Archive for ‘true crime’

March 7, 2011

la reina ha muerto

by Megan Abbott

The main character in my third book, Queenpin, which is about to come out in Spain, was heavily inspired by the tumultuous life of  mob courier Virginia Hill, née Onie Hill, a.k.a. Virginia Norma Hall, a.k.a. Virginia Herman, a.k.a. Virginia Oney d’Algy, a.k.a. Virginia Gonzalez, a.k.a. the Flamingo.

I wrote the book exactly four years ago and somehow never came upon this terrific glamour shot that Cultura Impopular located for this interview:

virginia hillFour years after I wrote the book, she still intrigues me.  One of ten children born, as legend has it, to an drunken marble carver and mule salesmen, she left home at 17 and moved to Chicago, where she made some very dangerous friends.

If remembered at all now, it’s as a gang moll, Bugsy Siegel’s girl, the one for whom he named the Flamingo Hotel. But she was more than that (and nothing like the Annette Bening character in Warren Beatty’s heavily sanitized Bugsy). An extremely powerful mob courier for what used to be called “the syndicate,” she shuttled hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1940s and early 50s, to Swiss bank accounts and back.

It was a dangerous business too, and her end was not pretty. (A case of questionable suicide at age 49.)

You can see her testifying at the Kefauver hearings here, at 0:43 (omerta, indeed):

She was also highly quotable, declaring to an eager press corps at one point that she had more fur coats than any woman in the country.

Gloria, the mob courier in my book, is in many ways much softer than Hill. When reporters tracked her down in Paris to give her the news that her lover Bugsy Siegel had been murdered in the home he bought for her, Hill reportedly replied:

“It looks so bad to have a thing like that happen in your house.”

March 4, 2011

dream (il)logic

by Megan Abbott

Now and again, I go through phases—frequently as a result of poor (yet legitimately pharmaceutical) choices—of bad dreams.

I am in the middle of such a phase (including an especially terrifying one involving angry squirrels). And it’s a real drag right now because I’m revisiting one of my favorite true crime books, the highly contested Black Dahlia Avenger by Steve Hodel. A retired LA cop, Hodel  devotes hundreds of pages to proving that his father, George Hodel, is not only the killer of Elizabeth Short, AKA “The Black Dahlia,” but possibly scores of other women in Los Angeles in the 1940s (and earlier, and later).

I have conversations with folks about this book at least every few weeks. It seems there are many of us who are haunted by its particular blend of truthiness, utter throw-the-book-across-the-room implausibility and the humming ring of real, and deeply haunting, truth.

Going back to bad dreams, though—well, this book gives me very bad dreams. It’s a disturbing, exotic and strange world George Hodel lived in—doctor, lothario, friend to surrealists, decadent. And Steve Hodel renders it well.  (Do read Craig McDonald‘s wonderful Toros and Torsos novel and the book Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder for more on this world.)

The point is, I cannot possibly read this book before I go to sleep.  Instead, I am watching Larry Sanders, or reading The Believer’s first-rate film issue (more on that in the days to come). But it reminds of conversations Sara and I have had about the possibility of “directing” our own dreams (and about lucid dreaming). Can one “will” bad dreams away—or more pointedly set the stage for good ones?

This is all a long (sleepless) way of saying, speaking of surrealism, I got a postcard in the mail from my dad:

The caption is “Gadget Dance, 1936,”  and it’s Depression-era timestamp is significant. But the main thing is, I smiled very widely when I got it, and have placed it above my computer.

This picture, like so many of those Busby Berkeley musical numbers from the 30s, are sometimes what we think of when we think of dreamscapes. So my goal tonight, is to dream my way into this.

Personally, I want to be the washing machine girl in the back, with the balloon bubbles. (Who can tell me what the girl behind the oven and next to the radio is supposed to be? Jack, I’m asking you!).

