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The Whole Sleuth: A Crackin’ Q&A with Crime Writer Frank Hickey

Frank Hickey has written seven detective novels that are solidly in the style of the hard-boiled crime tradition.

As his bio states, Hickey is a seasoned policemen and detective “with 37 years of crime adventures from the jungles of Thailand to southern swamps to the streets of New York.”

Hickey is also a linguist who speaks seven languages. His skills are impressive, especially when I heard him speak Chinese, and then, later in the evening, French, German, and Russian. Yet, he can also use a Brooklynese slang expression like, “hold your mud,” learned growing up in Flatbush.

I recently met Hickey at a Sunday night reading he gave in the West Village of Manhattan in a bookstore called Left Bank Books. The bookstore hosts a weekly reading series where known and unknown writers can read their work, whether poetry or fiction.

On this particular Sunday night reading, Hickey read two short chapters from two different novels. The first chapter was from his current book, Brownstone Kidnap Crackup, which begins with a debutante’s kidnapping on the Upper East Side.

The second chapter was from an earlier book, Funny Bunny Hunts the Horn Bug. In both cases, the writing was tight and spare with a forward momentum, driving a reader’s and listener’s curiosity for what happens next.

After the reading, Hickey agreed to an interview for NewsWhistle. We’re glad he did. Hickey is as entertaining and forthcoming as the tales he weaves.

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The NewsWhistle Q&A with Author Frank Hickey

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1. When and how did you discover “pulp” crime fiction?

As a boy, I hungered for books. In a trashcan, I found a ripped and garbage-scented copy of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The stories thrilled me. One story, Being a Murderer Myself, opened me to creating my world through words. That kick-started me to write.

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2. Who were some of your writing models?

Many of the writers who held my attention penned tight and unforgettable stories. Most died young. They are now forgotten and beyond the range of the Internet. Writers like Ed Lacy, the Gordons, and Richard Dougherty, in his book, The Commissioner, marked me.

The early Len Deighton, Chandler, and Hammett still thunder in my ears. My mom was a professional actress for 62 years. She introduced me to James Joyce and Shakespeare, though I am nobody’s idea of an intellectual. They toned my style, along with George V. Higgins, Faulkner, and Lawrence Durrell.

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3. What was your mother’s name? Would we know any of her performances?

My mom was a Copacabana dancer in NYC, a Johnny Weissmuller Water-Show Dancing Swim-Gal who toured the U.S. and Canada with the show “Burlesque” with her mentor, Bert Lahr.

She acted under the name of Jean Hogan, since there was another actress named Jean Hickey. When the other Jean died, Mom took the name Jean Hickey.

She acted in so many New York plays that we don’t recall them all. Among them, “Conduct Unbecoming,” on Broadway, 1970, “Stephen D,” with Roy Scheider and Neil Fitzgerald in 1967, and many more.  She was also a Hollywood starlet and dancer there.

Other family members are well-known in show business. As a cop, Mom sometimes called me “the blue sheep of the family.”

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4. Outside of your chosen genre, have you done other types of writing?

Absolutely. Like most youngsters, I hungered to write my own loves and trials. The sixties fascinated me and still do. Our country clashed between the predictable and the unknown.

We kids crested the change. Civil rights, Vietnam and the hair explosion dazzled us.
At that time, everyone said that they wanted to be an artist of some kind. Music, painting,
graphic design or leather belts, we needed an art. I was scribbling to be a writer.
Hitchhiking and crashing in pads through the counter-culture formed my background.

So I wrote my first novel, Sueno, about a young Cuban-American ballerina who falls in love
with a merchant seaman-bookseller 25 years her senior. The book seemed operatic.
Gustave Mahler, Puccini, and Joyce influenced me too much in crafting a book.

Everything had to be lyrical and romantic. Scribbling in notebooks, I carried this
manuscript, working and hitchhiking from Germany to Istanbul in the dead of winter,
nearsighted, freezing and sleeping outdoors. Bulgaria was very cold.

At this time, my top-flight New York agent liked the book so much that he sent it out,
attracting some editors. They passed on it, probably because it was too romantic, too
much a youngster’s story. Using my outdoor years working in Europe and North Africa as a background, I also wrote Swapping Lies, a romanticized tale of an expatriate Tennessee burglar who falls in love.

Short stories flowed all the time.

For six months, I worked as a full-time, salaried reporter with a by-line here in New York.

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5. What paper did you work for?

Before I turned cop, I cajoled and wheedled and managed to land a job as a full-time, salaried reporter for Trans-Urban News, a minority news service, based in Brooklyn, NY, with my own by-line. Mostly, I covered police shootings. This helped later, as a cop, when I investigated police shootings. It gave me a new look at everything.

