Touring James Dean’s Home Town

Taking a trip to central Indiana? Consider a detour to the two-stoplight town of Fairmount, Indiana, boyhood home of actor James Dean. Maybe he’s not the household name he was fifty or sixty years ago, but even younger generations know about—or through the magic of video streaming—have seen the three movies where he had a leading role: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant.

It was near the end of the Giant filming that he had the car crash that killed him at age 24. Filming of Giant was still under way when Dean died, which devastated his co-star and friend, Elizabeth Taylor, a year younger than he was.

Fairmount hasn’t forgotten him. When we visited in mid-September, the town was gearing up for the annual James Dean festival. Although he graduated from high school in Fairmount, he soon relocated to California attended Santa Monica City College and UCLA, majoring in theater, then to New York and the Actors Studio. The James Dean Gallery (a private museum in town) shows clips from the several dozen live television dramas where he had small parts. He also appeared on Broadway.

A certain amount of mythology grows up around someone who dies so young, so tragically, and many people believe he wrecked his car by driving way too fast. Not exactly true. Late afternoon, Friday, September 30, 1955, he was driving his new rear-engine Porsche Spyder to a race to be held the next day. In the car with him was his mechanic. Yes, he was driving about ten miles over the speed limit, but who hasn’t? A 1950 Ford Custom Coupe in the approaching lane turned left just in front of him. Dean was killed. The mechanic was thrown clear and survived.

Sedans in those days were not the aluminum and plastic vehicles we have today. Steel, baby. One and a half tons of it. Engine in the front, of course. The Porsche never had a chance.

You can visit the Gallery, see the farm where he grew up, the cemetery where he’s buried, and other modest sites, all in and around Fairmount, 70 miles north of Indianapolis. Take the country roads. One reason we went is because James Dean is my sixth cousin, with our common ancestors being our 5th great-grandfather. I had the list of intervening generations with me and asked the historian at the museum whether it looked right to him. “Those are all familiar names,” he said. A certified genealogist wouldn’t be satisfied, but I am!

Guest Blog: Author Claire Matturro

The new book by Claire Matturro and Penny Koepsel, Wayward Girls (Red Adept Publishing), deals with society’s treatment of “difficult” females. Husbands and fathers may no longer have carte blanche to exile their prickly wives and daughters to mental hospitals. Yet, institutions like Claire and Penny’s fictional Talbot School for Girls persist. I’ll be reviewing Wayward Girls here in early October. Here’s what Claire says about the inspiration for this important book:

As noted in a CrimeFictionLover.com review, Wayward Girls is a “book with a strong sense of purpose.” It’s a loud warning about the oversight and accountability needed by delinquent/troubled teen facilities, boarding schools, and “wilderness schools,” because abuses continue to occur in such places, and adults continue to disbelieve the kids who cry out in protest.

What led Penny Koepsel and me to write the book does not arise so much from our own experiences at boarding school, but in the history of a Texas wilderness school for troubled teens, Artesia Hall. In the early 1970s, at that remote locale northeast of Houston, a 17-year-old girl ingested poison. Rather than immediately seeking medical treatment for the girl, the school’s owner allegedly had her put into a straightjacket and tied to a chair. She later died in hospital. Previously, escaped students had told of abuse, including a “GI bath,” where they were plunged naked into a trash can full of ice water and scrubbed with a wire brush. No one believed them. They were, after all, troubled. Kids who lied.

But these kids were telling the truth. After the teenager died and more students escaped to speak of dire mistreatment, officials finally listened. The State closed Artesia Hall.

Decades later, I—along with other former students from a Florida boarding school—reconnected as we organized a reunion. Our boarding school had existed at the same time as Artesia Hall, and both schools closed the same year. Yet they were as different as the sun and the moon. As reunion activities developed, Penny Koepsel, a psychologist from Texas, and I—a lawyer from Florida—met and formed a fast friendship. We had been students at the Florida boarding school, but at different times.

At the reunion, while groups of former students told tales from our school days, not one of us mentioned abuse, poison, rape, or anything approaching a GI bath. Few of us had ever even heard of Artesia Hall. However, Penny, a Texan, knew about the notorious school, and told us of the horrors there.

One of us said, “Let’s write a book!” Perhaps it was too much wine, or too much hubris, but the idea took hold. After all, I had already authored a series of legal thrillers published by HarperCollins, and Penny’s short stories and poems had been published in literary journals.

That’s how Wayward Girls came to be. The book deals head on with a sexual predator who targets petite teen girls at the fictional Talbot School for Girls and incorporates some of the horrors officials came finally to believe about the Texas wilderness school. Wayward Girls weaves in some of the playful hijinks from our Florida boarding school experience too.

While fictional, Wayward Girls stands as a warning. Schools for so-called wayward kids should not be unlicensed or easily licensed, and they must have strict oversight. Above all, adults should listen when kids speak up about abuse.

Killer Nashville in the Rearview

Last week’s Killer Nashville was a satisfying excursion on the whole. Not only were the speakers/attendees/lunch buddies great and the panels interesting, I arrived in Nashville several days early and spent them at Tennessee’s beautiful new State Library and Archives downtown. Accomplished a lot, genealogy-wise.

The meeting was at a hotel about twenty miles south of the city in a county whose citizens have been notoriously anti-vaxx. According to information I pried out of the organizers beforehand, mask policies were set by the hotel (there weren’t any or they weren’t enforced), so that only about forty percent of the attendees wore masks. The conference website and Facebook page were surprisingly mum on the subject; it was as if covid (and people’s understandable worries about it) didn’t exist. Perhaps it was repeated questions like mine that prompted a very last-minute letter from organizer Clay Stafford to attendees, but by then quite a few people had cancelled or decided not to attend. The planners’ cavalier attitude is summed up in the conference title: “Killer Nashville: Unmasked.” Stafford made a convoluted argument attempting to justify this choice, but it fell flat, with me at least.

Nor, unless I missed it, did the pre-conference materials mention that restaurant in the conference’s hotel venue is closed. Breakfast only. The bar was open, but not a peanut, not a pretzel stick in sight. Caterers must have brought food in for the two lunches and one dinner that were part of the three-day meeting. Attendees needed a car to get to any restaurant that wasn’t fast-food, chain-type.

Aside from these lapses in planning for attendee comfort and safety, the program was excellent and diverse. Ironically, despite covid concerns, this was the largest Killer Nashville attendance to date! There were right around 300 people, desperate to chat up their friends and fellow authors. People were upbeat, happy to be together, and grateful to Killer Nashville for making it possible. And, of course, when I saw that the bookstore would send my purchases home, at no charge if I bought more than $100-worth, I “saved” myself that mailing fee with no trouble at all!

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