Monday, June 11, 2012

Q&A: Wallace Stroby

Fans of Richard Stark owe it to themselves to read Wallace Stroby, because right now no one writes about ruthless thieves and hard luck heists any better. Kings of Midnight, his terrific follow-up to last year’s Cold Shot to the Heart, was recently published. He was kind enough to participate in a VKDCQ&A.

Q. What can you tell us about KINGS OF MIDNIGHT?

It’s my fifth novel, and my second about Crissa Stone, a female professional criminal. In Kings of Midnight, she teams up with an old-school wiseguy named Benny Roth to recover a couple million in stolen cash stashed away years ago.

Q. The 1978 Lufthansa heist, featured in the film GOODFELLAS, is a crucial part of the book’s plot. Does it loom in the underworld imagination as you’ve depicted it here? Are people still out there trying to hunt the haul down?

It’s ancient history now, but at the time it was the largest cash robbery ever on American soil. It was a wiseguy’s dream score. Even the crew that pulled it off were surprised at how much they took away, which was estimated to be anywhere from $5-$10 million – no one knew for sure. But the fact so many of them were murdered afterward – without ever getting their share – took the bloom off the rose a bit.

There were three nonfiction books written about the robbery, and two movies made – one of them being Goodfellas – and everybody has their own idea about what happened to the money. Only about $30,000 of it was ever recovered, and only one person – the gang’s inside man at the airport – was ever charged in the crime.

The general consensus after all this time seems to be that the money was divided up pretty quickly after the robbery, and distributed to various mob bosses in New York and Florida, with some of it possibly going into a sort of investment fund for mob-owned businesses.

Q. One of your characters observes, “You could walk down Lefferts Boulevard with a sign that said, I RATTED OUT JIMMY THE GENT and no one would give a shit.” Is the Mob truly in this sorry a state these days?

It still exists, of course, but its glory days are over. The 1970s were its heyday, with the rise in drug use, pornography, gambling and other traditional mob moneymakers. Thirty years of serious prosecutions and use of the RICO act have taken their toll. The RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization) statute was enacted in 1970, but it took about 10 more years for law enforcement to really learn how to use it. The big difference was, with RICO, anyone found to be part of a criminal enterprise could be convicted of racketeering, based on certain crimes committed by that enterprise, even if they didn’t take part in them personally. Federal prosecutors, especially in New York, where the Five Families held sway, really went to town behind that one.

Q. When the action shifts to the northern part of New Jersey, a character says, “This part of Jersey always makes me nervous. All these mountains. I don’t like it.” I know firsthand that parts of the Garden State are like the forest primeval. What do people always get wrong about New Jersey? Related question: how many times have you seen the Jersey Devil?

You can find just about anything in New Jersey. I live near the beach, but if I drive 20 minutes west, I’m in rural horse farm country. Forty minutes north is one of the densest industrial areas in the world – second only to Saudi Arabia – but if you veer a few miles west of that, you’re in the mountains. We’ve got low-rent trailer parks and multimillion dollar mansions within minutes of each other, plus 130 miles of accessible coastline. Surfing is huge here.

I’ve yet to see the Jersey Devil. Or the New Jersey Devils, for that matter.

Q. Are there any additional challenges in having your steely professional criminal protagonist Crissa Stone be a woman?

It actually makes it a lot more interesting. Being a woman, she would do certain things differently than a traditional lone-wolf male protagonist. She would make alliances, have relationships, form bonds. And violence, though part of her world, would be something she avoided as much as possible.

A lot of her story and her motivations so far have had to do with personal relationships, a lover/mentor who’s in prison, and a young daughter who’s being raised by a relative. As a result, her partners in crime and her loyalties to them – and vice versa – also become larger issues. Plus, being a woman in a man’s world, she has to be twice as smart, twice as tough and twice as resourceful just to be treated as an equal.

Baseball Q. What do you think of your man Bruce Springsteen’s pitching form in the “Glory Days” video?

Can’t speak much for his pitching ability, but I saw him with the E Street Band in Newark last month and, at 62, his performing skills are more impressive than ever. I’m biased, of course, but I have seen many, many Springsteen shows over the years, and if any artist in any genre comes close to him in live performance, I don’t know who that is.

Movie Q. What is an underrated heist movie?

I could reel off a dozen. The 2005 Argentinean film The Aura, which you recommended to me. Richard Fleischer’s brilliant 66-minute Armored Car Robbery from 1950, one of my favorite B films. Hubert Cornfield’s Plunder Road from 1957. Payroll, a gritty kitchen-sink British crime drama from 1961 starring Billie Whitelaw and the great Tom Bell. I could go on.

Cocktail Q. You’re in a well-stocked bar. What do you order?

When I do drink these days, which isn’t often, it’s usually red wine, preferably Bordeaux, especially a Haut-Medoc. Beer in a social situation. Never been a fan of cocktails, aside from the occasional margarita or mojito in warm weather. Sorry, I know that’s disappointing.

Ed. note: Not even remotely, Wallace. And neither is KINGS OF MIDNIGHT.