probably not too much of a stretch to wonder how many of those arise, at least in part, from a lack of good-paying jobs. In construction, for example.

I don’t know whether there’s anything worth thinking about here, or if these are just disconnected ramblings. If you have thoughts, I’d love to read them.

Goalposts Moved for Spy Writers

Desmond Llewelyn, Q, James Bond, Spycraft

The Cipher Brief presentation this week from John Sawers, former Chief of the British Intelligence Service (MI6) covered a lot of ground, including how the world of espionage is changing in the networked age. John le Carré taught us how to understand the motives and tradecraft of Cold War spies, but those days are over. Writers about espionage, like those in the trade itself, must learn new skills.

Tradecraft Trends

Sawers emphasized the shifting importance of the data analyst versus the case officer. In the old days, case officers recruited, trained, and ran their agents. They were, in a way, laws unto themselves. Not any more. James Bond’s “Q” (pictured, as played by Desmond Llewelyn) is no more; agents don’t ask the technologists for help solving a problem, the data analysts and technologists help design the intervention from the outset.

This evolution takes place at a time when the domestic security services of target countries have upped their games considerably. They too may have sophisticated analytic capability, which changes how foreign agents must operate. An example Sawers gave is the availability of facial recognition software and biometric identification. The old methods of disguise—so integral to the spectacular television series, The Americans, set in the 1980s—are next to useless. “The technology is neutral,” he said, and security services have to make it an ally. Our fictional spies can’t put on a wig and run rampant in foreign nations any more.

Strategic Trends

Like many analysts, Sawers keeps a wary eye on China. The country’s behavior around the pandemic has led to “the scales falling from the eyes of EU countries” who’d been less prone to criticize it. While, as writers, we recognize that the Xi Jinping China of today is not the same China that Deng Xiaoping led just over thirty years ago, I admit to being a fan of Tang Dynasty China (700 AD), so I’m really 1300 years behind the times.

Sawers says Western nations are good at identifying security challenges originating from China, but it’s harder to counter Chinese economic strategies, like the Belts and Roads Initiative. Yes, that is an effort to improve the infrastructure of various low-income countries, but it’s also a way to tie the economies of these countries to China and attempt to influence their politics.

Despite recent bumps, the relationship between the US and the UK runs very deep, Sawers maintained, and the two countries’ intelligence agencies’ relationship is solid. The longer-term unease will be between the US and other countries with which it is not as close. Can they trust us not to whipsaw them every four years? That lingering tinge of suspicion should inspire some juicy plot points.

Sawers says the political upheavals and divisions that have occurred in both our nations are at least partly an aftershock of 2008’s economic collapse. This is especially interesting in light of a 2/10 Washington Post report that nearly 60 percent of people facing charges from the January 6 insurrection have a higher-than-average history of serious money troubles: bankruptcies, evictions and foreclosures, bad debts, lawsuits over money owed, or unpaid taxes. Something to keep in mind if these disaffected folk are characters in your new story!

It’s Magic!

We celebrated a recent family birthday with a Zoom event, as all things are these days, hosted by the Chicago Magic Lounge. Every Friday evening at 6:30 Central Time, the Lounge’s (virtual) Cocktail Hour, sponsors a new performance every Friday night. In an hour and a half four magicians, two men and two women, did excerpts from their magic acts that lend themselves to the not-in-person format. It was a fully-produced, live show.

The Chicago Magic Lounge is “dedicated to the art of sleight of hand, prestidigitation, and Chicago’s contribution to the magical arts,” and, as they say, it’s a brief escape from the real world “because we could all use a little misdirection in our lives.

From an audience member’s point of view, it was great, because the camera took you in so close. Three of them did table magic, and the fourth was standing. They performed a variety of card tricks, coin tricks, and “science” tricks. One of the magicians is a science teacher, in real life. It was fun, low-key, and a great way to celebrate together, but separately.

There was even audience participation and, as a special bonus, the club’s bartender demonstrated how to make the cocktail of the evening.

There’s a modest per household/screen charge. Have an event coming up? In search of something novel? If this sounds like fun, find out more here!

Precious Metals

Gold, silver, platinum. These tempting elements have brought more than their share of joy and woe to people over millennia. The final session of my gemstones class covered the precious metals in which those beautiful stones are set. The fictional criminal I have in mind picked up a few good tips in this session too.

Gold’s purity is measured in karats, with 24K gold 100 percent pure. 18K gold is 75 percent gold and 25 percent alloy, and so on. Pure gold is much too soft to be made into jewelry. In the United States, 14K (58.3 percent gold) is common in fine jewelry. In other countries—notably, India and the Near East—18K gold is more typical.

Not only are gold alloys more durable for jewelry, having less gold makes them less expensive than pure gold would be and allows for a change in the color. Our instructor emphasized that gold is yellow. White gold, rose gold, and green gold are all possible because of the alloys used. Pink gold is produced through the addition of copper; green gold by adding silver; and white gold includes palladium (expensive) or nickel (cheap), for example. An opportunity for a scam there, it seems.

Gold is also hypoallergenic, so if someone has an allergic reaction to their gold jewelry, they are actually sensitive to whatever metal the gold was alloyed with. Many people (including me!) get an itchy rash when there’s nickel in their jewelry (the backs of inexpensive earrings, for example), so sticking to yellow gold is best for them. Of course, such a dermatologic reaction might raise a buyer’s suspicions. Interestingly, and of potential benefit to our fictional jewelry scammer, the Federal Trade Commission does not regulate the alloys used in jewelry manufacture, just the percentage of gold present.

