UNCOVERING THE UNDERWORLD
When I began planning my historic gangster vampire novel Drawing Dead, I knew that I was in for a lot of research. However, what surprised me was the amount of digging and sifting through contradictory information I had to do. I’d always been interested in the gangsters of the 1920s and 30s, and I thought I had a fairly solid grip on the major figures of the period.
Instead, the truth of men like Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Arnold Rothstein, Dutch Schultz, and Jack “Legs” Diamond proved difficult to separate from the many myths that have grown up around them. Do a quick search of the internet and you’ll find dozens of sites dedicated to these men and their stories, many of which repeat half-truths, exaggerations, and outright fabrications from other sources. Initially, I believed all of these stories as well, since they were the legends I’d heard in movies and books. It was only upon reading more widely and noticing contradictions from biography to biography that I began to realize how much more to the story there might be.
Luciano, for instance, has had so many exaggerations and myths attached to him (some by seemingly-reputable sources like former FBI Director Harry Anslinger) that even many biographers and historical documentaries continue to reprint lies and legends as if they are a verified fact. Ask many gangster buffs and they’ll tell you that Michael Corleone’s famous assassination of the family leaders at the end of The Godfather is based on a mass “hit” of gangland leaders by Luciano upon forming the Commission. And they are wrong. No such nation-spanning series of murders ever occurred. While Luciano was behind the assassinations of “Joe the Boss” Masseria and Salvatore Marranzano, two rival bosses responsible for the “Castellammarese war,” both men were Luciano’s direct bosses. Their killings were nothing more than a standard criminal coup. Even the origin of his nickname is often falsely attributed to his survival of a violent torture and stabbing in 1929. In my research, I discovered that friends had called him that for years before due to his success at the gambling table.
The gangsters themselves often don’t help matters. While Luciano worked with a writer to author The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, there are obvious questions of his honesty given that he was engaged in trying to get a movie made about his life at the time. Luciano is a rarity for his period since most famous gangsters actively avoided leaving records or memoirs. Newspaper articles of the period are often filled with misunderstandings, inaccuracies, and even deliberate misinformation.
One of the other racketeers who figured big in my protagonist’s life was Jack “Legs” Diamond. While his name is familiar to many, there are surprisingly few books written about the man. I remember looking him up in various other books and finding a wide range of characterizations and narratives based on whether he was being examined on his own or as the enemy of Dutch Schultz. I eventually tracked down a few recent, independently published books that were well-researched with sources, but so much still required the connecting of dots and, eventually, me simply deciding which version of events suited my story the best.
Most authors who work in historical fiction are well aware of these kinds of problems, but to me, this period is especially awkward. The events seem both recent enough to be well-known but often become less clear as you approach them. Because we can see it in movies, we tend to think we know the Jazz Age, but we forget how much our mentality and society has changed. Nothing brought this lesson home to me more than researching Arnold Rothstein.
Arnold Rothstein is known to most as the gambler and underworld figure who “fixed” the 1919 World Series of Baseball, but obviously, there is much more to his story. For such an important figure of the time, there isn’t much material of any depth available about him. There are only two biographies, The Big Bankroll from the 1950s and the more recent Rothstein, but luckily both are excellent. His ex-wife wrote a memoir about their time together called Now I’ll Tell after his death, but it’s been out of print for decades and I wasn’t able to find a copy. However, what I found in Rothstein’s biographies was a much greater consistency and agreement on the facts of his life and his personality. This made him a much easier subject for me—which was great because he plays a much larger role in my book than the others.
The surprise came to me as I realized that, despite having much clearer references, the writing of Arnold Rothstein still required me to bring him to life in my imagination. Just as I had done with Jack Diamond and Luciano, I had to “create” my own version of Arnold Rothstein. I felt a bit more confident in my characterization, but the research still didn’t answer all my questions. Nor would it ever. I still had to use my imagination to fill in the gaps.
The lesson I learned was that, while research is an important part of writing about historical figures or events, there will always exist that gap between a figure and a character. Research can sometimes give you the facts, but often those facts will be forever in dispute. Only the author can close that final gap by breathing life into a historical figure and transforming them into a character. What I learned was to embrace this rather than fight it. Doing the research has made me more comfortable with my portrayals of these underworld figures, but I’ll never know for sure how close to the mark I came.
And I’m okay with that.
Thanks to contributing writer Brian McKinley for sharing his research for this Mystery Thriller Week Historical Division post. Brian is also an MTW participating author.
You can find Brian McKinley’s paranormal suspense books on Amazon and you can find him on Twitter @BPMcKinley.