The Killer Named Gyp The Blood

I've spent much of the last few weeks with my head floating around in an imaginary version of New Orleans, editing stories for Narratively's week on the Crescent City. We have some really lovely stories up there, none closer to my heart than the one I spent entirely too long working on, about a Storyville murder that has largely been forgotten. We'll see if I can fix that. 

Ever since the first flatboat sailor came down the Mississippi, loaded with cash and rotgut whiskey, New Orleans has been wary of outsiders. On Easter Sunday, 1913, a trio of New Yorkers learned that lesson well, when they found themselves in the center of a gunfight that forever altered the nation's most famous red light district. Driving the chaos was a man named Charles Harrison, better known as Gyp the Blood.

After the shooting, Harrison got his picture in the paper, under the headline "Harrison Bad Man." The Daily Picayune described him as a cold-blooded killer with a cocaine habit and a sideline in white slavery, but the picture does not match the crimes. About thirty years old at the time, Harrison is shown as soft-featured, with a bulging nose and an awkward smile. In his left hand, this "man of evil days and black surroundings" clutches a small white dog.

"He was spruce," the Daily Picayune would later write, "even dapper in appearance, as far as clothes went, but his pale, smooth-shaven face, bulging at the eyes, caving into sunken cheeks and squaring into a brutal jaw, bore the cold, steely cast of unregenerate impulse to crime."

Gyp the Blood was a hardened criminal of the Lower East Side. Or perhaps he was a fake, a coward who killed a man to prove he wasn't scared. He was a dupe, tricked by his employers into throwing his life away. Or he was a wild man, whose itchy trigger finger caused a bloodbath, and ruined business for hundreds of law-abiding purveyors of vice.

In the photograph, all Harrison seemed to want was to show off his puppy.

If you like that, there's about 5,000 words more. Eat it up—it's juicy.

Dammit, Maisie Dobbs, You Let Me Down Again

Few pieces of art stay mindblowing for long. A great TV show is only red hot for a season or two. A favorite band releases dud albums. Most novels sag in the middle; most great movies let us down in the end. And a play that's brilliant one night may be flabby the next. It's no surprise. Brilliance is a passing thing.

We live in an era of media glut. Hollywood may be making less movies than ever before, and the major publishing houses may be spewing out less fiction, but music, TV and small-scale theater is as fertile as a farmer's daughter in the springtime. (I'm not sure what that means, exactly, but it's an appealingly filthy image.) This means we don't have to be satisfied with anything less than brilliant entertainment. Once a piece of amusement becomes less than perfectly satisfying, we can discard it, and move on to something else, like a bored Roman emperor ordering a pair of gladiators killed so he can skip ahead to the next fight.

It's hedonistic. It's fun. And there's nothing sadder than having to move on to the next thing.

There is an acute sense of disappointment tha comes when we realize that, shit, this thing I like isn't perfect any more. I've written about it before as regards television, and this weekend I encountered it again, this time in print.

I'm in a dry stretch as far as fiction goes. My preferred vice is crime fiction, and aside from the relentless pleasure that comes from reading Ed McBain, I haven't read anything truly wonderful since I picked up Larry Block's When The Sacred Ginmill Closes last summer. This is partly a problem of genre. A devotee of a form that lends itself to formula can hardly be surprised when he goes months or years without stumbling over something original. But I'm not looking for a reinvention of the form. All I wanted was something well-written, amusing and fresh—something that didn't have to do with serial killers.

(As an aside, is there anything less interesting than a serial killer? I can enjoy it once in a while, but in general, they're just crackpots. Crazy people do crazy shit. Where's the fun in that? Stories about serial killers aren't even really murder mysteries—they're butchery, and it makes me yawn.)

On vacation this weekend, a book called Maisie Dobbs caught my eye. A mystery starring a plucky young woman in 1920's London, whose only weapon is keen observation and an empathetic sense forged in the trenches of World War I France? Might it possibly be a real detective novel, and not a suffocating cozy mystery? The praise quote on the front—from the New York Times, no less!—told me to "be prepared to be astonished." I decided to take the chance.

I'm coming quite late to this party. The first in a ten book (so far) series, Maisie Dobbs was published in 2003. Lots of people have heard of, read and loved this series—as my bookseller informed me, it's her mother in law's favorite. If Jacqueline Winspear's work had passed me by, it's just because I make a habit of avoiding mystery novels written by people with names like Jacqueline Winspear, for fear that I might be wandering into another Agatha Christie trap

Have I mentioned lately how much I hate cozy mysteries?

