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Thursday, October 27, 2011

 I was especially taken with Burning Questions, the characters and atmosphere therein.  I have a friend who lives in Gloucester who I directed to the book. Mark Curchack, Philadelphia, PA

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Talking about Class Warfare in Burning Questions

Q. You have intimated that one of the underlying themes of your novel, Burning Questions, is class warfare. Can you explain what you mean and give some examples?
A. Sure.  Keep in mind that it’s done subtly. This is not a polemic. Accusations of “class warfare” are au courant at the moment, especially from people on the right who seem to be whining that things like a progressive income tax are discriminatory against the rich. But that’s not the way it works in reality.  And it is not the way it is treated in the book.
        Burning Questions is set in a fishing community (Gloucester, MA) in 1969. A rich kid is found shot in the head. When his mom rejects the coroner’s verdict of suicide, the Yankee aristocrats and their minions in city government instinctively turn their suspicions on his girlfriend, Christina, who hails from a poor, Portuguese fishing family. They accuse her of being a gold-digger. That’s a form of prejudice that, when it brings the cops down on her, becomes a form of class warfare. The rich would rather see her take the fall than have the kid declared a suicide, which is a mortal sin.
       The central theme of the book revolves around hotel arson. But the arson is condoned and maybe even facilitated by the powers that be. Why? Because syndicates own the hotels, and the intent is to obtain insurance proceeds that will fund real estate development. That’s a rich folks’ game. Imagine how different the law’s response would be if a disgruntled chambermaid torched the hotel.
      Another example in the book is the relationship between Nate and his girlfriend, Diana. He went to a third-rate law school. She attends Wellesley College, a very upscale women’s college that boasts alumna such as Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Madame Chiang Kai Shek. She’s the daughter of a famous artist. She acts brashly at times, with a sense of privilege and impunity. Unlike Nate, she brazenly goes where she shouldn’t, confident that she can use her privileged status to get her out of trouble ¾much like Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick. Nate knows that he can’t get away with the same delinquencies.  Certainly Christina can’t. The different ways the characters are treated by the cops in the story highlights the privileges of wealth.
      Are these examples of class warfare? It is subtle but I think they are. Money buys a different set of rules. So the jails are filled with low-end miscreants when they could just as well be filled with rich criminals who steal much more and end up doing more harm overall. 
     It was Anatole France who pointed out "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." He was saying that a land that is ruled by the profit motive is a land where there is, at its very core, class warfare. Its laws reflect that conflict. It is absurd to pretend that there is no such war going on in America. Apropos of that reality are the evictions of Occupy Wall Street protesters from their campsites.  Sure, they are messy and dirty, but that is not really why the authorities are bring the police down on them. It is the content of their protest that the city bosses who direct the police don’t like. If they liked the content, they’d work something out short of arrests. All over the world there have been protests that have gone on day and night for months and even years. (Think of the mothers’ demonstrations in Latin America calling attention to their children abducted during military coups.) Somehow, even more repressive societies than our own have managed to live with these extended protests. 
       The story in Burning Questions couldn’t, or wouldn’t happen if Nate and, or Christina were members of the ruling elite. They wouldn’t have been picked on the way they were. Rather, they would have been protected

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Question 2: Is Burning Questions both a mystery and a memoir?

Q.    The death of Kenny diSimone that you have said was inspired by an actual homicide took place when you were already an attorney. That’s years after the ‘50s and ‘60s when you lived in Cape Ann.  Did you set your story then to introduce elements of memoir?

A.   There’s no question that there are elements of memoir in this mystery, but it's not really that. My definition of a memoir is "What you choose to remember."  While it is true that much of the background in the novel comes from my recollections of growing up on Cape Ann at a time when the economy of the area was changing, there is too much fiction in the story to qualify under my definition. I don't remember a lot of the things in the story because they never happened - although there are some close approximations. 

