There once was a Mayor of a great American City who was so feral, so clever and devious and charismatic, that he could commit crimes in plain sight — even go to jail — without losing his electoral mojo. He succeeded because he managed to convince his constituency, who were of the same ethnic identity and color as he was, and who were the majority in his town, that he was their protector and friend. He did so by actually being their protector and friend, and bending the law to their ends, at great cost to the city. He was the bane of reformers, who he managed to paint as anti-Irish bigots. He was not brought down until the City’s finances crashed, and not brought down for good until he died.
I am talking, of course, about Major James Curley of Boston, whose riotous regime in the early part of the last century inspired the wonderful novel and movie, The Last Hurrah.
The real Curley was not the cuddly old uncle Frank Skeffington that Edwin O’Connor drew up, but it is how people remember him now. (Curiously, despite coming off much better in the book than he was in real life, Curley sued O’Connor’s publisher, and won a settlement of $46,000.)
Anyone who would write about Marion Barry, whose tumultuous reign in Washington, DC bookended the twentieth century with Curley’s reign in Boston, would be wise to remember the lessons Curley taught us. Viewed from above, the Barry years were an unholy mess of no-bid contracts, special favors, crack cocaine, schools in chaos and — my favorite — the electricity turned off for non-payment at the City morgue. But the people of his city elected him mayor four times, and after he was done with that, they returned him to a seat on the City Council which he held until he died.
So a Hurrah-type book about Marion Barry might show him in all his bluster and deviousness, and also how he was the only politician his constituency trusted, for all of it. My writing partner, Lee Hurwitz, and I considered doing a book like that — and took a pass. Instead, we decided, we were going to have some fun.
So we took the idea of Marion Barry and put it on steroids. We created Wendell Watson, a brilliant, cynical man who manipulated his way through politics, and is now tightly ensconced in the Mayor’s office, and a shot caller in the world of crime as well. He has his Directors, his Chiefs, and his Secretaries, and also his fixers and hit men. He rules his world, and his underworld. He sips fine single-malt Scotches, and orders murders.
So one evening — and I realize I’m giving away the first thirty pages or so of the novel — he decides to engage in a little extra-curricular activity with one of his staff, in the Mayor’s Office. But it turns out that while he is discovering the delights of this woman’s body, he also discovers the recording device in her purse. And so he hits her. Hard.
And she hits back. Hard. With a bottle of gin. And then with an ash tray.
And then a member of the Mayor’s protective service bursts into the room and shoots her in the head.
And then someone else — a woman who had been in his office to steal a bid proposal and who had been hiding — suddenly arises and sprints out of the room.
And then Watson — high on excitement and arousal and also the little bit of cocaine he had sniffed up earlier — commissions the man who had just killed his lover to also eliminate this witness.
But here’s the thing: this novel, though fictional, is about real people. And real people tend to disappoint those who expect them to act from type. So the protective service member who Watson commissions to murder the witness, though he has a bad anger management problem, is also lonely, and sentimental. And the woman he has been sent to kill, far from being a victim, is clever, resourceful, and not terribly scrupulous. And when Watson realizes his mistake, he reaches out for a real professional killer. Who happens also to be a stone lunatic.
Lee and I had a blast writing this tale. Editing was another story. Editing is always another story. We went through about ten drafts before we thought it was ready for market. Our heroic agent, Diane Nine, took it to about two hundred places.
And we waited.
I already told you about Lee’s incredible efforts to get this piece marketed. (If you missed it, I invite you to read “Persistence”.) And he and Diane succeeded, and as a result Capital City is now available for pre-order in paperback and Kindle, ready to ship on November 1. You can order it on Amazon. And you can help show two hundred publishers, timid about giving new writers a chance, that they should give them a shot.
What’s next? A novel about an unscrupulous President?
I’m on it.