Interview: New Jersey crime writer, Wallace Stroby

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Wallace Stroby was an award-winning journalist who quit his job as an editor at New Jersey’s Star-Ledger of Newark newspaper, to write crime fiction full time. A life long New Jersey native, he is the author of six books, of which his debut, The Barb Wire Kiss, was a finalist for the 2004 Barry Award for best first novel. His last three books, Cold Shot to the Heart, Kings of Midnight, Shoot the Woman First, feature the female professional criminal character, Crissa Stone. This is an edited version of an interview, which I conducted at Noir Con 2014 in Philadelphia, that originally appeared in issue 17 of Crime FactoryHis latest Crissa Stone book The Devil’s Share, is out now.

Let’s start of with your recent books featuring the character of Crissa Stone. What was the inspiration behind writing these?

I always wanted to write a book from the point of a view of a career criminal. In my third novel, Gone ‘Til November, half of the book was from the point of view of an ageing black hit man but the main character was actually a woman, the only female sheriff’s deputy in a small town, a woman in a man’s world and I liked that idea. So coming off Gone ‘Til November I wanted to combine those two and do a story about a career criminal who was a woman in a man’s world. Because that opened up all kinds of doors, because a woman would act differently, she would work differently, she would make alliances with people and she would refrain from violence unless it was absolutely necessary. It sort of took what can be a very clichéd genre and opened it up for me.

Was that difficult for you, writing a crime novel with the woman as a main character?

I was lucky in that my first reader and my agent and my editor were all single moms, and in my first book, Gone ‘Til November and the Crissa Stone books, where the main characters are single moms, they were able to flag a lot of stuff that I would have gotten wrong and did get wrong.

Like what?

In Gone ‘Til November the female sheriff’s deputy takes some risks that were kind of necessary for the plot to move forward and my first reader said, well, she’s a single mom, she got a kid at home who is ill, and all she is thinking about is this kid, all the time so she’s not going to take that risk. She will let down something in the professional aspect of her life in order to not take that risk. Because, if something happened to her, then the kid would be left with no one. That changed my view a lot.

KingsWhat I have noticed about the Crissa Stone books is that she’ll pull out of a job if it doesn’t feel right. She’s quite happy to walk away. She doesn’t do that ultra hardboiled thing that a lot of male characters do, of pushing on.

Yes, she can’t always walk away or there would be no story. You have to find the mix of what is true for the character, based upon their skill set, background and history, and the narrative needs to move the story further.

I have to make the observation that the other obvious influence on the Crissa Stone books must have been the Donald Westlake’s character of Parker. Basically, she has many of the aspects of a female Parker.

Those Parker books are master classes of writing tight fiction. They are stripped down to the absolute essentials. And when I’m looking to find Stone’s voice, if I have taken a break from her and want to go back, those books are a good stepping off point. That kind of really paired down style is what really attracted me to writing in the first place. My first book was, maybe a hundred and twenty five thousand words. These days I’m averaging sixty five thousand because it feels like that what they want to be. The way my mind is working, the Stone books want to be sixty five thousand words.

What would you say your other key literary influences are?

Growing up, in my early teens, I was reading all the men’s adventure series put out by Pinnacle, the Executioner and stuff, which were pulps.

Absolutely. It doesn’t come much more pulpy than the Executioner.

Yes, but the stories moved. They were like teenage boy books, despite the violence and the sex. From then I moved into other writers, who were also in paperback but a number of levels up, like John D MacDonald. I read every John D MacDonald book. Lawrence Block was another and Donald Westlake. What originally drew me to Westlake’s book was the movie The Hot Rock.

A much-underrated film, I would say.

One of the best that’s been made of his work. Then, I think when I was about sixteen, I started going back and reading Hammett, Chandler and Cain. Hammett was the one that really spoke to me, because he was dealing with real life and the tone and the writing felt real. Cain for the sparseness of it. Then, as I got older I started to read contemporary writers. As we came into the nineties, American crime fiction was flourishing, with James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, Lauran Lippman, all these people started writing at a vey high level.

You have also mentioned in conversation with me that you like the Australian writer, Garry Disher.

