REVIEW: ADRENALINE JUNKIE BY LES EDGERTON

When Les Edgerton asked if I wanted to read his memoir, Adrenaline Junkie, I jumped at the chance. The several times I’ve hung out with Les have always been entertaining, partially due to the stories he has told of his outlaw life. I strapped myself in for several wild rides when I opened the book, but even knowing what a master story teller he is, I didn’t expect the journey he took me on.

Adrenaline Junkie: A Memoir Cover ImageWe start out with anecdotes from a Huck Finn-style childhood in postwar Texas. Most of it was under the eye of his grandmother, a tough business woman who had as much affect on him as his parents. One of the first heart breaking moments is when his family has to move away from her.

After some time in the Navy that included a tryst with future international sex goddess Brit Eklund, and college, Les fell into a life of crime with very little need for encouragement. Some involved drugs, but most involved theft. Many of these recollections are funny, like robbing a laundromat, knowing a patrol car is out front, and a shoot out during a heist that has an only-in-real-life twist. Les and his cohorts are far from master criminals. They are mainly guys who don’t want to grow up, feeling that luck is in their favor.

Luck finally runs out and Les finds himself in the prison system. He avoids both portraying his incarceration with macho bluster or overselling the horror of the place. He presents it as existing in a society where both routine and adaptation become a daily part of life.

His avoidance of over dramatization is never more apparent than in the chapter he devotes to being raped by a fellow inmate. Just by recalling the the details he remembers and the feelings he had at the time, Les knows this moment is harrowing enough. He perfectly balances the personal and the subjective as we get the feeling that he is still processing the crime after all these years. By avoiding any grand declarations, he neither belittles the violation or other victims of it.

What completely floored me was how the wildest and most adrenaline fueled parts of Les’s life came in the 80’s as hairdresser who put Warren Beatty’s Shampoo character to shame. Learning the trade in prison, Les built a salon and a national name for himself in the business. The money and success bought him a life of sex, drugs, and dangerous romances that almost put him back behind bars. Les allows you  to laugh at many of these harrowing moments and feel happy they didn’t happen to you.

This part of the book, of bouncing between successful businessman and self-destructive hedonist, becomes more vivid since it embodies the theme Les seems to be writing toward. If there is an antagonist in Adrenaline Junkie, it is boredom. Les is often searching for peace then screwing  it up. His goal is to find grace, but the temptation of chaos constantly knocks at the door. It also reflects his life as writer, working to find order within those experiences. We root for Les, like we would a fictional character, for him to finally get it right, mainly because this colorful life  eventually becomes exhausting.

For a memoir to work, the writer must not only have a life worth writing about, but he must know how to examine it. Les Edgerton seems to be as astonished as we are sometimes, with bemused asides at many of its darker moments. He makes no excuses. If he holds himself up as anything, it’s as a survivor, mainly of himself. He gives us no moral to the story of his life, but shows us how he finally found his grace. As a friend, I’m happy he came out the other side. As a reader, I’m glad he lived to tell the tale.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go to the Corner Mailbox

Guest Blog by Nancy Boyarsky

I’m insatiably curious about people and the things that go on around me. Sometimes I see things on my morning walks, for example, that strike me as odd and pique my interest. Below is an example, but let me preface my tale with a caveat. To the police, our lower Westwood neighborhood is one of the safest in L.A.—although it might sound not so safe to someone living, for example, in a small-town in the Midwest.

Lately, we’ve had been a scattering of home burglaries and a few street robberies. But most criminals working the area have taken to stealing from cars. The latest wrinkle in car-related crime involves night-time theft of auto parts, like tires and airbags, sometimes catalytic converters. For those of us with homes so old that our garages can’t accommodate modern vehicles, cars have to be left in the driveway or on the street. So we lock them up and hope for the best.

But I’m talking about another type of crime. I witnessed it on a day when I set out to mail a letter. Although the mailbox is only a block away, I drove because it was my first stop in a round of errands.

A young man, late teens to early 20s, was at the mailbox. He was wearing a T-shirt and khakis, and he looked clean-cut. Besides, it was mid-day. Broad daylight. No alarm bells went off in my head.

As I drew closer to the mailbox, I noticed something odd. Instead of depositing mail, he was pulling out envelopes, a few at a time. He had a wire that looked as if it had been fashioned from a coat hanger. He was using it to poke in the box and snag mail.

When I realized what was going on, I decided not to stop. Instead, I circled the block and came back, parking a few houses away from the mailbox. I pulled out my cell phone and called 911. After the usual “what-is-your-emergency?” greeting, I explained that I was, at that moment, witnessing a crime. Even as I said this, the young man had stopped rifling in the mailbox. He’d stepped back and was now scanning the street, as if he expected someone to pick him up.

