guest post: Terrence McCauley on the history behind The Fairfax Incident
June 6, 2018
I had several reasons for setting THE FAIRFAX INCIDENT in 1933 New York City.
The first reason is that I love history in general and New York City history in particular. The thousands of tourists who visit my hometown every year might be shocked to hear that New York doesn’t have much of a history when compared to other world centers, but it’s true. Much of our history is relatively new, from the 1770s at the earliest, whereas London, Paris and Rome have histories that go back a thousand years, maybe more. Very little, if anything, remains of the original Dutch settlers who called New Amsterdam their home. The windmills are gone, so are the tracts of land they farmed and the malaria-filled swamp of what became the Upper West Side has long since been filled in. The famed Knickerbocker family? Nothing more than a myth created by Washington Irving in 1809 to give the town some semblance of a backstory.
The truth is that New York has always been in too much of a hurry to be sentimental about the past. Too busy working, too busy growing, too busy building new buildings to afford the luxury of preserving what had come before it. No, New York has never been a sentimental place until recently when we realized we might not have much of a past, but the past we have is worth preserving. When we think of New York history, few of us think of the Native American tribes who lived here. We think of the Gilded Age where Astors held court over elaborate dances. Where Roosevelts clashed with Morgans and Vanderbilts and Carnegies made all the money in the world. We think of a time gentlemen strode around Washington Square with a fine lady on his arm as the snow gently falls around them.
The less romantic among us may think of the grit and grime that was New York City. The hard lives scraped out in the Bowery and along the waterfront. Gangs of thieves and brutes from Five Points constantly clashing with the cops brave enough to stand up to them.
All of these perceptions of New York City’s history are true. And all of them intersect in perhaps the most interesting part of my town’s history – politics. My love of all things politics, party affiliation aside, is one of the reasons why I chose to set my story in 1933 New York City. Manhattan might not have been very good at preserving the buildings of the past, but its political structure was sacrosanct. Tammany Hall, depicted by Thomas Nast as a snarling tiger, was a political organization founded in 1789 and held sway over the city’s politics ever since. It was an organization that counted Boss Tweed among its many infamous members who have gone on to symbolize all that is wrong with government. Corruption, kick backs, inefficiency and, yes, greed.
My research into Tammany Hall inspired me to write about it because it was one of the few New York institutions that went back far enough to have an interesting history. I chose to write about its history in the 1930s because it was such a tumultuous era for not only New York, but for the country and the world. Prohibition was coming to an end. Repeal was on the way. A new governor promised reform and, when that governor went on to become president, those reforms continued. Franklin Roosevelt had always held the Tammany bosses in contempt and sought to do everything in his considerable power to free his city – and his state – from the claws of the Tammany tiger.
I write about the 1930s because that struggle between old and new provides me with a plethora of material to cover. In my novel PROHIBITION, Archie Doyle, a mob boss, finds himself under attack by strange forces who seek to wrestle power away from him. His chief enforcer Terry Quinn must use his brains more than his brawn to find out who is behind the plot to tear down his boss’s empire. Its sequel, SLOW BURN, is told from the point of view of a relatively minor character from PROHIBITION – corrupt police detective Charlie Doherty – who must solve a murder-kidnapping case while attempting to navigate the uncharted waters of reform in the wake of the Doyle gang’s collapse and the surge of Reform.
In THE FAIRFAX INCIDENT, we see Charlie Doherty is now a private detective who once again finds himself caught in a political undercurrent. This time, it isn’t the collapse of Tammany, but the influence of another political player seeking to change the city forever – the Nazi party.
Some have asked me if Arnie Bernstein’s excellent work – Swastika Nation – inspired me to write FAIRFAX. It did not, as I had written FAIRFAX about a decade before Bernstein’s book came out. But I certainly read it and it helped influence some of the historical elements of my work. As part of poetic license, I had to reorder some historical elements to fit my story’s timeline. Unfortunately, I didn’t have to add much to the events that actually happened, like the Nazi presence in the tri-state area or the youth camps they established in Long Island, New York and New Jersey.
Fortunately, the Nazi movement fell apart at the outset of the Second World War, where patriotism wisely took the place of ethnic pride. But the years between 1933 and 1941 provide plenty of material for a writer like me and I hope to be able to explore that era further in future books. Only time – and book sales – will dictate if I’ll have the opportunity to continue Charlie Doherty’s journey through history.
Award-winning author Terrence McCauley takes you back to a time when booze was outlawed, crime ran rampant, and New York City was a powder keg waiting to explode…
Manhattan, 1933. Charlie Doherty may have been kicked off the force after The Grand Central Massacre, but thanks to a wealthy benefactor, his private detective business is booming. Catering to the city’s wealthy elite, Doherty is making a good living chasing down wayward spouses and runaway socialites when the case of a lifetime lands in his lap. Mrs. Fairfax, a wealthy widow, hires Doherty to prove her husband’s suicide wasn’t actually a suicide. It was murder.
At his benefactor’s urging, Doherty takes the case. He expects to pocket a nice chunk of change to prove what everyone already knows: Walter Fairfax walked into his office in the Empire State Building one morning, took a phone call, and shot himself. But Charlie took the widow’s money, so he begins to dig.
He quickly finds out there is more to the Fairfax incident than a simple suicide. Before long, he discovers that Mr. Fairfax was leading a double life; running with a dangerous crowd that has a sinister agenda that threatens to plunge Charlie’s city – and his country – into another war.
In an investigation that quickly involves global implications, Doherty finds himself against not only some of the most powerful people in New York City, but against the most evil men in the world.