But Maisie Dobbs is no cozy, and it charmed me immediately. The hero is plucky, but not insufferably so—a battle-scarred nurse who has put every shilling she has into a detective agency, and spends much of the book's first hundred pages pinching pennies. (I like my detectives realistically broke. Every PI novel starts with a complaint about how little work the snoop is getting, and yet he never has trouble paying for his car, women, or booze.) Her first investigation is peppered with hints of a traumatic past—hints that make us interested in Maisie without slowing down the action. The book is quiet, mannered and grim, and I found myself getting my hopes up. "This is brilliant," I thought, "and there are nine more in the series!" And then, around the hundred page mark, the narrative comes to a howling halt.

As if not confident that her heroine was holding our attention, Winspear decides to dive into young Maisie's origin story, leaping back to the day of her mother's death, some decades before. Maisie is taken into service by a kindly, progressive London Lady, and what follows is chapter upon chapter of wheezing Upstairs, Downstairs action that is as deflating as one of the more predictable storylines in Downton Abbey. What was fresh turns sour, and the pages of my attractive little Penguin edition, I find, begin to turn much more slowly.

It was around the third chapter in Lady Rowan's London house that I began to feel it creeping in. Disappointment had returned. I'm still going to finish Maisie Dobbs, and if the ending is more Sherlock than Downton, I'll probably pick up the sequel, in hopes that it avoids dallying around the Christie-fied manner house that I loathe so much. But the balloon is popped. This isn't going to be My New Favorite Thing. I'll have to move on to the next bit of culture.

Park Slope's Littlest Looter

As the national guard contains looting on Coney Island, and thousands of police amble across lower Manhattan, making sure the inhabitants of the Chaos Zone don't get too rowdy, a very tiny, very adorable crime wave has swept the hitherto peaceful confines of storm-spared Park Slope.

I was in line at the Associated Supermarket on Fifth Avenue earlier this evening, replenishing my larder after a few days hiding from the rain. (Oh God, how I fear the rain.) A rather cute four year-old stood in front of me, clutching a tiny purse and looking every bit like a woman out running errands. Playing casual, she wandered over to the candy section, fingered a pack of Bubble Tape and then glanced at her mother.

And then came...the crime!

Little Miss Dillinger unzipped her purse, picked up the Bubble Tape, and slipped it in. She lost her cool when the zipper wouldn't close, and was trying to force it shut when Momma noticed.

"Put that back. Come on."

She put it back.

"You little sticky fingers. Come here. God, and you've got all that Halloween candy at home."

"There's no more Halloween candy! There's no more Halloween candy!"

About this time, the little girl started crying. I don't think it won any sympathy from Mom, but she avoided prosecution.

Rebecca In Peril, and Only Captain Planet Can Save Her Now

The Long Island flim-flam-fellow behind giving Rebecca her final curtain—or is it?!—has been arrested on Long Island. And here, perhaps, I should make some joke about Long Island already being a prison to begin with, but I'm feeling a bit lazy even for that kind of lazy humor. Onward we press—with the news!

"To carry out the alleged fraud, Hotton faked lives, faked companies and even staged a fake death, pretending that one imaginary investor had suddenly died from malaria," reiterated the United States Attorney Preet Bharara. "Ultimately, Hotton’s imagination was no match for the FBI which uncovered, with lightning speed, his alleged financial misdeeds."

Truly, the FBI should always be depicted as some kind of fraud-fighting superhero supergroup. If Preet Bharara were a member of the Captain Planet team, which one would he be? Fire, I bet. Seems like a fiery guy. And, I did not realize this, but the closing credits for that 90's classic start with the unbeatable credit, "Original Idea By: TED TURNER." Between Chipper, Cap'n P, and the Gulf War, the 90s were really Big Ted's decade, eh?

And a note to Mary E. Galligan, the acting assistant director of the New York FBI—fraud is not the only crime that is plaguing Broadway. The strip also has a terrible problem with belabored metaphors, and you are not helping!

Ms. Galligan said  Mr. Hotton “wrote, directed and starred in the work of fiction he took to Broadway,” adding that a “convincing portrayal on stage can earn you a Tony” while “a convincing act that fleeces a production’s backers can earn you a prison term.” 

The Times piece ends with a quote from Ben Sprecher's beleaguered lawyer, who insists his client is "totally committed to bring Rebecca to New York." Poor, poor Ben Sprecher. Totally committed may be the right phrase.