Thursday, 8 December 2011

Robert Knightly - Turning A Life Into Crime Fiction

Our guest blogger today is Robert Knightly. Robert is a former police officer with NYPD with over 20 years’ service. He retired from the police force in 1987 with the rank of Lieutenant. He is now a trial lawyer practising in the criminal and family courts. His short stories can be found in Brooklyn Noir, Manhattan Noir, Brooklyn Noir 3, Best American Mystery Stories 2007 and Queens Noir which he also edited. His first novel Bodies in Winter introduced readers to his protagonist Det Harry Corbin

When I was 12 years old, away at a religious boarding school among the potato fields on the North Shore of Long Island, I read (under the covers, after lights out) the novels of Leslie Charteris, detailing the adventures of Simon Templar, The Saint. Fifty-plus years later, I don’t remember the plots, but do remember that the Saint’s right hand man was Hoppy Uniatz, and that it was okay (not a mortal sin) to kill bad men, as the Saint did regularly to those who needed it.

Was that an early obsession with crime and its uses? Don’t know, but should report that I left the body count behind and devoted my remaining teen years and twenties to ‘literary fiction’, where few died if ever. Although, in the interest of completeness, I must say there was a period there when I referred often to friends and acquaintances as “Old Son” (as the Saint was forever doing). But I never murdered anyone, even in a good cause.

Although I did join the New York City Police Department as a rookie Patrolman in 1967. I trace that event---in a somewhat roundabout way—to what happened to me in a Creative Writing Class in college years earlier. My first ever short story was a murder which I set against the background of the City Room of a large daily newspaper, and it was viciously panned by a student in class as “lacking in verisimilitude” (in fact, she laughed as she said it). I still remember the cutting words, the laughter, her name (which I won’t reveal to protect the guilty). True, I had never been in the City Room, or any room, of a large daily newspaper even though in those days there were seven in New York City, which was my home and the college’s. So, five years later, upon discharge from the U.S. Army, I got a job as copyboy on the New York Journal-American, the Hearst afternoon daily. This was the Fall of 1963. So, on the afternoon of November 22, 1963, I stood amidst the reporters, rewrite men and editors on the wood-planked floor of the City Room of the Journal-American, disbelieving as Walter Cronkite, on TV, competed with the roar of the linotype machines next door to report the death of President Kennedy. The following year. The Journal-American’s machines fell silent as the paper quit publishing. That left me adrift until I landed a job as Editor and sole staff-member of the sister publications, Contract Cleaning and Maintenance Supplies Magazines. Not my cup of tea, however. So…the NYPD.

Truth is, the blue-collar Greenpoint, Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up and swam in the East River off the docks opposite the Manhattan shoreline primarily produced longshoremen, bartenders, roofers, bookies, numbers runners, and civil servants, especially fire, sanitation and policemen. I went through the six-month-long Police Academy training with other young men whose life’s goal had been to become cops. That wasn’t me. But like them, I saw police work as exciting, an adventure, not to mention the good pay, steady work and benefits. Yet, when a college friend, shocked at my new employment, asked me why, I replied as thoughtfully as I could that ‘The Job’ (as we call it) enabled me to go everywhere, even into people’s homes and see how they lived. That reason I gave forty-five years ago for my becoming a cop still holds, I have no greater insight. In a twenty-year police career, I worked the streets as Patrol Officer and Sergeant, instructed detectives-in-training at the Police Academy, wrote speeches for a Police Commissioner, and, as a lawyer in the Police Legal Bureau, counseled units in the field on whether to search, seize and arrest.

I now see a couple of threads running through all that life experience: First , ‘Write what you know,’ the old saw counsels, but the converse of that---Know what you attempt to write about---makes sense to me as more realistic. Second, Get A Life to Write About: yours and/or others’. Find your material and you’ll find your voice.

I began again to think of myself as a serious writer in 1982-83 while I was the Sergeant-supervisor of a team of plainclothes policemen assigned to thwart unlicensed peddling on the streets of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Hot dog vendors, clothing, books, art, bootleg CDs, rugs (yes, room sized, allegedly ‘Persian’) and the Cuban ‘3-card Monte’ men. The 3-card Monte sharks (a dealer, a shill or two, and lookouts on the fringe) operated off a cardboard box set up on the sidewalk waist-high. Three cards lie face down on the box, the dealer then picks up one, an Ace of Diamonds, shows it around, ostentatiously replaces it face down on the box, then in a blur of practiced hands shifts the 3 cards’ positions at the speed of light for less than 30 seconds under the gaze of prospective pigeons. They have already watched as shill-players have guessed the location of the Ace of Diamonds and won money often enough to give them confidence they, too, can beat the dealer. They step up, make a bet, watch the cards move, guess wrong as the dealer turns up one of the other two cars that is the Ace. I don’t know how he does it, either. The team is all men and always Cuban. I know this because my team had been sufficiently stealthy to get close enough to grab the dealer, cards in hand, often enough for me to question one old man. He admitted in workmanlike English to being from the Bronx by way of the Cuban Boatlift. When I asked if all the 3-card Monte men were Cuban, he replied with an elegantly slight lift of the shoulders. A female Judge brand new to the Criminal Court Bench had recently ruled the game of 3-Card Monte to be a game of skill, not a confidence scam, and therefore not illegal. I asked my prisoner if he agreed and his response was a smile enigmatic as the Mona Lisa. (Someday I’ll write the 3-card Monte story; meanwhile, I’ll keep filling notebooks.)