February 28, 2011

dark eyes glowin’: meet Craig….

by Megan Abbott

I met Craig McDonald after reading his terrific first novel, Head Games, which was nominated for Best First Novel Edgar Award (as well as the Anthony, Gumshoe and Crimespree Magazine awards). The first in his series, Head Games introduced us to McDonald’s recurring hero, pulp novelist and Hemingway pal Hector Lassiter, a true adventurer who cuts a swath across the mid twentieth century.

Since then, he has published two magnificent follow-ups, Toros and Torsos and Print the Legend. Just a few weeks ago, his latest, One True Sentence (the title, a nod to Papa), which brings us into the glimmering, orgastic world of 1920s Paris, hit bookstores.

Craig has also published two definitive collections of interviews with crime authors, Art in the Blood and Rogue Males. In fact, I’d read Craig long before I knew him, having come upon his remarkable interview with the notoriously tricky subject, Mr. James Ellroy. We’ve met many times since (and Craig interviewed me for Mystery News, a rare treat for me). I must say that no one is doing what Craig is doing, or doing it so well—his novels are sprawling tales that masterfully combine the “high” and “low” markers of mid-century America—from pulp novels to high modernism, from surrealism to film noir—showing how they are always-already inextricably linked.

We are so lucky to have a post from Craig today…but first he indulges us in our questionnaire (and we are delighted to have Rip Torn made a repeat performance, a la The Songwriter).

1. what is your greatest fear?


2. what is your favorite way of spending time?


3. what is your most treasured possession?

An early hardcover of the ltd. edition sent me of Head Games by Ben LeRoy and Alison Janssen. It was the first piece of my own published long-form fiction I got to hold.

4. when and where were you happiest?

To date, Scotland, October, 1996. We married there, then spent days tooling around the Highlands.

5. what is your greatest indulgence?

A first edition of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls.

6. where would you like to live?

To my own surprise, I’m thinking more and more about Florida. I’m actually getting tired of Midwest seasons.

7. what is the quality you are most drawn to in a person?


8. how would you like to die?

I’m honestly hoping for some escape clause. I can’t fathom a world without me in it. That’s not ego, but simple personal experience talking.

9. what is your secret superstition?

The number 13, and not necessarily tied to Fridays. I’ve sustained bitter losses on the 13th of various months.

10. what was the best dream and worst nightmare you ever had?

I had a dream in which my maternal grandfather, who set my reading tastes and fiction writing interests, said he loved my first-published novel that was dedicated to him. He died on Nov. 13, 1980. The book appeared fall of 2007. Worst nightmare? I had a too-vivid imagining of something terrible happening to one of my children. That actually fueled a plot point in Head Games.

11. what song do you most hear in your head?

That’s a heavy rotation, and usually tied to something I’m writing. But most stubbornly? Jim Croce’s “I Got A Name.”

12. what do you read/watch/listen to when you are feeling badly?

Read: I’ll usually crack open Eye of a Cricket, by James Sallis.

Watch: Alan Rudolph’s Songwriter. That film never fails to make me smile.

Listen: Something singer/songwriter-driven. Probably Tom Russell, or maybe Kris Kristofferson. Right now, I’m on Glen Campbell/“Galveston” kick. Who can explain these things?

13. what do you consider to be the greatest elixir/restorative?

A new view, a notebook and a pen…good music.

14. what’s something you never told anyone?

That’s the stuff that ends up in the books, and I’m not prepared to run a highlighter over it.

Follow Craig on his blog, or on Twitter.

February 8, 2011

Eight Million Stories in the Naked City

by Sara Gran

Megan wrote a few posts about photographs had inspired her writing. They have for me, too–in particular, Weegee‘s photos were a big inspiration when I wrote Dope. Weegee was a photographer who took pictures mostly in New York City–his peak production was the thirties through the late fifties. He started off as a photojournalist, using a police scanner to get to crime scenes and the like to get the first pics, and then developed renown as a more general photographer.