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6. Do you separate a policeman-turned-writer book from a more literary-styled book like Richard Price’s Clockers?

Of course, civilians can write wonderful books. Regard Chandler and Ross MacDonald
and many others. Their research and production amazes me. They get that world
right, describing it from the outside. At the same time, insiders have an edge, in
having lived that life. Policing is so enveloping that it changes all who do it. That often comes through in the books written by cops.

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7. What motivated you to go into police work?

It was probably the compassion shown by detectives on the TV show Naked City.

To my child’s eyes, they seemed seasoned, tough, and caring. They did useful and complex
deeds. That seemed the right way to live. Later, in real life, I saw some cops with those
same qualities and wanted to work with them.

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8. How long did you serve with the police department? Was it with the NYPD? What were your beats and were you promoted to detective? What was your last rank within the department?

I was never an NYPD officer. But I was a police officer, in a little-known but powerful agency. Each District Attorney hires and empowers his own Investigators. They are fully sworn and armed police officers. Often, they have rare skills and languages that regular departments lack. Sometimes, they investigate entire police departments throughout the state or cases of alleged brutality. Often, they travel overseas on cases.

Few people know about them. For about a dozen years, I worked as a Senior Investigator in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

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9. When did you become a detective and where were you based out of? How long did you spend in that occupation? Do you still take cases from time-to-time?

I became a street private eye in 1976. I was 22 and knew nothing beyond paperback mysteries.  Ignorant and scared of getting shot, I worked out of a… private eye shop in the World Trade Center, specializing in inner-city murder defense work.

Trotting through the streets, I spent about eleven years total in that rag-tag, unpredictable and violent world. Every character in the world passed through there. At present, I am not taking any more private cases. Maybe, I will, soon. Because I miss the hunt.

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10. Your novels present and capture the ironic and illogical logic of crime with some humor and surprise. How life-and-death incidents can occur anywhere at any time?

Criminal cases are always complex. They mix whims, violence, laughter, and desires. Often, it seems like nobody tells the truth. Working murder defense cases as a rookie private eye forty years ago, it shocked me that the system let me work these matters, without training or oversight. But, at that time, people cared less about wrongful convictions. New York suffered, with no money and much higher murder rates.

The police solved fewer cases. One cop in seven was laid off. New York had only 22,000 over-worked police officers, different from today’s 35,000. Six out of ten killers were never caught.

Knowing all this scared me. For my first four years, I worked unarmed, in thick glasses, carrying only my ideals as protection. As I said, fear walked with me. It was just my luck that nobody cared enough to butcher me.

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11. Dashiel Hammett had the character of “the Op.” Raymond Chandler had the character of “Marlowe.” Ian Fleming created James Bond. How did you come to write your first novel, The Gypsy Twist, and create the character of Max Royster?

Max is based partly on Mark Baldessare, a joyously irreverent detective partner of mine. Mark could always paint the wild and unpredictable side of each moment with his wit. Together, we hunted a Manhattan serial killer, stealing time from routine assignments. By accident, I blundered into my serial killer case, with no training or experience for it.

I was in over my head.

Suddenly, my work partner Mark died from a strep infection at age 44, leaving his wife and three young daughters. I like to think that his spirit lives on in the Max Royster stories. Mark’s death and my killer case roiled me. So, in that trauma, my first book, The Gypsy Twist, exploded from me and onto the page.

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12. Could you tell us more about the serial murder case? What year? What did the case involve? Who was the suspect/perp? Was the case in conjunction with the NYPD or other agency?

The serial killer was Ricardo Sylvio Caputo, an Argentinean womanizer who murdered only upscale women whom he had seduced, from 1971 to 1994, in New York, San Francisco, and Mexico, and suspected of many more unsolved murders. With no training or experience, I blundered into this case and sought help from everyone, in the FBI, NYPD, San Francisco Police, and America’s Most Wanted, among others.

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13. What year did Mark Baldessare pass? Was Mark Baldessare in the department? How long were you partners?

Mark and I were teamed as partners for not more than a year, loosely speaking. As a teacher, bookseller, chef and ex-court officer turned District Attorney Investigator, he was such a dynamic and unusual person that he lit up whatever room he was in.

He enjoyed confusing the unwary, saying truthfully that he was Jewish-Italian and not sure how he landed into a police job.  But he was an excellent detective, and interviewer, and a crack shot who never practiced shooting.

We bonded and I brought him to meet my family. I had never done that with other partners. He and my family responded to each other.  He died in the very last days of the violent New York 1980s, just after Christmas.

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14. I sensed The Gypsy Twist has a darker feel in the writing, just from reading the opening pages. Do you keep a notebook with phrases and incidents to draw on in your novels?