The 911 operator told me that a crime involving mail wasn’t an emergency, but she would transfer me to someone who would know what to do. I went through several connections, each one seemed puzzled by my complaint. Finally, the last person I spoke to said that a mailbox wasn’t within the preview of the LAPD; it was the property of the U.S. Postal Service, and thereby a federal matter. He gave me a phone number so I could report the problem to postal service.

Meanwhile, the young man, apparently giving up on his ride, was looking around, consulting his watch. He didn’t see me, or if he did, he didn’t give any indication.

I dialed the number for the USPS. Ten minutes or more had passed since I’d first spotted the ongoing crime. But the young man was still on the corner, and I’m not one to give up easily.

When I reached the number I’d been given, I realized it was the general information line for the postal service. The automated voice asked me which language I spoke. In some frustration, I pressed “one” for English. Then it asked if I wanted to track a package, get post office information, ask for re delivery. I was encouraged to sign up for more information at myuspc.com. Finally, I was asked to say in a few words what I wanted.

The young man had started to walk away, taking his time, not in any great hurry.

I kept at it, trying to make the automated call system understand that I wanted to report a mailbox break-in. I’d just about exhausted synonyms for “break-in” when a live person came on the line. By now the perpetrator had disappeared. The man at the postal service listened to my story, then asked for the postal box’s location. He said he’d report it to the local supervisor for my area. I realized that he was somewhere else, maybe in Des Moines, or even Washington, D.C.

Later, I contacted my neighborhood association and learned that people had been complaining that they were unable to use their local mailboxes because someone had put a sticky substance in the mailing mechanism, so envelopes got stuck and did not actually drop into the mailbox. Obviously, this was a more sophisticated approach than using a bent coat hanger.

The next issue of the neighborhood association’s newsletter gave a list of sticky mailboxes. Ours was on the list, even though glue had never been the problem.

With that, I decided that my career as a crime fighter was over. At least for me, writing fiction about crime is more rewarding.

Nancy Boyarsky’s latest mystery, Liar Liar, featuring private eye Nicole Graves, can be purchased at BookPeople.

INTERVIEW WITH MAX ALLAN COLLINS

Max Allan Collins is probably the crime fiction author who has had the most impact on me. In my teens I discovered his private eye Nate Heller and was hooked. In following his work, a real life character pops up through the years, famed Untouchable Eliot Ness. It came as little surprise he wrote a biography about the federal agent and his fight with Capone along with historian A. Brad Schwartz, Scarface and the Untouchable:  Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago. It was great honor to talk to one of my heroes about one of his.

Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: You’ve used Eliot Ness in your fiction for over three decades and wrote and produced a play about him. What draws you to him?

Max Allan Collins: As a kid I saw the original Desilu Playhouse production of “The Untouchables” with Robert Stack, which led to the TV series.  I was a huge fan of the show and fascinated by the basis in history, although as we know the series played fast and loose. I was already a Dick Tracy fan, and Ness seemed to be a real-life Tracy. Years later I would discover that Tracy’s creator, Chester Gould, actually based Tracy on Ness and the Untouchables.  My Nathan Heller private eye novels, which are fact-based and set in Chicago, seemed to cry out for Ness to be my PI’s police contact. After his appearances in the Heller series, Ness starred in four books I did about the Untouchable’s Cleveland years, as well as comics appearances in Road to Perdition and a Batman graphic novel, Scar of the Bat.  I intended the play to be my last word on the subject…until my co-author came along.

MPS: Prohibition era Chicago is one of those places and times that are iconic in our history and captures our imagination, like 1870s Dodge City and San Francisco in the sixties. What is do you think the appeal is?

MAC: It was a specific time — like the Old West, it didn’t last long — and the misguided social experiment of Prohibition led to a wild period in which criminals often became anti-heroes and the public was largely in on the law-breaking, by way of ignoring the 18th amendment.

MPS: What the book reminded me is how young both Capone and Ness were when they started out. Do you think their youth helped define the kind of gangster and lawman they were?

MAC: I do, and that aspect of their combined story has always fascinated me — particularly since Hollywood traditionally cast much older actors in the roles.  My co-author, A. Brad Schwartz — who is a Princeton history major in the doctorate program — is about the same age as Ness when he took Capone on.

MPS: Did you learn anything about the two in working on the book that surprised you?

MAC: The similarities were striking — immigrants with fathers who had made good, honest lives.  But also there were the fun facts, like straight-arrow Ness lying about his age to land a federal job, and Capone and Ness living on the same Chicago street for many years.