The other night I saw NAKED CITY, the Jules Dassin movie, for probably the third time. Naked City is at least in part based on Weegee’s photos–many of the scenes are directly modeled on his photographs. Yet I’ve forgotten the relationship between the photographer and the film–if they optioned his book (also called Naked City) or just “borrowed” his ideas. Weegee’s name wasn’t in any the credits or even in the special features. But many scenes in the movie actually begin as reconstructions of his photos, even duplicating his lighting, which then come to life. If you know the photographs it’s kind of amazing. I’m guessing there’s some kind of legal monkey business at work here, though, because Weegee’s name seems to have been erased from the history of the film. Anyone know the story here?

And, of course, the later TV show was inspired by the film. This was on TV about 3 a.m. throughout most of my adolescence and I watched it almost nightly. That and Ben Casey. What a world I thought adults lived in!

I haven’t seen many Jules Dassin films, but the two I’ve seen–Night and the City and Naked City–are tops. By the way, all the consonants in his name are hard–DASS-in isn’t French, as I’d always assumed, but an American who moved to France and made some films there after got blacklisted. Combined with the name, everyone apparently jumps to same conclusion I did.

February 2, 2011

then her world turned upside down

by Megan Abbott

A few years ago, on my first trip to Oxford, Mississippi, one of my most favorite places in the world, I had the great good fortune not only to meet in person the marvelous writer and bon vivant, Jack Pendarvis (Awesome, Your Body Is Changing) but his wife, Theresa Starkey, who was, at that time, working on her dissertation, The Woman on the Scaffold.  Coincidentally, I was working on a novel based on the “trunk murderess” Winnie Ruth Judd. For a long time, we all sat at the Ajax Diner (oh, the salad with the blackeyed peas and smoked catfish … to be there now!), discussing Winnie Ruth, Lizzie Borden and other female criminals.

The Woman on the Scaffold is now complete and utterly riveting. Weaving together history, film and culture in ways both striking and relevant, it explores and unravels shifting representations of notorious female “offenders,” from Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter) to Martha Stewart to Tokyo Rose.

Theresa kindly agreed to answer a few questions for me.

MA: In The Woman on the Scaffold, you are talking about something far more subtle than female criminals—you’re also talking about criminalized females, such as businesswomen as threats, interlopers who are then criminalized or contained. Did the notion of “woman on the scaffold” became wider as you went? And, ultimately, what does the term mean to you?

TS: These women represent the shadow side of the good girl or proper woman. Each woman was put on display and made a spectacle. Each one was forced to take the stand and face the public.

These anxieties swirl around in the imagination like phantasmagoric figures or nightmares, and then all of sudden a sensational crime occurs. The pressure valve comes off.  It all comes out. Then the scaffold becomes the newspaper, the movie screen, the courtroom or novel and these women become a prism. Anxiety, fear, secret desires, etc., pass through this prism. The women and their stories become fractured and distorted. That’s the way I see it, anyway.

Hester [Prynne] is a businesswoman, a single mother, forced to support herself and her daughter by plying her needle. The community loves her lace and want to buy it but they hate or resent the woman. There’s a lot of tension in that. She became the shadow of  the working woman for me.

When I was doing research, I came upon this piece by Emily Jane Cohen, writing about Martha Stewart, and how she was treated in the press and the media after her fiscal improprieties. She compared Stewart’s bashing and public shaming to Hester Prynne’s to bring her point home. That was great. It showed me just how much Hester has become a real woman to people.

MA: Hester is a character so many of us see as inextricably linked to a particular era, to American Puritanism—and thus unconnected to our “liberal times.” But you look at her as someone who stands outside of history. That, whenever she re-emerges, she becomes this screen onto which we project our own anxieties about the transgressive woman.  How did you come to choose her as your central figure?

TS: I rediscovered Hester as an undergraduate at Georgia State University, when I did an independent study with Dr. Chuck Steffen. He is an amazing scholar and let me combine my two majors (film and history) to explore representations of early American history on film. It was then that I first watched Victor Seastrom’s silent version of The Scarlet Letter starring Lillian Gish. Seastrom’s adaptation, combined with Gish’s performance, blew me away.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film (and novel) is when Hester emerges from the prison and makes her way through the somber crowd to the scaffold. Gish stares at the camera and seems to be challenging the audience as much as the fictional community. That image haunted me. I guess you could say that after that I went through a period of gestation until graduate school.