He was someone I started reading subsequent starting the first of the Stone books. He makes no bones about writing like Westlake’s Parker. I believe that Westlake even gave him his blessing at one point in an interview he did. You know there was a long period where there were no Richard Stark books, from 1972 to like, I think the early nineties. So the Disher books were great treats for me during that period. I ordered them all. They were hard to find here.

The trouble with the character of Parker, and I think maybe one of the reasons that Westlake stopped writing him, is you get to a point that the character is so confined by what they do and their attitudes, that it’s hard to find things for them to keep getting involved in. It is a little easier for me with the Crissa Stone books because she has things in her life.

A lot of heist books involve a big criminal job. As the writer you have to stage the job, the job goes wrong, and then there are all the problems that come with that. It’s a big set piece thing and there are usually a lot of strands. The Stone books feel a little different, like you are just getting a look into her life at a certain time. It’s an echo of a job that happened and may have gone wrong and what happens afterwards.

Yeah, prelude and aftermath. The new one that is coming out next July, The Devil’s Share, is a little different and I intentionally wanted it to be that way. I wanted it to be a little more heisty, with all the planning of the heist, which I usually don’t do. Shoot the Woman First was very relationship oriented in terms of Stone’s relationship with her little girl. I didn’t want to do the same thing with the next book, I wanted it to be a little more muscular and heist oriented. I wanted you to see her functioning, the planning and execution of a heist. You know, it’s tough. You want to do something different all the time but you are kind of bound by what your characters are capable of.

ShareWriting heists is an extraordinary difficult and complicated thing to do.

Because you have to essentially plan it. I had that issue with The Devil’s Share that has an elaborate heist that involves a truck hijack and knocking out a cell phone tower. I hate doing researching, I really do. I do it when I absolutely have to. I really had to research this latest book. I had to talk to people who really knew what they were talking about, because I just didn’t understand the functions of how a cell tower works. You know, at what point cell towers overlap.

Stone’s a criminal but she is, in many respects, an ethical criminal as opposed to Jack Carter or the Max Allan Collins creation Quarry, characters who are real scumbags. Wyatt is another ethical criminal. Are you conscious of keeping things on that level for the books to be popular? 

I am certain she doesn’t exist and that there is no real counter part to her, that is for sure. If there are, you wouldn’t know about her because everything she does goes under the radar. That said there are real life parallels that I was looking into when I was researching the Stone character. There is an academic book called Armed Robbers in Action. It was a PhD thesis, where they had interviewed armed robbers going from street muggers to hard core, top of the line, industrial burglars. All the women that they interviewed in this book had one thing in common, they had been brought into the life by a man who was older and who was a mentor or lover. Stone has a mentor/lover who is in prison in Texas and she wants to get him out. To do this, she has to grease the wheels of the parole board and to do this, she has to have money to throw at these people and all of a sudden there is a reason for her to do what she is doing, to do a job she might not normally take.

Westlake was really good at having Parker walk into a toy shop, but it is not really a toy shop, they sell machine guns or he talks to a guy who runs a newsagent who is really a cat burglar. He portrayed a sort of blue-collar criminal milieu that I imagine exists less and less.

I think it does [exist] but it is so under the radar you don’t really know about it. There was a robbery in New Jersey about fifteen years ago; these guys had robbed this jewellery wholesaler. It was allegedly a ‘give up’ robbery and the manager was in on it. He was accused of helping to set it up. Anyway, the owner pulled a gun in the middle of the robbery and shot his wife who was working in the store at the time by accident. The owner said he didn’t know anything about it. The robbers who were tried for felony murder said that he was in on it. The wife’s parents were convinced that the owner shot her, that he set it all up so he could kill his wife and blame it on these guys. The husband was acquitted but the robbers were all convicted.

The guy who put the robbery together had done nothing but crimes for a living since he was eighteen. He was wanted for all these bank robberies. In prison he gave this very extensive interview to a newspaper, where he talked about his life. He talked about how he got into crime it and how it worked. There was this loose knit network of people across the country, and he would use it to put together these robberies. You know, one of these guys would be from California and the other from Kansas City or New York. They would come together to do these robberies and split the takings. Almost all these guys had show jobs, you know, jobs that they sort of worked at, because you can’t live totally off the radar, especially when it comes to taxes. You may fuck with the FBI but you don’t want to fuck with the Internal Revenue Service.

