Murder Most Casual - Umberto Tosi
And blessed are those who await hell freezing over.
I've personally known three people who were murdered. One was a writer, Susan Berman, another was my former sister-in-law, Lola Steele, another was a noted, much admired Los Angeles Times colleague, Ruben Salazar, murdered by police. Not one of their killers has been brought to justice. One of the murderers, however, has been convicted. That happened in Los Angeles just a week before this writing, but this came a full twenty years after the New York real estate scion, Robert Durst, shot his friend Susan to death at point blank range at her Los Angeles hillside home. The wealthy Durst has appealed his first-degree murder conviction, but getting off - as he apparently has for two other killings, seems unlikely this time. Knowing three murdered people perhaps would not be many if I were an emergency surgeon, a combat veteran or a cop, but the intimacy of such experiences do add intangible dimensions to my writing deaths in fiction - at times making it harder, other times more accessible -- and via the news media where I once plied my trade.
These days is seems that our history trends away from justice, not towards it. Righteousness rarely prevails outside of crime fiction. Only in its implausible demi-mondes do detectives consistently solve crimes and bring murderers to justice - at least most of the time.
|Susan Berman, tongue-in-cheek|
At the same time, unabashed public criminality has grown and metastasised in high places during the past five years since the fascist right canonized Donald Trump. This should be no surprise, given the long-term trends towards every kind of permissiveness for the rich. The high and mighty have always acted as if Jesus had said "blessed are the self-righteous."
| Ruben Salazar|
I ponder crime and punishment as I write the final chapters of my Frank Ritz mystery sequel,"Oddly Dead" - formerly "Do or Die." (More about that in another blog post.) My one-eyed, noir-detective Frank Ritz lives in the real Hollywood where I grew up and not in the world of traditional detective fiction. In that representational world, there's no rule that fictional detectives have to be any better at serving, protecting and solving cases than our real ones -- only a wee bit more to spice things up. We'd tire of Sherlock Holmes if he were no better than Inspector Lestrade.
Very few fictional villains get away with their crimes like Sherlock Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarity. Most unsolved literary murders are based on real cases: Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer, the Black Dahlia, killers of Betty Shanks, Natalie Holloway, Jon Benet Ramsey, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls to name a few. (Such lurid cases continue to inspire crime fiction writers. Fortunately for us, we're blessed with an abundance of source materials these days. The lively. Unsolved Murders from Dorline Kindersley is a prime compendium for the ghoulish and us mystery idea collectors.)
We like our detectives for their characters, not just for solving crimes and righting wrongs. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, V. I. Warshawski, Kinsey MIllhone and Colombo are singularly eccentric personalities with whom we can identify.
Other authors have written about the cases of murder victims I've known personally - stories with memories too intense for me to tackle, frankly.
|Ora, Lola & father Jack Steele, c1953. |
My former sister-in-law Lola Steele was an aspiring ballet dancer, and great beauty who, like many women with problem parents, fell into an abusive marriage. Her charismatic, ruggedly handsome husband turned out to to be a Bluebeard - a raging alcoholic, wife-beater and con man, now deceased himself. The evidence pointed overwhelmingly to his having shot her to death with his rifle during a drunken argument, but reasonable doubt, lack of a witness and ready cash for a fancy lawyer saved him from full prosecution, as it did for his having molested at least one child in her extended family, it turned out from that child's too-late testimony. Her violent death had a profound depressive effect on her twin sister, Ora, my first wife and the mother of two of my daughters. The waves of evil spread in all directions. (I wrote about their older sister, the actress and renowned sculptor Marjorie Fitzgibbon - nee Steele - in my February 2018 AE post.)
I remember being shocked by Lola's violent death many years ago. As a boy I had witnessed my stepfather physically abuse my mother on a regular basis. Nevertheless, at first it didn't occur to me that Lola's murder was - and remains - all too common. According to the latest data gathered by the Partnership Against Domestic Violence, nearly one in five American murder victims are killed by an intimate partner. A woman is beaten by her domestic partner every nine seconds in the United States.