While nickel is inexpensive, palladium is very expensive, so to achieve the desirable level of whiteness in white gold, it may be plated with some other metal—typically rhodium. White gold today is so expensive, “you might as well buy platinum,” our instructor said. My thief is pondering that in planning his next smash-and-grab.

Prices of the precious metals are high, because of high demand, and can rise quickly when people are nervous about other investments or in the midst of various national or international crises. And some of the countries gold is mined in are not the most stable or as subject to environmental or purity standards as is the United States or European Union. (Foreign intrigue afoot.)

Like gold, most silver is an alloy. Sterling silver is 92.5 percent silver and the remainder copper, which provides strength. It’s not as hard or as tough as gold.

Previous posts in this series:
Diamonds and Pearls
Colored Gemstones

Photo: PhotoMIX-Company for Pixabay

The Border

The Border, Don Winslow

By Don Winslow – Whew! Another 700+ page book in 2020! Thanks to covid for opening up more reading time, though this book requires multiple kinds of stamina. Having read Winslow’s previous book in this unforgettable trilogy, The Cartel, and the late Charles Bowden’s real-life story, Down by the River, I was prepared for the brutality of the drug trade south of the border. And for American hypocrisy. And my own frustration. What I didn’t expect was how much worse it has gotten.

Most U.S. drug deaths come from illegally manufactured opioids (fentanyl), cocaine that is often laced with heroin or illicit fentanyl, and methamphetamines. All these drugs are manufactured and distributed by the Mexican cartels. They have so much money, they are a giant tail wagging the dog of the Mexican economy and the drug lords must look elsewhere for places to stash and launder their loot. Elsewhere, like the United States, where the size of the prize is just too tempting for major banks, like HSBC and Wells Fargo, and others to turn away.

Though Winslow’s character Adán Berrera is a stand-in for drug lord Joaquín Guzmán, it’s around the disposition of the money that Winslow’s new book turns into a mind-bending roman à clef. His main character, Art Keller, is now head of the DEA in the late days of the Obama Administration. On the horizon are the acolytes of surprise Republican presidential candidate and Twitter addict John Dennison, whose son-in-law, Jason Lerner, is a Manhattan real estate investment tycoon. Sound familiar? Real estate, Keller knows, is a prime sinkhole for large amounts of cash, and a deal Lerner is trying to negotiate needs cash fast.

In a Sean Woods interview for Rolling Stone, Winslow said he has no information linking Trump or Kushner to drug money. However, he believes, the link doesn’t strain credibility: “We live in an extremely corrupt era.” He believed that creating another type of U.S. leader would have been much more disconcerting for readers.

Every once in a while, Art Keller climbs up on his soapbox. He rails against the drug-prison industrial complex or the failure of U.S. immigration policy or the shortsightedness of attacking the supply side of the drug equation rather than the demand side or the incarceration of some 300,000 Americans, mostly for petty drug crimes and the relative impunity of those, like the bankers and investors who facilitate the trade from the top.

But The Border isn’t just a polemic. It’s a multi-layered thriller packed with adventure and compelling characters whose fates you’ll care about. If this review concentrates on the issues rather than the literary devices of plot, characterization, setting, and the like, it’s because those resonances with reality will really stay with you. They’re what make this such an important book.

We Americans turn a blind eye to the drug trade and the corrosive power of its financing at our peril. “You know,” Winslow said, “the problem with writing these books is virtually everything in them really happened.”

Order The Border from Amazon here.

World Aflame

Last week I posted information from a Wired article by Daniel Duane about the changing nature of Western wildfires. The fear and heroism that emerge in the American West, in Australia, and in other fire-prone areas are ripe for fiction. A writer can always hope that a compelling depiction of the difficulties and terror of wildfires might serve the broader purpose of encouraging better fire management policies, greater support for fire fighters, and improved public safety.

Among the many fascinating “made-for-fiction” aspects of the problem of fire intensity is how very intense fires mirror the experience of Allied bombing campaigns during the Second World War. British and American flight commanders learned they could burn cities down more easily than they could blow them up. And they could burn cities more easily if they knocked down the buildings—especially in neighborhoods with highly flammable wooden structures–before attempting to light them on fire.

That strategy is what caused the catastrophic damage to the German city of Dresden, pictured, producing “a single giant plume of heat and smoke (that) took on a shape similar to a giant thunderstorm,” Duane says. The firestorm had hurricane-force winds that magnified the destruction. These effects are similar to the firestorm experienced after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and predicted if a nuclear weapon hit a national forest in a 1964 US Forest Service report.

The western forests’ accumulation of long-burning heavy fuels—logs and fallen trees that smolder for long periods before bursting into flame—creates conditions similar to those that produced the smoking ruins of European cities. The key ingredient, Duane says, is “simultaneous burning of many small fires in a combination of light and heavy fuels over a large area with light ambient wind.” Over time, the small fires join, the heat plume begins to rise, and the whole catastrophe unfolds.

Duane’s article, like other research writers do, provides the vocabulary—and in this case, a hit at the dynamics of fire—that lets us write about catastrophe persuasively. It doesn’t make us experts, but it gets us a good way there. It leads us to asking the right questions.

This whole article is well worth reading, and part one of my summary is here.

Photo of Dresden by Art Tower, Pixabay.

Thanksgiving, 2020

turkey feather

Enjoy this special holiday (and the 4500 calories the average American reportedly consumes on Thanksgiving Day)! Stay safe now to make it  possible to be with your loved ones later.

Photo: Turkey feather, Josch13 for Pixabay.