Thursday, August 25, 2022

J.L. Abramo, Author of Homeland Insecurity


J.L. Abramo was born and raised in the seaside paradise of Brooklyn, New York on Raymond Chandler's fifty-ninth birthday.


A long-time journalist, educator, and theatre artist, Abramo earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology and Education from The City College of New York and a Master of Arts Degree in Social Psychology from The University of Cincinnati. At Cincinnati, Abramo led the published research study Status Threat and Group Dogmatism (Human Relations, 31 (8): 745-752).


Abramo is the author of Catching Water in a Net, winner of the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America Award for Best First Private Eye Novel; the subsequent Jake Diamond Novels Clutching at Straws, Counting to Infinity and Circling the Runway (Shamus Award Winner); Chasing Charlie Chan, a prequel to the Jake Diamond series; Gravesend; Brooklyn Justice; Coney Island Avenue (a follow-up to Gravesend); and the generational novel American History.


Homeland Insecurity is Abramo’s first book-length work of non-fiction.


He and I first met at the Shamus Award banquet in New Orleans, where we shared a table with the team from Down & Out Books. That’s the year Joe won for Circling the Runway, besting, among others, me. I was more than hapopy for him. He’s a good guy, a fine writer, and the book is more than a deserving winner.


Let’s talk about Homeland Insecurity.


One Bite at a Time: Homeland Insecurity is quite a departure for you. What made you dip your toes into the non-fiction realm?


J.L. Abramo: I had done a good amount of journalistic writing before trying my hand at fictionand that experience has always influenced my novels.


In the Jake Diamond mystery series, there have always been references to events of the times—as well as mention of period music, movies, and the like.


In Chasing Charlie Chan, a novel taking place primarily in 1994, and flashing back to 1940s Hollywood and Las Vegas, there are a good number of historical events and real-life characters—the O.J. Simpson murder trial, Major League Baseball strike, the Charlie Chan films and the fate of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel to cite several examples.


In my novel American History, as the title may suggest, more than ninety years of historical events are woven into the fictional generational tale of two feuding Italian-American families.


So, tackling strict nonfiction was not a tremendous leapand was something I had probably been drifting toward for some time.


OBAAT: There were hundreds of murders in this country during the time frame from which you picked those you chose to write about. What made them special?


JLA: I first came across the Edgar Smith/Victoria Zielinski case when I found Smith’s book, Brief Against Death, at a yard sale. I had read other books that were written from within prison walls, and had always found them compelling. Smith had been on death row for more than 11 years when the book was published and he had managed to recruit an influential supporter, William F. Buckley Jr., as Jack Henry Abbott had done with Norman Mailer.


In 2003, Gerald Mason was arrested less than a mile from where I lived in South Carolina—accused of murdering two young police officers in California more than 45 years earlier.


Smith and Mason were born eight days apart in 1934, and both crimes took place in 1957.  These coincidences were what started me thinking about taking the cases together if I eventually decided to go ahead with a project.


OBAAT: You intercut actual events that occurred on the day things you focused on happened, or that took place in the intervening time since you last described your primary story. It’s highly effective for giving the reader a sense of the world at that time. What gave you the idea to do that, and how much research was involved?


JLA: These crimes took place when I was ten years old. To attempt gaining insights, I tried to look at these events in relation to the changes America was going through following World War II and throughout the fifties and sixties—the Red Scare; the new icons in music, film, and literature; the proliferation of crimes against children; serial killings; and the decrease of confidence in political leaders. I began seeing it as a story of how the murders may have affected the times and how the times may have perhaps instigated the crimes. That led to my decision to present these cases as I did—within the context of the time periodsrelying on a considerable amount of research as well as on my own personal memories of growing up in those decades.


OBAAT: Court transcripts and police interviews figure prominently in the book. Court transcripts are a matter of public record, but how were you able to dig up police interviews from 65 years ago?


JLA: There was coincidence here as well. Guy Calissi was the Bergen County prosecutor in the Smith murder trial. Calissi was born in the same year as my father in 1909. He died the year my father died, in 1980. By the time I first came across the case, and ultimately decided to explore it, Calissi was gone.