To+Live+And+DieSo that world does exist. You know Gerald Petievich who wrote the novel on which the movie To Live And Die In LA was based? He is a former Treasury agent who mainly worked on fighting high-level counterfeiters. I was talking to him once, he had done a blurb for my first book, and he told me, these people exist. He was talking about the Willem Dafoe character and he said the average person would never meet them in their entire life unless they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. These people have never had a job, do nothing but commit crimes for a living, but you will never run into them. You will never interact with them.

You worked as a journalist for 23 years. I assume you covered crime fairly extensively?

It was less that I covered crime, than at the Newark Star Ledger, which is New Jersey’s largest paper, we had three full-time organised crime writers and through them I had access to things I would normally have not had access to.

Can you give me an example?

There’s a bunch. A few years back a guy who had been the New Jersey president of the Pagans Motorcycle Club, who was writing his memoirs, approached me, through a mutual friend. The former president had a foot deep of yellow legal pads on which he had been writing down his life and he wanted someone to put it in order and tidy it up. I read it and it was full of great stories, except, every time he got to something serious where the statute of limitations was still in effect, he wrote himself out of it. It just didn’t seem like we were ever going to reach a point where he could be totally honest about it. He had had a pretty serious criminal life. He’d been in prison. He’d been involved in organised crime. This was a serious guy. He was in his sixties and, I guess, and he was trying to put his life in some sort of order that made sense. So we met a couple of times. We had dinner and talked about it. There was nothing I could do with it. It just didn’t seem like a project that would work, but he talked a lot about his life.

There was another time, one of the organised crime reporters at The Ledger, a fellow named Guy Sterling, who had been covering organised crime in New Jersey for about thirty years, was quitting. Sterling had mainly been writing about the same people all the time. They get into a cycle. They go to prison, they get out, do something, go back in, possibly get killed. So Sterling knew all these guys, not as friends, but they felt he had given them a fair shake over the years.

So when these guys he’d been covering for years found out he was leaving, they threw him a retirement dinner. It was mainly guys from one of the big organised crime families in New Jersey, the ones the Goodfellas movie was based on. Guy invited me along as his guest. We went out to this tiny Italian restaurant in Newark and when we walked in the door, Sterling introduced me to the guy who had organised the dinner, a quote/unquote ‘boxing promoter’. And the guy, who I won’t name, looked at Guy and looked at me and looked back at Guy and said: “I thought I fucking told you not to bring anybody.” There was dead silence and then he broke out laughing and took me by the arm and said, “Let me introduce you to some people.”

He introduced me to everything there and these were serious, serious guys. At one point somebody said they were all violating their probation by being there together at the same time. I grew up in a working class Italian neighbourhood, so I kind of knew these guys, because they were working class Italian guys, but they’d never worked in their lives, never had a job except for crime. All these guys had done prison time. Two of them were under indictment at the time. Whenever anybody walked into the restaurant, everybody would turn and look. That happened all night.

These guys would come in and they would come over to the bosses to pay their respects and talk about whatever, you know, do the kissing, etc. And to a man, all of them introduced themselves to me and shook my hand. They didn’t know who I was but they didn’t want to take the chance on dissing me so they were being very nice to me. So, I listened to these guys. I didn’t know whether I should get involved in the conversation or not. I worried if I didn’t say anything it would look suspicious. So at one point they were on a topic, a journalist that I knew, and I sort of jumped in with a comment. And they just shut me right out. If they had said, “Why don’t you just shut the fuck up and listen”, it could not have been any clearer. So I just the fuck up and listened. I poured win. We did the espresso and the anisette and lemon peel, old school Italian stuff

As a result of countless New York Mafia films and shows like The Sopranos, New Jersey is forever labelled as this organised crime enclave.

It used to be.

You give the impression that it is a dying culture.

I think that’s true. The thing about New Jersey organised crime is that the clichés are often true. Also, I think The Sopranos was very accurate, not only in the way it presented the mob culture but the way it presented upward middle class Italian American culture. The mini mansions, the people who started out poor and became rich.

