Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Living Lucky (Luciano) by Chuck Greaves

Chuck Greaves spent 25 years as a trial lawyer in Los Angeles before moving to Santa Fe in 2006 to pursue a writing career. He was, while still in practice, a frequent contributor of feature articles for Los Angeles Lawyer magazie. He chaired his firm’s litigation department and served as President of the Pasadena Public Library Foundation. His debut novel Hush Money (Minotaur), the first installment in the Jack MacTaggart series of legal mysteries, won the SouthWest Writers’ International Writing Contest and was named a finalist for numerous national honors including the Rocky Award from Left Coast Crime, the Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, the Reviewers’ Choice Award from RT Reviews, and the Audie Award for Best Mystery Audiobook of 2012. In 2013, Jack returned in Green-Eyed Lady. Chuck’s second novel Hard Twisted (Bloomsbury) was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award in Fiction. His third MacTaggart novel, The Last Heir, was a finalist for the 2015 Colorado Book Award for Best Mystery, while his latest novel Tom & Lucky and George & Cokey Flo (Bloomsbury), a novelization of the colorful and controversial 1936 vice trial of gangster Lucky Luciano, was named by the Wall Street Journal to its year-end list of the “Best Books of 2015,” and is a finalist for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.

Chuck Greaves:
Living Lucky (Luciano)

When not plotting the next installment in my Jack MacTaggart series of legal mysteries as Chuck Greaves, I’ve been known to summon my more intrepid alter ego and tackle panoramic historical/true-crime fiction as C. Joseph Greaves. These sorts of novels, properly done, can involve years of intensive research before the words “Chapter One” are ever written. So you might be wondering what it’s like to immerse yourself in a project of that magnitude, and, more importantly, why anyone would undertake to do so in the first place.

To the latter question I would answer that sometimes fate leaves you little choice. Such was the case with my 2012 novel Hard Twisted (Bloomsbury), which was born in 1994 on a snowy hike in a remote Utah canyon with the discovery of two human skulls. But that, as they say, is another story. More recently I undertook to fictionalize one of the most colorful and controversial criminal trials in American history, Thomas E. Dewey’s 1936 vice prosecution of mob boss Lucky Luciano. There again, fate opened a door to me from which, some 15 years later, a novel emerged.

The year was 1999, and the setting was a sun-drenched patio in Southern California. My luncheon companion, the daughter of a prominent Depression-era criminal defense attorney named George Morton Levy, casually mentioned that following her father’s death in 1977, all of his office files had been moved into storage in a barn in upstate New York. Knowing as I did that my companion’s father had defended Luciano in the trial that had riveted the nation and launched Dewey’s political career, I asked if I might have a peek at those files. “Feel free,” she told me. “Nobody’s even seen them for over twenty years.”

Within the week I was on a plane for JFK and, after a long and torturous drive, found myself in the aforesaid barn where, as advertised, a moldering tarp covered some fifteen rusted file cabinets. It took the better part of a day to sift through all the drawers, all the files, but the effort paid dividends when, nestled in the back of a bottom drawer, I found a battered redwell file bearing the handwritten inscription People v. Charles “Lucky” Luciano.

Just because a door opens, however, doesn’t mean you have to walk through it. My personal litmus test is whether the subject matter of a potential book is sufficiently engaging to sustain my undivided attention for the several years I know it will take to spin source-material dross into some semblance of literary gold. For the Luciano project this proved a no-brainer, since the trial’s cast of characters included – in addition to Luciano, Dewey, and Levy – a Runyonesque assortment of gangsters, cops, prostitutes, addicts, politicians, madams, and lawyers, all working their own angles to advance ends that, in the final analysis, had little to do with achieving criminal justice.

Although at least two nonfiction books had already been written about the trial – Hickman Powell’s Ninety Times Guilty (1939) and Ellen Poulsen’s The Case Against Lucky Luciano (2007) – and although many more reference the trial in passing, all were either heavily influenced by the Dewey propaganda machine (Powell, for instance, was a personal friend and later a speechwriter for Dewey) or else were crafted from source material, such as Dewey’s papers housed in the New York City Department of Records, calculated to flatter the prosecution. Most of these books mention Levy, for example, only in passing. None, to my knowledge, was written by an actual trial lawyer. And no previous author had access to the materials I now had in my possession.

Job one, I decided, was to separate fiction from fact and spin from substance – no easy task in the case of a man like Luciano, whose life was lived mostly in secret and chronicled mostly in hindsight. And so I immersed myself in every book and article I could find about Luciano, Dewey, Levy, or the trial itself. Then, once I’d gotten a handle on my three protagonists, I dove headlong into the tens of thousands of pages – including the verbatim transcript of the month-long trial – that constitute the appellate record. Finally, beginning in 2013, I began to write.

I should add here that a curious thing happened along the way, when a fourth character named Cokey Flo Brown began elbowing her way onto the page. Cokey Flo was a grifter, a New York madam, a heroin addict, a sometimes prostitute, and ultimately the star trial witness on whose testimony the verdict turned. Her distinctive first-person voice became the glue that, in the final analysis, held the entire novel together.

History tells us that Dewey rode his fame from the Luciano verdict first to the Manhattan district attorney’s office, then to the New York governor’s mansion, and then very nearly, in 1948, to the White House itself. Levy, disillusioned by the Luciano verdict, left the law to start a nighttime harness racing venture called Roosevelt Raceway. Luciano spent almost ten years in prison before winning his freedom by assisting the U.S. war effort in Europe. Deported to Italy, he briefly resided in Havana, Cuba where he, along with his boyhood chums Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, helped finance construction of the Flamingo hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Cokey Flo, after seeing herself portrayed by Bette Davis in the 1937 film Marked Woman, disappeared into obscurity and addiction in the brothels of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Telling the story of their dramatic and historic convergence proved a labor of love. That Tom & Lucky and George & Cokey Flo (Bloomsbury) would become a Wall Street Journal “Best Books of 2015” selection and, more recently, a finalist for the 2016 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction was simply icing on this lawyer’s cake.


1 comment:

Vallery Feldman said...

this sounds like my kind of book- a solid history mystery. will find it.