For instance, there were several hotels that burned down and Gloucester changed from a wealthy escape location to a commuter burb of Boston. Until WWII, rich people got on the Boston& Maine and went up to some big hotels in Gloucester for weekends, holidays and trysts. The biggest hotel was The Oceanside in Magnolia (a section of Gloucester.)  It had 600 rooms and was extremely upscale. It supported a whole economy of pricey shops in Magnolia. But then they built Route 128 and Gloucester became within range of the average Joe from Boston, along with it acquiring a commuter population. And of course, along with the new commuter population came the usual real estate speculation.The big old hotels were no longer attractive. The rich headed for more exotic locales.  And so, one by one, the old wooden hotels burnt down. The Oceanside burned in 1957. It was getting a frayed at the edges by then.  Everyone suspected it was arson and when the same thing started happening to other venues it became a sort of “no brainer.”

Meanwhile, Russian and Japanese factory ships were scooping up all the fish and the old Portuguese and Italian fishing fleet couldn’t hold its own against these behemoths.  So that part of the economy was changing as well. That economy began to feel the pain.  In the novel, Kenny’s stepfather Stephen is in construction and is profiting from these changes. It lends credence to the diSimone claim that Christina (the daughter of a lobsterman) was gold-digging. 

All of this is grist for a “motive-to-kill” mill.  I didn’t want to just do a psycho-drama about teenage suicide (although a lot of the reasons teens kill themselves is addressed in Kenny’s psychological profile.) I wanted to place Kenny’s death in the context of what was really happening. That seemed to me to be also a story worth telling. Greed. Corruption. Sexual ambiguities. Class warfare.  Good stuff for a murder mystery.

Still, it’s fiction and it would be a mistake to read all of my narrative as factual. I make some very big digressions from the actual facts in Burning Questions. We’ll discuss some of those in another Q&A.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Weekly Question

Every week, I will be posting a question about "Burning Questions." Then I will try to answer it without spoiling the story for readers. If you have one, please don't hesitate to add it to the list.

Here's the first one:

Q: You have a very detailed coroner's report in the book, along with other forensic materials. "Did the autopsy report concluding that the victim of a shooting was a teenage suicide come from one of your actual cases?

A: Over twenty years ago a woman came to me with a stack of materials concerning the death of her son. He was found shot to death in a manner very similar to the description of Kenny's homicide in Burning Questions. She thought her son had been murdered and had been fighting with the police about their having written it off as just another teenage suicide. She told me a lot of facts that raised reasonable doubts about the police conclusion and wanted someone who could convince them to re-open the file. One of the problems she was having was that her son had recently been arrested by the same police officer who also was the investigating officer on the homicide. She claimed that her son knew that this cop was involved in some illegal activities and that he had a motive to kill the teenager. It seemed obvious to her that the police were involved in covering up the truth. I took a look at the documents and concluded that there wasn't very much that I could do, short of launching an independent investigation with PI's, a medical examiner, a court order to get the body exhumed, and who knows what else. I didn't want to take this woman's money on such a long-shot, meanwhile ruffling the feathers of a small-town police department. But I kept a copy of the paperwork in my files all these years. It seemed like a good story. I especially was interested in the way the local authorities besmirched the kid's reputation to discourage any investigation. Of course, I have changed just about every fact other than the forensics of the actual shooting. I read statistics about teenage suicide before writing Burning Questions. Some of the reasons kids kill themselves are incorporated into the story: drugs, alcohol, sexual orientation, parental abuse. It's a really good jumping off place for a discussion of the problem and also for a mystery.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Video Trailer Has Returned!

Okay, we're back in business with the video trailer. Check it out.
YouTube Burning Questions video trailer


If you are in the North Bay and want to hear more about my new novel, BURNING QUESTIONS, I will be reading at the Aqus Autumn Speakeasy Literary Saloon @ Aqus Cafe, Petaluma CA. Gather for a drink, a bite & a feast of words with hosts  Susan Bono & Ransom Stephens.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011 7-9 p.m. @ Aqus  Cafe 189 H Street Petaluma, CA
Admission: $5 (free with meal or book purchase) to benefit Aqus & a literacy organization 

This will be a good time to meet Nate and Christina, characters who will grow on you over the decade of the 70s and whose adventures you will be sad to see ending after three books.