However, he did have a son—born the same year I was born—and he was an invaluable help. Ronald E. Calissi had written a book about his father’s famous casepublished in 1972not long after Edgar Smith’s release from prison. He was able to supply me with the transcripts of police interviews from 1957, a transcript of the ‘infamous’ Q&A Assistant Prosecutor Fred Galda conducted with Smith, and full trial transcripts. The younger Calissi passed away in 2016.


OBAAT: You obviously had a well-formed idea when you started on the book. Did your research change your thoughts about anything, or solidify them?


JLA: After reading Brief Against Death I began, as Bill Buckley obviously had, considering Edgar Smith’s innocence. When I finally located Smith’s follow-up book, Getting Out, I was fascinated by how the legal system worked in this—and in many cases. For nearly fifteen years, Smith professed his innocence and remained on death row in Trenton, New Jersey. When he ultimately plead guilty to a lesser offense, Smith was immediately released.  As I continued to investigate, my thoughts and opinions about Smith changed considerably.


In the case of Gerald Mason, I was aware of the outcome before researching the background of the 1957 crimes—but my exploration changed my thoughts and opinions about the power of persistence in criminal investigation.


OBAAT: Did you discover anything in your research that surprised you beyond the routine surprises one expects when doing research, whether the surprise was pleasant or unpleasant?


JLA: There were great surprises but, to avoid what would be terrible spoilers, I will have to leave them to the readers of Homeland Insecurity to discover.


*  *  *

And we’ll leave you with this perfect setup to buy the book and see what it is Joe has been talking about. It’s a fascinating read.


Thanks to J.L. Abramo for taking the time to chat with OBAAT today. Best of luck with the book, Joe.


For more about Joe, please visit:


Thursday, August 18, 2022

Is Robert B. Parker Overrated?

 I recently re-read Robert B. Parker’s Double Deuce after having been away from his work for quite a while. I followed up with the first of Ace Atkins’s Spenser books, Lullaby. This brought me to two conclusions:

1.   Atkins taking over the franchise was an improvement over the later Parker books

2.   Parker wasn’t as good as he’s often made out to be


Blasphemy, I know. I have my reasons.


The early Spenser books, up through about Looking for Rachel Wallace, are excellent. They’re tight, they’re reminiscent of Chandler in a good way, and the suspense holds through to the end. Especially in Rachel Wallace, there’s a true sense of danger and suspense.


After A Catskill Eagle, not so much.


Spenser and Hawk become almost cartoonish superheroes, wisecracking their way through violent encounters that I can’t take seriously because they don’t appear to. This is particularly grating when the situation calls for treating the antagonist with some seriousness, such as in a negotiation where they need or want something. I’m all for graveyard humor, but Spenser and Hawk just bullshit. It’s generally high-quality bullshit, but that’s all it is.


Let’s look at Double Deuce, since that’s fresh in my mind. Using David Mamet’s screenwriting technique of reading the book, putting it in a drawer, then going with one’s memory, here’s what Double Deuce is about:

·       Spenser is hired as security for a housing project

·       Spenser and Hawk sit around in cars bullshitting, waiting for something to happen

·       Spenser and Hawk prevail


Spenser and Hawk morph into such badasses that there’s no sense of danger directed toward them. It’s as if Spenser was Superman and there was no kryptonite.


There are other issues.


Among the better aspects of Lullaby is the refreshing lack of screen time for Susan Silverman and Pearl the Wonder Dog. I’m not a shrink, and I don’t know what either Frasier or Niles Crane would say about Spenser and Susan (or of Parker and his wife Joan, for that matter) but this is not a healthy relationship, and it gets tedious. Parker too often stops a story to show cloying interludes where Spenser and Susan flirt eruditely to show off their intellect and taste (to each other?) and Spenser makes something to eat.


Spenser can cook, as Parker reminds the reader often and in intimate detail. The books became less about stories as the series went on and more about the filler of Susan and cooking and bullshitting that didn’t really move things along.


“It’s a PI novel. Even you have to admit they’re character studies of the detective.” Good point. Read enough Spenser novels and you’ll find the cooking and the attention to attire and the woke male elements are all there is. There is little or no nuance to the character. He never changes.


Add to that something that appears obvious to me, though I know there are those who will argue: by the end, Parker was mailing them in. I once took a 300-page book out of the library, started reading it after I got home from a writers group meeting, and finished by bedtime. I am not a speed reader. There was more white space than book, and not just because Parker wrote a lot of dialog. The margins and space between the lines were enormous.