Much has been written and aired about the death of Ruben Salazar in August of 1970, including the 2-14 PBS documentary, "Man in the Middle." Salazar was killed by Tom Wilson an L.A. County sheriff's deputy while covering Chicano demonstrations in East Los Angeles. The deputy fired a 10-inch wall-piercing gas projectile through the open door of a bar - the Silver Dollar - where journalist Salazar sat peaceably reviewing his notes. The projectile hit his head and killed him instantly. The sheriff's department blamed Salazar's killing on a "loading error" due to Wilson having mistaken the lethal projectile for a lesser one meant for crowd control. The deputy was not prosecuted. L.A. county did award Salazar's family $700,000 in a subsequent settlement of a case. Activists and commentators called it a political assassination prompted by Salazar's advocacy for Mexican-American civil rights.
Justice had been long delayed for Susan Berman (top left). I edited her stories at two magazines. She was the funny, loud and prolific daughter of a Las Vegas mobster, those we know almost always get away with murder. She was difficult, but no gangster, more the victim type as she proved to be in the long run. She had a habit of latching onto older, abusive men.She seemed to revel in bad choices until her luck ran out. Hell, though, she didn't deserve such a gruesome fate.
Susan wrote with bold wit about growing up among 1950s Las Vegas celebrities and gangsters starting with a feature during my editorial tenure at the Los Angeles Times' Sunday West Magazine.. She was a mob princess. Her father Davie Berman was an associate of Las Vegas gangster-pioneer Bugsy Siegel and a member of the Genovese Family. He died of natural causes when she was a child, followed by her mother committing suicide, but the mob took care of her. She wrote two autobiographical books about it all. Robert Durst's defense maintained that she could have been murdered by underworld enemies, but the prosecution counted that her revelations where old and of no threat to anyone.
She did make the mistake of helping Robert Durst concoct an alibi about his missing wife -- believed dead. Susan knew Durst from college days, and had received financial help from him in the months leading up to her murder.
RIP. Susan Berman. You have to note that we've come to find grotesque, hyper-wealthy, sociopaths like Robert Durst far more familiar today than when he shot Susan to death in 2000. "Throughout the trial, prosecutors painted a portrait of a rich narcissist who didn’t think the laws applied to him and ruthlessly disposed of people who stood in his way." No, the law rarely seems to apply to his kind. But better late than never this time around!
Against the odds, most of us imagined that "the long arc of the moral universe" would bend more towards justice 21st century, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But in the first two decades of the millennium, we have witnessed justice - social, legal and otherwise - in retreat on all fronts. The rise of corruption didn't start with Donald Trump,
but he, his backers and faithful MAGA-heads have supported public criminality on steroids on a scale that has made the Gilded Age look like a boy scout meeting. They threw regulations, duty, customs, compassion and responsibility, even common decency out the window during their four years of entitled, anything-goes, followed by this year's Big Lie denying Joe Biden's election as President. Scruples? In his infamous 2016,
"I-could-shoot-somebody on Fifth-Avenue" speech Trump himself boasted that he could
literally get away with murder to thousands of frothing followers on
national TV. "When someone shows you who they are, believe them," as the late Maya Angelou said.
The best fictional detectives display integrity in an often meaningless, dark universe, making them existentialist heroes, no matter their crime-solving rates. I won't spoil my detective novels by giving away how my protagonist Frank Ritz solves murders, if at all. I'll be happy if you find his mystery stories meaningful and entertaining.
1975 City of San Francisco cover image, above, courtesy of designer Mike Salisbury
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------The Phantom Eye (a Frank Ritz Mystery) newly released in paperback and ebook by Light Fantastic Publishing.
writes with tremendous style and a pitch perfect ear for everything
that makes the classic noir detective story irresistible. Philip Marlowe
and Lew Archer, make room for Frank Ritz!" - Elizabeth McKenzie, best-selling author of The Portable Veblen.
"... reminds me of Chandler's The Little Sister, and The Big Sleep of course." - Actor playwright Gary Houston.