MA: Have you seen the new movie, Easy A?

TS:: I have seen Easy A. Hester’s ”A” is appropriated as a badge, but the protagonist in the movie only plays the role of outsider. The good-girl-gone-bad is performance art, an identity that she sheds in the end.  Ambiguity is what is missing. Also, the puritan community comes off as a kooky subset that’s easy to laugh at, which misses Hawthorne’s (and Gish’s) implication that the reader or audience is being judged along with the community.

MA: It’s so interesting that the directness of Gish’s stare, its challenge or provocation, inspired you—the defiant female face recurs, but in a different way, in the case of Patricia Hearst. You talk about the threat of those images of her with weapon in hand, but you also discuss her cipher-like quality, which has always stuck with me. When I see those famous pictures of her, I think, “she will never yield to me her secrets.” Her flat California voice too. I remember reading an essay by Joan Didion about the frustrating enigma of Hearst’s memoir, which tells what happened to her in such detail but never about how it all felt. Which becomes a way of protecting herself, an active choice.

TS: The famous image of Hearst wearing a beret, holding her gun, ready to take aim, unsettled people for a number of reasons, but I believe it struck a nerve because it revealed the possibility of fluidity when thinking about identity, especially a woman’s.

Hearst could be the socialite, the revolutionary, the college student, the daughter, the victim, the fiend, the woman on the lam, or perhaps the girl standing next to you in line at the supermarket, who just happens to be wanted by the F.B.I.

MA: You make some fascinating points about Paul Schrader’s selective use of the memoir in his film, Patty Hearst, and his use of her face. What does she become for him?

TS: I feel that Schrader  tried to capture her innocence and vulnerability, and expose how in an instant one’s life can be altered, that violence exists, that it never seems real, it is always on the margins (out of the frame, in the darkness)—until it happens to you.

He wanted to make the opening sequence authentic by using bits and piece of her memoir in the voice-over, but he tweaks her words. The subtle act reminded me of an early American criminal confession and the way the accused’s voice or tale was written down by an intermediary and edited in order to create a cautionary tale for the public. Instead of “beware young reader,” it becomes “beware young viewer.”

He does use her face in close-up at the end of the film, when she looks directly at the camera and chides the public for judging her but, the declaration doesn’t wash for me. It feels hollow because Schrader spent over half of the film turning her into the sexualized woman, a theme that he has explored in films like Hard CoreTaxi Driver and Cat People. There’s a certain element of shame to it.

MA: I’m a big Schrader fan and you really tease out just the complexities and contradictions that make him such an interesting filmmaker. As with so many movies by “personal” filmmakers, his movie is really more about his Patricia Hearst, the one he wants to honor and rescue in problematic ways (shades of Taxi Driver, Hardcore, as you say).

TS: Yes, I think Schrader wants to honor and rescue her. I also think he is a little frightened of her. Nicole Cooley, in “Patty Hearst: A Love Poem,” has a line that she uses again and again, “don’t look at me.” It’s the opposite of the way most artists have approached Patty Hearst. Hearst has been interesting in the way she has taken control of her identity in roles on TV and in movies, sometimes playing an alternate version of herself.

You call her Patricia. Isn’t it funny that I have been calling her Patty? These women get girlish nicknames like Patty and Lizzie when they hit the public eye and then the childish innocence is stripped away from those names. In the beginning, the names show that the press and the public want to be personal with them and believe they are uncorrupted. But that goes away, and the names take on a more notorious tinge.

I actually wanted to include a section on Janet Jackson. I was mulling over the project at the time the nipple-gate event occurred at the Super-Bowl. I was stuck by the piece of red fabric that peeked through Janet Jackson’s  bustier. People went crazy over her wardrobe malfunction. She was corrupting poor Justin Timberlake. He didn’t get the heat like she did. To me he always seemed to recede into the background like Reverend Dimmesdale.