Greenwich Village on Manhattan’s Lower West Side was home then to the well-to-do and professionals in their town houses alongside artists and ordinary folk entrenched in Rent-Controlled apartments handed-down generation to generation (Still is). And colleges, one of which was The New School for Social Research (‘The New School’) where nights I took Creative Writing Courses taught by professional novelists, non-fiction and short story authors. I went there for three years, reading to my teachers the short stories that had started to bubble up in my mind as if from a compost heap. Those men and women, God bless them, assured me that I was a writer and had stories to tell. And they were always short stories. I kept them all, continuing to work on them over the years.

I sold my first story in 2004 to ‘Brooklyn Noir’, an anthology of original crime stories set in Brooklyn, (publisher, Akashic Books). I titled the story, “One More for the Road”, set it in the Greenpoint and Williamsburg neighborhoods where I’d grown up and worked as a young Patrolman. The inspiration was a young cop I’d known (call him Danny) who’d marched this year in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade up 5th Avenue, in uniformed ranks to the cadenced command of the Pipes (as all we Irish cops did), and then fell out at its end on East 86th Street—and into all the Irish Bars along Third Avenue, north and south (also, traditional). Somehow, Danny ended the night in a car in Brooklyn with his Sergeant whom he’d shot to death but had no recollection of the event. What happens now, I asked myself?

I sold other cop tales to ‘Manhattan Noir’, ‘Best American Mystery Stories 2007’, and edited ‘Queens Noir’. Danny’s story stuck with me over the years and became the seed of my first novel, “Bodies in Winter,” (publisher, Severn House, 2009). The real Danny had put up no defense at his murder trial, been convicted and sentenced to 15-years-to-life in one of New York State’s maximum-security prisons. Danny’s prison experience and fateful meeting with the real life Joseph ‘Mad Dog’ Sullivan provided the grist for my only non-fiction piece, “Getting to Know Mad Dog” in Akashic’s ‘Brooklyn Noir 3: Nothing But the Truth’.

In the novel, “Bodies in Winter”, the Danny-character is an alcoholic, violent cop who is accused of beating to death a prisoner in the Precinct cell-block, remembers nothing, takes a plea rather than face trial and is sent away to Attica for seven years. While serving his sentence, David Lodge regains his memory. I asked myself: What happens when a disgraced ex-cop gets out, believing he was set up by his fellow cops? Another impetus to the novel was the case of Abner Louima, a prisoner sodomized with a broom handle by a cop in the washroom of a Brooklyn Precinct in 1997. During the subsequent trial in Federal Court, the guilty cop confessed and was sentenced to 30 years. According to the victim, there was another cop standing watch in the bathroom while the assault took place. He was never positively identified but prosecutors focused on Police Officer Charles Schwarz, and when he swore he was not the lookout in the bathroom, he was indicted and tried for perjury--- twice. Schwarz had many defenders in the legal community who were convinced of his innocence. Ultimately, he served five years in prison. I asked myself: what would a tough cop like Schwarz do when released if he knew the identity of the lookout who had not come forward to save him?

The underlying theme of “Bodies In Winter” is Loyalty: one cop for another, one partner for another. To deepen the theme, I recast the protagonists as Detectives Harry Corbin and Adele Bentibi, partners in a Queens Precinct Detective Squad, investigating a murder that none of the police brass seems to care about solving. Det. Harry Corbin is the best-liked cop in his Precinct—“everyone’s go-to guy”—while Det. Adele Bentibi is aloof, principled, a seeker of justice. A Sophie’s Choice for Harry: his partner or ‘The Job’ (his family)? In pursuit of the killer, the pair cover a lot of ground in the varied neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.

My second novel, “The Cold Room,” (Severn House, Dec. 1, 2011), a sequel, starts on a sweltering July morning in a vacant lot underneath the Williamsburg Bridge with Det. Harry Corbin baby-sitting the dumped body of a young woman, mutilated and seemingly unidentifiable. Harry is awaiting the arrival of the City Medical Examiner, having had to process the crime scene by himself (except for an old derelict on the scene whom he pressed into service). Harry is persona non grata, shunned by his fellow cops of Brooklyn’s 92nd Precinct. The grapevine says he’s a rat, an informer for Internal Affairs. According to Harry, his transfer is in the works the day after he arrives at his new Command. As for Harry, he could care less. He’s finally got a homicide he can work. Det. Harry Corbin knows that he “speaks for the dead.”

The Cold Room” was sparked in my imagination by a news account I read a few years back and kept the clipping. A domestic, a maid in the Manhattan home of an Iranian diplomat, jumped from a second floor window to escape her employers. Investigation showed her “job” to be, in reality, an indentured servitude she’d been lured into by false promises. All that remained for me to do was dump a corpse in Brooklyn, invent the back-story and a worthy opponent for Harry—in this case, Aslan Khalid, a very bad actor from Chechnya.

More information on Robert Knightly can be found here.

1 comment:

Annamaria Alfieri said...

What a fascinating post. And I love your rewrites of the old saw. I am copying them out and posting them next to my computer. I'd bet dollars to all the police donuts in NYC that the verisimilitude dame never grew up to be a novelist!