Living as I do, I need to write everywhere. On the subway, in a café, or lying down in the park, tapping out words on my iphone. Some beach towns overseas birthed stories from that same phone. During religious services, I sometimes get an idea and scribble it down in a notebook. This makes other worshipers stare. Who gets inspired to write something down during holy worship these days? They probably peg me for a fanatic.

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15. Have criminals you’ve arrested and put in jail ever written you fan letters after reading some of your novels?

Like Max Royster does, I call criminals “my clients.” So far, none of my clients have written me fan letters about my books.

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16. You grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Were you a street kid who hung out with a group of friends and did you ever get arrested?

I lived in Flatbush, Brooklyn, until I was seven and it did form my home. It never occurred to me that I would leave. It was that warm and nurturing a cocoon for me. When crime forced us to flee to Manhattan, it hurt me into writing.

As a child, I was an invalid, weak and underweight. Several times, my parents and doctors expected me to die. This made me delicate and sensitive. So, I was never a tough kid, either in Flatbush or Manhattan. As a prep-school kid who became a street cop, I felt that I was in the wrong place for me.

Often, at murder scenes, I wondered what I was doing here. As a private eye and a cop, I often had to force myself into harsh situations. Fear always rode somewhere nearby. As I told my partners and clients, I am the toughest guy in my ballet class. When known killers insult me today, this hurts my feelings. Figure that one out.

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17. Being tough and dancing ballet gives you something in common with Rahm Emanuel. Are criminals and their crimes consistent in different cultural environments?

This is not something that I dwell on. Experts build careers on the question of why we do crimes. As a lace-curtain Irish preppy, I never understood the street. But I see a need for social programs to draw people away from crime. Put anyone in a grinding, monotonous, and dangerous situation, and they will adapt to survive. This includes me. And you.

Some of us grow up surrounded by violence. And murder. The abnormal becomes the normal. They see nobody legit making it. Crime and violence seduce them.

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18. Where did you go to prep school and did you graduate from there?

Being mis-placed, I graduated from Canterbury Prep School, after four years there, in New Milford, Connecticut.

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19. How did you come to be one of the three scriptwriters (with Charles Messina and Clyde Lynwood Sawyer) who wrote the 2011 movie, Spy?

My publisher, Lynwood Sawyer, and I had already written some screenplays and
excited the New York filmsters. For this reason, this film company making Spy
wanted us to write a screenplay about a surveillance man who falls in love with
the woman whom he is watching.

We had a cast of veteran actors from The Sopranos, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas carrying this show. They meshed with the younger actors, writing their own names in the business.

Charles Messina formed a third of our team as a brilliant and comic writer, with an extraordinary number of plays to his credit. His plays are still running now.

So, the three of us had a lot of fun with this project and seeing it open in the Big Apple Film Festival in TriBeCa.

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20. Can you talk a little about your next book?

This may bankrupt me, but I believe in writing about the tough questions. My book Softening Flatbush deals with race, crime, and using chokeholds to gentrify a neighborhood.

This book came out one month before the Staten Island death and two months before Ferguson, Missouri’s shooting.

As a cop, using force always bothered everyone. Few could agree on it.

That spurred me to write on the topic. It just will not go away. Neither will Max.

So the next book has Max the only truthful witness to an LAPD officer arresting a suspect who dies during the struggle. The suspect is a former Blaxploitation movie actress, now homeless. Her death roils Los Angeles.

As Max weathers more, he will be traveling overseas to some exotic locations that I know.
And he and I will discover new ones together, because we will partner in adventures together for a long time.

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ABOUT Erik La Prade

Erik La Prade lives in New York.  His interviews and articles have appeared in Art In America, The Brooklyn Rail, artcritical, and others. His last book was Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and The Green Gallery, 1960-1965. 2010.  MidMarch Arts Press. Some of his poems currently appear in J Journal.  He has a B.A. and M.A. from City College.

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About Left Bank Books, NYC

Left Bank Books (17 8th Ave., between Jane St. and 12th St., New York City) specializes in literary first editions (especially fiction, poetry, drama, and literary non-fiction), photography, art, music, and film, but they buy and sell quality used books of all kinds in all categories.   Their inventory runs from first editions of literary highlights, many of which are signed, to an impressive number of fascinating works on a variety of subjects.  And don’t be put off by the words “first editions” or “rare books”;  their stock is not merely a collection of the expensive and eminent– they have quality books to suit all tastes and pocketbooks. They can be contacted at 212.924.5638 or leftbankbooksny@yahoo.com.

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Images Courtesy of Frank Hickey and Pigtown Books