MPS: There have been several books on Capone. Was their a certain way Mr. Schwartz and you wanted to approach him for yours?

MAC: Not to disparage all of the books, but many were weak or poorly researched, particularly where Eliot Ness is concerned.  Authors seemed to love taking Ness down a bunch of pegs from the Hollywood version, but didn’t bother really digging into who and what this man really was.

MPS: Outside of Ness and Capone did you discover another person in the book you found fascinating?

MAC: Edward O’Hare, father of the war hero O’Hare Airport was named for, was a fascinating, shifty fixer, who has often been painted positively by historians when in fact he was a manipulative, slippery character.

MPS: Did you find anything that contradicted Eliot Ness’ memoir The Untouchables?

MAC: The memoir has been much criticized, yet a lot of it really happened.  The co-author, sports writer Oscar Fraley, took great liberties by moving historical material around for dramatic effect.  Things Ness did prior to the Untouchables — the Chicago Heights investigation, for example — were depicted by Fraley as happening after the formation of the Capone squad.  Ness was at the end of his life, needing money desperately, and allowed the book to be essentially a non-fiction novel.

REVIEW: SCARFACE AND THE UNTOUCHABLE: AL CAPONE, ELIOT NESS, AND THE BATTLE FOR CHICAGO

Max Allan Collins appears to have an obsession with Eliot Ness, the leader of the famed Untouchables who went after Al Capone’s bootlegging operation. In his historical novels featuring Nate Heller, he served as the detective’s police contact. He wrote four novels about his post Chicago career, cleaning up Cleveland as it’s safety director. He wrote a play, Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life and even wrote a comic where he teamed up with Batman, Scar Of The Bat. All of this work seems to have led to Collins’ first major non-fiction book he has teamed up with historian A. Brad Schwartz to write, Scarface and The Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago.

Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago Cover ImageThe book works as two biographies, starting with Capone. The son of an Italian immigrant, a Brooklyn street kid, he forms a gang with his brothers to survive. This leads to him hustling for the mafia, who sends him out to Chicago where he works under Johnny Torrio. He takes over, muscling in on the South Side Irish mob led by Dean O’Banion. Taking advantage of prohibition early, he builds a street empire and practically runs the city.

Another son of immigrants (Swedish), Eliot Ness grows up in his family’s bread business in the Chicago suburb of Kensington. He finds a hero in his brother-in-law Alexander Jamie, an investigator who goes from Pullman Company, FBI, to becoming an executive in the Treasury Department. Ness disappoints his family, by dropping out of college and working for Jamie. He builds a reputation, mainly due to a painstaking operation in The Heights.

The two only see each other once, but find themselves at war on Chicago’s streets. Capone and his war with rival mobs makes the town look like wild west’s Dodge City with its gun battles, except those outlaws didn’t pack the firepower of Tommy guns. The political machine greased by underworld bribes looks the other way. Then the murder of newspaper man Jake Lingle and the infamous mob execution known as The St. Valentines Day Massacre shock the city into action. A group of businessmen known as the Secret Six devise a plan to bring down Capone. Part of it involves an elite squad of federal agents to hit Capone financially by raiding and destroying his liquor facilities. Eliot Ness heads up the unit. Soon their exploits and reputation for refusing bribes earns them the name The Untouchables.

As the stories of Capone and Ness converge in their battle, Callins and Schwartz create a character out of the city of Chicago. They depict it as a loud, colorful, and dangerous town populated by citizens fathered by Damon Runyon and hardworking folks caught in the crossfire. The place forms Capone and Ness and the two contribute to its character as they fight for it. Of the three, the city has the most dramatic character arc as the other two battle for its soul.

The authors give us an engaging look at Eliot Ness and Al Capone. They begin by drawing out comparisons of the two; both sons of immigrant bakers, young, ambitious, and even living on the same street at one time. They study the duality of Capone, who courted the media, coming off gregarious and charming, but who also had fits of rage, calculated rub outs, and bludgeoned to death a traitor with a baseball bat. They show how these opposing traits converged to make him the criminal he was. Ness proves to be the less flashy and more straight forward, but proves to have as many struggles with the politics of law enforcement as Capone did with the infighting in his organization.

Scarface and the Untouchable is true crime written like an epic pulp novel. It has a Michener sweep , but instead of God’s eye, the view is gutter level. Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz turn Chicago into a battleground for the famed lawman and gangster, proving the city to be the true survivor.