The mob as it existed is dying out. It has been split up and there are now other ethnic groups involved, although they tend to be under the radar until something big happens. The Russian gangsters were under the radar for quite a while. Then, all of a sudden, you are reading about them everywhere. It was the same with the central Europeans, the Serbians, etc.

All these guys I met at this dinner where in their sixties and seventies. Two of them were bosses. One of them, his son was there and he was a drama major in college. The boss asked whether I could get his son an agent.

Marlowe_Fireball_GoldOne of the things I get from the material you post on your blog is that you have an incredible knowledge of American crime fiction, contemporary and older stuff. Where did you get this?

Just from being a big reader and then discovering stuff. You know, its like the first time you hear jazz and then you realise there is this whole world of it out there. The same is true of crime fiction. In the mid-eighties, Black Lizard reprinted a lot of the guys who had been popular in the fifties and sixties. There was a bookstore chain that was closing and I went into one their local stores and there was a box full of almost the entire Black Lizard list, about fifty books and they were fifty cents each. I just took the whole box up to the registry. That is how I found out about writers like W L Heath, Lionel White and Peter Rabe and Dan J Marlowe.

You read Westlake and it seems like he just came out of nowhere, it just seems so different. But you go back and you read these guys who were reading for Fawcett Gold Medal in the fifties and sixties and you can sort of see where Parker came from. People like Peter Rabe, stylists who were very terse in the same way. There’s a great Dan J Marlowe book called The Name of the Game is Death. It is a vey hard-boiled crime novel by a professional criminal told in the first person. It is really tough stuff. I think it is back in print via Stark House Press.

An author that you and I have had a bit of chat about is Malcolm Braly, a crime writer in the early sixties who also spent a large amount of his time in prison for theft and burglary. A book I read of his recently that made a big impression on me was Shake Him Till He Rattles, set in San Francisco’s North Beach beat scene in the early sixties. Apart from being really well written, Braly obviously got jazz, something that is written about a lot in sixties crime and pulp fiction, but which few of the authors concerned seemed to really understand. And Braly obviously also got the drug scene and prison. It feels real. I believe shared an agent with him?

Shake Him Till He rattles 2My first agent was a fellow called Knox Burger. He was a major post-war publishing figure and the editor at Fawcett Gold Medal in the sixties. He later became an agent. He was Westlake’s agent. He was Martin Cruz Smith’s agent. He was Lawrence Block’s agent, a lot of major guys. Somehow, someone had sent him a manuscript of Braly’s, which may have been Shake Him Till He Rattles. I am not sure which book he saw first because Felony Tank may have been earlier than that. Burger liked it a lot, agreed to publish it and there were issues with the prison system in California in where Braly was at the time.

Finally, when Braly was eligible for parole Burger kind of facilitated that by offering him a job at Fawcett in New York. Braly came out, worked in the Fawcett offices as an editorial guy, while he was writing books. Everybody talks about Eddie Bunker as a prison writer but Malcolm Braly is a hundred times better as a writer and has a much clearer eye. His books are a hundred times more compassionate and a hundred times more compelling. They really feel like he is very self-aware and has no pretensions.

What other American crime writers do you think are really unsung?

Dan J Marlowe, his first five or six books are great. He really petered out in the seventies when he did one of those men’s adventure series. But his first our or five books are serious hard-core crime novels, including The Name of the Game is Death. Lionel White, a guy who was writing in the fifties, is another. One of his books, Clean Break, became the movie, The Killing. He is really good. All of these guys were writing for a living. They often wrote a book every two months. Some of their books are great. Some of those books are pretty good. Some of those books are awful or close to awful. These guys who were capable of churning out an excellent book were also capable of churning out a potboiler to pay the rent.

So, your writing, where are you taking that?

The next Stone book, number four in the series, is done and will be out in July. I am trying to figure out what to do next. I have a number of different ideas. I’m inclined to give her a break right now. Usually with the Crissa Stone books, every time I’ve finished one I automatically had an idea for the next one. This time I don’t. So maybe I need a breather.

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