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Saturday, January 9, 2016

Living the Clandestine Life While Wearing Jammies

If you're familiar with my books, you know that I do a deep dive into my research. I like to say that the stories' building blocks are real, but the way I toggle them together is all my own. I consider it a compliment when a reader accuses me of writing thinly veiled fact.

Unless, of course, they're accusing me of underworld ties.

When The Charity was first published, a reader sent me an email saying that although they enjoyed the book, they wished I had acknowledged the Clover Club of South Boston as the model for the organization I called the Charity.


Of course I had to learn more.

During the 1970's and 1980's, a group of Irish businessmen would gather in different pubs in South Boston, or "Southie" as it's known by locals. Their meetings were to raise money for different charities for the benefit of the Irish community both in Boston and in Ireland. (Note here: I mention one Ireland, not "the Irelands" nor "Ireland and Northern Ireland." I'll explain later.) It is very typical in tightly knit communities for folks who have experienced financial success to offer a helping hand to those in need. Providing money for starting a grocery store, soup kitchen, or other community enhancing activity is to be lauded. Nothing would be noteworthy except for the fact the Clover Club, as it was come to be called, was purported to be one of Whitey Bulger's favorite activities.

Email, in person, and social media pings inquiring how much my books are based on 'insider knowledge' increased with the publication of The Troubles. For those of you who are weak on Irish history, the Troubles speaks to the period of time in the late '60's to early '80's that riots erupted on the streets of Belfast and the Bogside (Londonderry or Derry) to demand reunification of the six counties of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. Splintering the island of Ireland into two countries is odious to many and having one country be a part of the United Kingdom is even stinkier. For folks still smarting over this century old division, they refer to "the north of Ireland" or"Ireland" as a whole. They NEVER refer to "the Irelands" or "Northern Ireland," even though the United Nations and the rest of the world do.

So, you can imagine the hornets nest I kicked during my signings in Dorchester and Southie. I had the audacity to refer to "the Irelands" and "Northern Ireland" in my books. That's a pretty big sin. What made me compulsively check my rear-view mirror when leaving these signings is the fact that I also use the word "terrorist" when referring to blokes who place bombs in public spaces. It seems that "freedom fighter" is the preferred term.

I learned that names and labels are important, so when the word "Valhalla" was whispered in my ear on several occasions, I paid attention. It seems this word was bandied about most often when they learned I live on the north shore of Boston, close to the coast and fishing ports. I was accustomed to my politics being tested, and the lawyer in me knew enough to nod knowingly and say nothing. All the while I noticed my hands grew a mite bit cold and shaky.

During my jammie-clad research for my newest book, The Wake, I came across an article by the BBC that talked about Bulger's gunrunning operation out of the Gloucester ports. In September of 1984, a fishing boat named Valhalla was loaded with ice and guns and rendezvoused with an Irish fishing vessel off the coast of Kerry. The authorities were tipped, the Valhalla was seized as it re-entered U.S. waters, and the method of using ships to move guns, drugs, and more was disrupted. The body of the alleged informant was identified using his mother's DNA in 2000.

My skin got a little crawly right about then. The Charity fabricated an organization readers believe to be true and The Troubles surrounds an actual IRA bombing of the Arndale shopping district in Manchester, England that remains unsolved. Mini spoiler alert, but The Troubles hints at explosives and other unsavory items being hidden in the gear and feed needed for international horse transports via--you guessed it--ships. It seems that my fiction, once again, was very close to truth.

In The Wake, I hub the action around the 1996 bombing at Centennial Park during the summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. The "fog of war" can happen even when tanks are not rolling down the streets.

I always say the meat of a great story hangs on the bones of fact. My thriller-writer imagination is whirling in overdrive hoping it's not my bones you find a few decades from now in a quarry near Southie.