Today I’m pleased to welcome Pat Bertram for a discussion about gangsters, personal quests and where in the world such ideas come from when we sit down to write a novel.
Pat is the author of More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and a new novel just released from Second Wind Publishing, Daughter Am I.
Here’s the publisher’s description of the novel: “When twenty-five-year-old Mary Stuart learns she inherited a farm from her recently murdered grandparents—grandparents her father claimed had died before she was born—she becomes obsessed with finding out who they were and why someone wanted her dead. Along the way she accumulates a crew of feisty octogenarians—former gangsters and friends of her grandfather. She meets and falls in love with Tim Olson, whose grandfather shared a deadly secret with her great grandfather. Now Mary and Tim need to stay one step ahead of the killer who is desperate to dig up that secret.”
Malcolm: As a writer of Scot’s ancestry, I can’t help but notice that our latest novels both use the Stewart/Stuart name with alternative spellings. I chose Stewart as my protagonist’s last name in Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire because it’s a well- known Scot’s name. Did you name your in Daughter Am I Mary Stuart because that’s a historic Scottish name (Mary Queen of Scots) or because the name just seemed to fit the character?
Pat: Neither. I wanted to choose a non-Italian name to show that not all members of the Mob were Italians. The Sicilian Mafia was clannish and only allowed their own kind to become members, but the Jewish/Italian alliance known as the Mob or the Syndicate welcomed all nationalities. The Scottish aspect was an accident, though. I based my hero on Mary Stuart Masterson in Bed of Roses—I liked that she was smart and capable, yet tentative when it came to life and love. Mary Stuart was just supposed to be a working name until I got the character developed, but by that time, the name had become ingrained, and impossible to change.
Malcolm: There’s a story like this behind many fictional characters. I hadn’t thought about the fact that—as the Wall Street Journal once headlined—the Mob is an equal opportunity employer. You have described Daughter Am I as your “young woman/old gangster coming of age tale.” It’s a story I enjoyed immensely. To many people, the word “gangster” is term for really nasty criminals. But as I read your novel, I wasn’t seeing today’s version of gang-related criminals, nor the mean, old fashioned criminals made famous by the noir films of the 1940s and 1950s. Instead, I was finding con men of another era as popularized by the movie “The Sting.”
Pat: Very astute of you. Although the dates work out that the characters would have been in their prime in the 1940s and 1950s, they are based on bootleg era characters. It’s sort of ironic—the point of my writing the book was to demythologize the Mob, but I ended up perpetrating another myth—that the old-time gangsters were somehow better than those today. And maybe some of them were. During the depression, at times the only job a man or a boy could get was working for the mob.
Malcolm: Meanwhile, NASCAR keeps trying to disassociate themselves with their bootlegger origins. As for perpetuating new myths, that’s where a sequel comes in handy. The tone of my Jock Stewart novel is drawn somewhat from the style of the old, film noir movies featuring a detective with dark secrets and a lot of voice-over narration. I relied on my memory of those films more than I relied on film-noir reference books. But Daughter Am I features a string of old-time gangsters that it would have been hard to write about without being an old-time gangster or doing a lot of research.
Pat: Lots and lots of research, though not all of it is mine. I have an historian friend who has regaled me with tales of gangsters for many years. In fact, I got to the point where I couldn’t watch a gangster film with him because he’d keep up a running commentary about all the things the filmmaker got wrong, and I’d miss half the story. I did a lot of research myself, though, and it was a special joy when I discovered something he didn’t know! Most of the information isn’t on the internet, but resides in . . . gasp! . . . books.
Malcolm: While telling Mary what their lives were like, your characters also bring out a lot of information about the criminals of yesteryear which serves, in passing, to educate the audience.
Pat: All my books seem to have a character like Teach, my learned con man, who tends to be a lecturer. The hardest part of editing for me was to take out everything that wasn’t essential to understanding the story. I worry that Teach’s talk about the history of gold is a bit much, but there is no way to understand why the gold was buried without understanding the history of the era. I did try to space the lectures, though, to add a bit of suspense at times or to offer a respite from the action at other times.
Malcolm: You bring in an aspect of the country going off the gold standard that most people today are unaware of. There’s a lot of humor in the book in spite of the fact Mary’s life is in danger during her quest to learn more about her grandparents. First, here’s a rather straight-laced young woman riding around with gangsters whose idea of getting supplies if more to knock over a store than to go in and make purchases, but most of the people she meets have old-style nicknames which—for today’s ears—are rather funny.
Pat: I enjoyed coming up with the names. Some names I stole, like Kid Rags, which was the name of a 1900s gangster in Hell’s Kitchen, and others were inevitable, like the morbid wheelman named Happy. As for the humor—that too was inevitable. When you get together so many different characters, each with their own quirks, such as Kid Rags and his fondness for bourbon, it’s easy to be humorous. The disparity in age between Mary and the gangsters could have been a source for humor, but I chose to ignore that for the most part and went for the moral difference. The law breaking they took for granted was anathema to her.
You ended up with a lot of quirky names in your book, too: Jimmy Exlibris who never took his nose out of a book, Cotton Mouth the preacher, Hank Kruller the police chief. I like those.
Malcolm: In the Jock Stewart book, some of my characters names are puns. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
Pat: I like the synchronicity of our main characters having basically the same surname. It’s fitting, since there are so many similarities in our books—both revolve around a crime, yet neither are strictly genre mysteries. Both have a romance at the heart, but neither could be classified as a romance. Both are humorous, though Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire is filled with puns, and Daughter Am I is pun-free. And both books are filled with quirky characters with quirky names.