For a man who wore his wokeness so much on his sleeve well before woke was a thing, he also had a lot of archaic tendencies. Appaloosa, the first Virgil Cole / Everett Hitch book, is an excellent story well told. (This series also tapers off book by book.) The relationship between Cole and Allie is much the same co-dependent bullshit as with Spenser and Susan.


The Sonny Randle novels, written ostensibly to show a strong woman, not only portray Sonny as Spenser with internal plumbing, she might as well be an alcoholic. Not because of her drinking, but because the books are inevitably about how much Sonny doesn’t want to call on her ex-husband and his mob connections to save her, while we know all along that’s exactly what she’s going to do.


Robert B. Parker made a ton of money from his novels, and deservedly so. He gave a lot of people, including me, much entertainment over the years. I’m happy when any writer gets paid, so I’m glad to see the series have continued on with other authors, though I wonder if maybe at some point the Parker heirs might want to find real jobs. Popularity doesn’t make one great. We can all name writers who have sold even more books than Parker who, frankly, don’t write all that well. (Not that I’m going to name any here. Sour grapes and all.) Parker struck a chord that resonated with a lot of people, but, in the end, his body of work is not impressive enough to mention him with the greats such as Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, Crais, or Lehane.

Friday, August 12, 2022

The Dark Side

 I’ve long had an interest in dark stories. Not horror or gothic, but real-life bleakness. Movies such as The French Connection, Chinatown or LA Confidential. TV shows like The Wire, The Shield, or Deadwood. Even songs along the lines of “Tom Traubert’s Blues” or “Red Right Hand.”


None of this makes me special, but I wondered about it for years. I grew up in a semi-rural area in what a friend once described as a Beaver Cleaver household. There was the usual youthful angst, but my parents and I always got along, my brother and I are close, and Dr. Sole Heir and Lieutenant Son-in-Law give every indication of enjoying my company. Hell, I even get along with my ex-wife (the first one) and (almost all of) her family. I’ve never had problems with drugs or alcohol or the law. I’ve never fought in a war or been the victim of a violent crime; PTSD is not a problem for me. I’d have to say I’ve led as happy a life as anyone I know.


So where does this affinity for such stories come from?


I am the product of a liberal arts education, the primary benefit of which is to instill the love of continued learning, and provide the tools to accomplish it. I grew up working-class in a depressed economy (Greater Pittsburgh in the 60s and 70s when the mills couldn’t close fast enough), have seen family members out of work, and had a couple of lengthy bouts of it myself. I’ve seen what things could have been like had not I caught some timely breaks.


I also read David Simon’s and Ed Burns’s book, The Corner, where they spent a year in the vicinity of one of Baltimore’s worst drug corners getting to know the people who lived there. Not the fiends and dealers so much, but the 90% who have to try to get through their days fighting what’s around them.


No child looks forward to growing up to be a heroin addict or alcoholic. People often dabble as ways to ease the pain or tedium or frustrations of their lives and before they know it, they’re addicts. Do they bear some responsibility? Of course they do. Is their situation their fault? Not the way “fault” is typically used.


I think it was former Texas Governor Ann Richards who once described George H.W. Bush as having been “born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” (That’s unfair to the 41st president, who spent many years in distinguished service to the country; maybe she was predicting 43.) It’s a good descriptor for people who were born wealthy yet still consider themselves self-made. President 45 is a classic example.


The thing is, the older and (hopefully) more observant I get, I see it at lower levels. Born a straight, white, cisgendered male started me on first base, regardless of my working-class roots, and, as any student of baseball can tell you, getting on base is the most important element of scoring runs. I had nothing to do with that. I’m intelligent and self-disciplined, but these are accidents of birth. I have made a nice life for myself with these attributes, but nothing extraordinary, and there was little holding me back.


How does this lead me to the stories I mentioned above? I think it’s because I appreciate that such things didn’t happen to me, and through little effort of my own. People are caught up in horrible things not of their own creation all the time. It’s good for me to be aware of what could have happened.


Authors tend to write the kinds of stories they read; I am no exception. I write them to work thoughts out for myself, but also as a way to express to others what kinds of things can befall us. I am acutely aware that I have no bona fides for writing such stories, never having experienced any of the above. The best I can do is to try to relate how an average person might react to such a situation.