MA: I kept thinking of how fascinatingly your thesis would play out with other women, such as Aimee Semple McPherson or Winnie Ruth Judd (whom we talked about in Oxford way back when). Were there any you nearly included or wanted to?

TS: Mary Surratt would be interesting, but she doesn’t linger in the public imagination the same way, although I hear there’s a movie being made about her (directed by Robert Redford). I think it is telling that the four women I chose have all been referenced on The Simpsons. Martha Stewart even played herself.

MA: How about instances of men on the scaffold in this way, their threat palpable in the culture, their bodies made spectacle?

TS: Yes, I’ve been thinking about men lately. That sounds unseemly. I’m interested in exploring representations of the working-class body.

MA: And we haven’t even brought race into this. But knowing I could go on forever, maybe I should finally release you. Of course, I can’t possibly neglect to mention the delight I had coming upon your discussion of The Thrill of It All, featuring my favorite, Doris Day, as a housewife who attempts to enter the workforce, to slapstick effect (what could be funnier, really—and yet it IS!). ”I want to be a doctor’s wife again,” she cries out at the end, returning to home and hearth.

Which leads me to my final question, is it ever hard for you to reckon with movies you love that you find ideologically quite alarming?

TS: I love watching the Lifetime Movie Channel. I get a kick out of their movie titles like Deadly Vows, Deadly Honeymoon, Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, The Perfect Son, I could go on. I find a lot of the movies on Lifetime ideologically alarming. Sometimes I think, David Lynch was moonlighting on this one.

A lot the movies on Lifetime deal with domestic narratives and suburbia. I watch them and feel like the message is “Beware, ladies,  your neighborhood is a dangerous place!” Sometimes I think the lesson is that fear is the proper response to everything. The best thing to do is not leave the house. On the other hand, maybe it’s in the house with you.

The stories often deal with the image of the housewife who “suddenly has her world turned upside down” (to use commercial-speak) by some kind of predator—the other woman who wants her husband or her family and will kill for it, or the heroine thinks she has met Mr. Right but he is a polygamist. He had eight wives and killed them.

Doris Day was in Midnight Lace, which is a precursor to these types of films. Also, the Martha Stewart TV movies starring Cybill Shepherd cycled through on that channel.

MA: Lifetime! The female gothic lives on. This has been great, illuminating and a little terrifying in the best possible way.

TS: Thanks so much. The gothic does live on.

Currently teaching at the University of Mississippi, Dr. Starkey is in the process of editing a themed anthology on crime and punishment.

January 5, 2011

Miniatures, Models, and Queens

by Sara Gran

Speaking of movies, I saw IRON MAN 2 last night. There were two interesting things in this movie. One was the great multi-layered use of miniatures/architectural models and the great NYC locations. For mysterious reasons Iron Man has a big exhibition/show/whatever-he-does in Flushing, Queens, home to both the 1939 & 1964  World’s Fairs–you may  know it as the place with the giant open-sided steel globe (the Unisphere). Now, the interesting part is that there was a sub-plot about Iron Man’s father (who as it turns out is Roger Sterling!), in which Father built a giant scale model of the whole Flushing World’s Fair complex (!!) and made a short LOST/Dharma-Initiative-ish film with the scale model as a prime feature (!!). As if that wasn’t cool enough, it turns out this scale model, when rearranged, holds the key to saving Iron Man’s life, or something like that! (And proves that Roger Sterling really loved him after all, but who cares?)

Now this is especially interesting because although they didn’t mention it in the film (at least not that I noticed), Flushing is home to its own outstanding model/miniature–a nearly 10,000 square foot building-by-building model of all of New York City, called the New York Panorama, made by a family of insane people to re-enact famous New York crime scenes with mice, kittens, and puppies in costume. No, not really (but wouldn’t that be cool?)–it was built for the 1964 World’s Fair, held in the same location (I just break in at night and do the kitten thing for fun). I went there with none other than Megan Abbott a few years back, and we had lots of fun pointing out places where we’d lived, gone to school, etc.  They’ve even got the Roosevelt Island tram up and running! It is truly extraordinary. The Panorama is housed in the Queens Museum, a nice place in its own right. So there’s some fun little layers here in an otherwise not-too-fascinating film.