 

True Crime at Its Finest: Lost Girls by Robert Kolker

True crime isn’t something we feature often on MysteryPeople, and yet it is a craze and a phenomenon that has been popular much longer than people have acknowledged.  The tradition of the true crime book and its incredible fandom goes back many years, but it’s difficult to place a book that is as popular or widely read as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls.  Lost Girls is special for many reasons, covering the Long Island Serial Killings of recent years.  It is popular mostly for its ability to portray the real lives of the women (who did mostly work as sex workers) and how real their plights were, and how effective and ultimately destructive their deaths were.

I first read Kolker’s Lost Girls a year or so ago, but returned to it recently when I needed some comfort. Kolker’s writing style provides that, not just through lyrical sentences and beautiful construction of images and ideas, but largely through the compassion Kolker feels toward these women.  If watching movies and tv shows made and developed by men who have turned out to be sexual predators depresses you, you might find solace in Kolker’s brilliant and wonderful understanding of the human mind—and the female mind—in this great book. Kolker does not focus solely on the hunt for the serial killer (or, perhaps, serial killers?). Of course, it is an unsolved mystery to this date, and we may never know the truth about these women’s deaths, as unfortunate as that is for the victims and their families.  But that is where Kolker strikes gold in our hearts: he concentrates on the victims, their lives and their hearts, and what made the veins in their bodies pulse as opposed to what eventually ceased all life in them all together.

Kolker somehow remains both neutral and empathetic, showing how sex work is necessary for many individuals who cannot make ends meet, or may seek out the profession for many other reasons (even, perhaps, enjoying the work).  The author is nonjudgmental and as fair with the story as he can be, acknowledging the fallacies in people’s own stories and arguments, and meanwhile struggling to uncover the truth for these women. There is definitely a sense that Kolker wants to champion these lost girls, as the title states, long after their deaths, and have them remembered for the brilliant but complicated lives they lived.

Of course, there is a twist.  In fact, there may be more than one, but I can’t really tell you that.  Why would I spoil what Megan Abbott has claimed is the greatest book of this decade? (Yes, you heard me correctly, she actually said that.) I have purposefully avoided giving details because you need to pick up a copy of this book and give it a try, and you need to reach out to family members and friends and show them the work of Robert Kolker.  This is not solely to appreciate the life and work of Kolker himself, but also to remember the women lost to brutality and an America that only cares for privileged women who can be viewed as “victims,” not lost girls.

MysteryPeople Review: THE RED PARTS: AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A TRIAL by Maggie Nelson

  • Review by Molly Odintz

9781555977368Maggie Nelson, author of Bluets and The Argonauts, is one of the most original voices writing today, and one whose work provides us with a crucial perspective on the intersection of modern thought and experience. Maggie Nelson’s latest book, The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trialis difficult to define – part true crime, part memoir, part critical analysis, and part courtroom drama, this book serves as a multidimensional platform for Maggie Nelson to recount the fallout from her aunt’s murder in 1969, the trial of her murderer decades later, and society’s obsession with the deaths of young, attractive white women.

The Red Parts is not Nelson’s first work to explore her aunt’s story. In 2004, Nelson had already finished a book of poetry called Jane: A Murder, exploring her aunt’s life, death, and unsolved murder, when her aunt’s case was reopened with the addition of new DNA evidence. Police had previously thought Jane to be a victim of a serial killer, yet had never conclusively proven this, and new DNA evidence linked Jane’s murder to an entirely different suspect. The Red Parts follows Maggie Nelson and her mother through the trial, as they have a chance to come to terms with the past, and finally learn the full story behind Jane’s murder.

Maggie Nelson destroys the boundaries between personal and political, fact and memory, creation and critique, ivory tower and public forum, and for this book, dead and alive.

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Hollywood & Helter Skelter: Alison Gaylin Discusses her Reading Road to Crime Fiction and WHAT REMAINS OF ME

 Alison Gaylin, author of several suspense novels and psychological thrillers, including most recently  What Remains of Metells us about her early writing inspirations: Southern California geography, pop culture and true crime. 

  • Guest post by Alison Gaylin

L ots of crime writers fall in love with the genre at an early age, via mysteries like The Hardy Boys series, Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew. Not me. While I did read and enjoy a few Nancy Drew books, she was too perfect for my taste – I much preferred her flawed but loveable friends George and Bess, who, in my opinion, didn’t get anywhere near enough page-time.

“It was Helter Skelter. I thought it was about The Beatles. And, while I realized early on that it was, um, not… I was hooked. The flip side of the movie magazines I poured over, this was another form of escapism – a long look under the glittering rock of Hollywood; a larger-than-life ugliness, all the more terrifying because it was true.”

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