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.


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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:


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