The other interesting thing about IRON MAN 2 was that the women were less stupid and whorish than in Iron Man 1. Did people complain about that or something?

December 27, 2010

Down the Checkered Rabbit Hole

by Sara Gran

Oh, the rabbit hole of the Pseudo-Occult Media Blog. This blog is a bit of a hub for a belief that used to be on the fringes but , via the magic of the internet, seems to be gaining fans: that many of our pop stars–Brittany, Miley, Lindsey, et al–are mind controlled sex slaves owned by the Illuminati (who are also running our government, other governments, and the whole world). Which, interestingly, we can trace back to a true story:

Step 1: This all started with a horrifying kernel of truth: via Project Bluebird, Mk-Ultra, and other now-famous programs, our army and CIA did indeed work it’s best to create mind-controlled soldiers from the end of World War II through the seventies. Given the billions of dollars poured into black ops every year in this country, I’m fairly confident they’re still trying. (Have they succeeded? Well, since we have mixed evidence either way, you’ll have to decide for yourself, but that’s a digression).

Step 2: In the 1970s, a former model named Candy Jones wrote an autobiography called The Control Of Candy Jones, claiming that she, a civilian who had occasionally delivered packages for the CIA,  was also a victim of Mk Ultra. (This still seems entirely possibly to me, by the way, but I’m digressing again.) After Candy Jones, mind control victims started coming out of the woodwork. See The Encyclopedia of Mind Control by Jim Keith from the excellent Adventures Unlimited Press for more.

Step 3: Skip ahead a few years to the early eighties, and the recovered-memory hullabaloo. A lot of people were remembering and going public with  true stories of childhood abuse; a lot of people were also coming up with Satanic ritual abuse stories on a scale that couldn’t possibly be true, fueled by unscrupulous shrinks, media hype and, quite likely, real, less dramatic, abuse. Less well-known is that this linked into the recovered-CIA-slave-memory stream, and soon we had lots of people, mostly women, remembering childhoods as CIA programmed sex slaves. This is where I start to lose faith, not because I put this past our government–I put nothing past the government–but because it seems like a whole lot of work to go through when, for better or worse, there’s plenty of decent-looking people out there who will have sex for free or for cash or a clean DUI record. Creating mind-controlled slaves sounds like a lot of work!

Step 4: And then we get to the strangely hypnotic Pseudo-Occult Media. According to current theory, there are certain “triggers” the sex slaves (and other victims!) of the Illuminati are trained to respond to: images of butterflies, cages, fairies, black/white checkerboard, dolls, keys, and most of all eyes, everywhere eyes looking, staring, probing. And why this blog is fascinating to me is because the author is absolutely right–these and other “Illuminati” symbols are everywhere in pop culture, especially in reference to the Mileys and Brittanys of the world, and I never noticed it before he pointed it out. Spend an hour or so on Pseudo-Occult and you, like I, will be haunted by the recurring images of girls with butterflies, girls in cages, girls wrapped in bird feathers, and most of the recurring, ominous checkerboards.

There’s no question the author is on to something here. I happen to think what he’s on to is a previously unrecognized strain of psychological breakdown in our culture. Something about these images of hope, the repeated symbolic capture of these girls–it’s spooky stuff. The sadness of the child star is also evoked here: these young women are, in a very sad sense, “slaves.” Was Brittany ever given a choice in being Brittany? Would Lindsey, maybe, rather study the classics if she didn’t have an army of people counting on her for paychecks? Lord knows I liked to party when I was their age, but I didn’t have an empire to support.

Like many conspiracy theories, I think something very real is being looked at here. Myself, though, I would draw a somewhat different conclusion. And as for you–well, look at the evidence read the books, and decide for yourself. Remember, you’re still allowed to believe whatever you want, and you don’t have to justify it to me or anyone else.