Saturday, April 9, 2016

Murder, He Wrote

Thriller Guy is off at some undisclosed location doing God knows what. I, in the meantime, have been rattling around in that particular writer hell known as What’s Next? That’s when you’ve finished a major project, in my case a memoir of my early years, and you don’t have any idea of what you’re going to write next. This didn’t use to be a problem for me as I had a fiction series I was writing and after finishing one I would just move onto the next. After six of these books (you can find them on Amazon here) I am reluctant to continue the series, mostly because publishers aren’t interested in buying a new one nor are they interested in taking up the cause of the extensive backlist. So unless there’s a groundswell of buyers, I’m going to stick with Johnson’s famous sentiment about only fools writing if there is no money involved. Or at least the possibility of money.

Many kind folks have asked that I extend my memoir, but many of those who I would be writing about are still alive and, frankly, I don’t really want to piss anyone off, which my writing about them surely would.

Those of you who read this blog know that I have spoken about the What to Write problem before. My usual prescription is to settle down with a bottle of gin and drink until I come up with an answer. That doesn’t seem to be working this time, though I am valiantly soldiering on in this direction.

Recently, by accident, I stumbled upon a Wikipedia site that I believe might well spur a solid plotline. It’s an extensive collection of unsolved murder cases in the United States, and it makes for fascinating reading, falling in the I’ll-read-just-one-more catagory. Once you start, it’s tough to stop. Here are a few edited-for-length, interesting examples.

On May 28, 1911, the body of Belle Walker, an African-American cook, was found 25 yards from her home on Garibaldi Street in Atlanta. Her throat had been cut by an unknown slayer, and the crime was reported in the Atlanta Constitution under the headline "Negro Woman Killed; No Clue to Slayer." On June 15, another black woman, Addie Watts, was found with her throat slashed, followed on June 27 by Lizzie Watkins. The search for the serial killer, called "the Atlanta Ripper" by the press, found six different suspects, but no convictions were ever made, nor was the crime ever solved. By the end of 1911, fifteen women, all black or dark-skinned, all in their early 20s, had been murdered in the same manner. The "Ripper" may have had as many as 21 victims, but there is no conclusive proof that the murders were carried out by one person.

6 to seven dead, 6-7 injured from 1912 to 1919
The Axeman was not caught or identified, and his crime spree stopped as mysteriously as it
had started. The murderer's identity remains unknown to this day, although various possible identifications of varying plausibility have been proposed. On March 13, 1919, a letter purporting to be from the Axeman was published in newspapers saying that he would kill again at 15 minutes past midnight on the night of March 19, but would spare the occupants of any place where a jazz band was playing. That night all of New Orleans' dance halls were filled to capacity, and professional and amateur bands played jazz at parties at hundreds of houses around town. There were no murders that night.

He was born Gaspar Griswold Bacon, Jr. Born to a life of privilege and wealth, David Bacon graduated from Harvard. He summered with his family at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, where he became involved during the early 1930s with the "University Players." There he met then unknown performers James Stewart and Henry Fonda, with whom he later shared accommodations while he struggled to establish himself. He moved to Los Angeles where he met and married an Austrian singer, Greta Keller. In her later years, Keller disclosed that Bacon was homosexual, and that she was lesbian, and that their lavender marriage partly served as what she referred to as a "beard", allowing both of them to maintain a respectable facade in Hollywood, where they were both attempting to establish film careers.
In 1942, Howard Hughes met Bacon, and signed him to an exclusive contract, with the intention of casting him in The Outlaw (1943) as Billy the Kid. Though Hughes later decided not to use Bacon in The Outlaw, he kept Bacon to the terms of his contract, casting him in several smaller roles. Hughes did lend out Bacon for a role in the Republic serial The Masked Marvel (1943). The serial was produced with a low budget, and marked a low point in Bacon's career, with Keller recalling that he was completely humiliated. Today it remains his best-remembered work.
On September 13th 1943, Bacon was seen driving a car erratically in Santa Monica before running off the road and into the curb. Several witnesses saw him climb out of the car and stagger briefly before collapsing. As they approached he asked them to help him, but he died before he could say anything more. A small knife wound was found in his back – the blade had punctured his lung and caused his death. Keller, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, collapsed when she heard of her husband's death, and later her baby was stillborn.
When he died, Bacon was wearing only a swimsuit, and a wallet and camera were found in his car. The film from the camera was developed and found to contain only one image, that of Bacon, nude and smiling on a beach. Police theorized that the photograph had been taken shortly before his death by his killer. The case attracted publicity for a time and remains unsolved.

These are just three examples chosen at random from the extensive list. As a historical novelist, these older examples appeal to me more than the current ones, though they are interesting as well. I could imagine writing about 1911 Atlanta, or the Axeman of New Orleans. Imagine the fun you could have writing that scene where all of New Orleans played jazz one night to keep the Axeman from killing again. Fabulous. And I am particularly drawn to the failed actor, circa Hollywood, 1943, stumbling out of his car with a small knife wound in his back as the air leaked out of his lungs while he begged for help. What a story.

Hmmmm. Maybe I’m on to something here. Let me get my gin bottle. Time to do some heavy thinking.