That’s why my protagonists are not alcoholics or drug addicts or abuse survivors, nor do they suffer from PTSD. I would not presume to try to relate how any of those folks would react to the situations I write about. I’d be no better than a dilettante, and would do them a disservice. I can describe how an average guy might react, and how continued exposure to such situations might wear on that person. So that’s what I do.


I have stories in my head right that take me places I have not previously gone as a writer. These stories will take work, and they’re going to have to be aware without being self-conscious. I think I can do them justice, but I’m not sure. All I can say is that I’ll do the best I can, and, if I don’t feel I have measured up…well, I’ll keep the results to myself.


The next couple of years will be interesting for me.



Thursday, August 4, 2022

Am I an Introvert?

 A Facebook discussion erupted a couple of weeks ago over whether I am an introvert or an extravert. While those who know me best understand I am very much an introvert, I can appear to be extroverted at times. The person with whom I had the discussion knows me only through Facebook, so the error is excusable, as I am not bashful about posting there, and I have over 1600 friends.


The fact that I may appear quite the social butterfly on Facebook is misleading. I’m out and about online because it does not require me to actually go out and about. The first year of the pandemic was no great hardship for me. I was already working from home, and having most of our groceries delivered meant I only had to shop about half as often. Even prior to the pandemic restrictions, it was not unusual for me to go six weeks or more without having to buy gas.


Many of my Facebook friends are people I have never met in person, and quite likely never will. (You’re welcome.) They came across me through someone else, or read an interview in conjunction with one of my books, or saw a blog post they liked. That’s part of being a writer, which is an occupation made for introverts.


So what is an introvert? To me, courtesy of The Beloved Spouse™, it’s someone who draws energy from solitude and expends it around others. There’s only so much interpersonal interaction we can deal with before we have to be by ourselves to recharge the batteries.


A note in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary entry reads:


Introverts are typically more comfortable interacting with small groups of people rather than large groups (as at parties). The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung first introduced the terms introvert, introversion, extrovert, and extroversion in the early 1900s to describe personality types that focus a person's energy on either the inner or outer world. The terms introvert and extrovert have since become widely popularized, with introvert often broadly used to mean "a quiet or shy person."


Few who know me would think me either quiet or shy, but that’s because they know me. I’m comfortable with them, so I feel free to open up. Until we reach that point, it kills me to approach someone I don’t already know well. I literally sometimes have to pretend to be a character (“What would Nick Forte do?”) before I can introduce myself to someone, even if this person is already aware of me and I know would be happy for the introduction.


The question also arose as to how I can speak in public at readings and conference panels with no apparent strain. I used to teach, both at the adult and scholastic levels, and always enjoyed it; if I was born to be anything, it’s a teacher. I’m one of those relatively rare people who enjoys public speaking.


So how does that fit into my introversion?


If I’m on a panel, or doing a reading, or teaching a class, the people I’m speaking to are there, at least in part, to listen to me. The introductions have been made, and I didn’t have to do it. It’s easy now for me to tell myself these people want to hear what I have to say, which makes it a bit of a performance. As a recovering musician, I understand performances, and respond accordingly.


That said, after such an event, especially a large conference such as Bouchercon, I’ll be exhausted for a few days. I was speaking to a man at Bouchercon several years ago when I realized I had no idea what he was saying. It was midnight on Saturday and I had hit the wall. Luckily, I ran into him the next morning and apologized for my abrupt departure. He waved it off. “We’ve all been there.”


I spend a lot of time in my own head, where often there’s barely room for me. While I enjoy contact with others, I rarely seek it, and I typically need a reason. “Let’s get a few beers” is not a reason; I have beer at home. “Let’s get a few beers and meet some people.” Fuck no, for reasons cited above. I vet Facebook friend requests by checking to see how many mutual friends we have, and, often, who they are.


I am not evangelizing the benefits of introversion; I understand there are many things I miss out on. You either are this way, or you aren’t. It’s a spectrum, and each person exists on a different level. I am comfortable where I am, and sometimes have a hard time imagining living any other way. I’m sure the same is true for you, no matter where you fall on that spectrum. It’s a primary reason writers enjoy writing. We get to imagine doing things we’d never do in a million years, even if the opportunity was staring us in the face, without having to leave the house.