Murder Most Casual - Umberto Tosi


"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled." - Matthew 5:1:11 New King James.

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
Most real world murders go unsolved. Only 45 percent of U.S. homicides result even in an arrest, much less prosecution and conviction, according to the FBI. (To be fair, despite popular myth, the American murder rate is much reduced from that of the 1990s.) All-in-all, one in three murders go completely unsolved. That's pretty lame considering that most murders are committed by easily fingered perpetrators that the victim knew.

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
Delirious with decades of unbridled pillaging, they've doubled down. They've swelled their coffers at public expense hardly paying a dime in taxes or worrying about health, safety and environmental regulations. Their ideological minions meanwhile remain stubbornly in denial about the hundreds-of-thousands of excess COVID-19 deaths caused by Trump's politically-motivated criminal negligence as president. Trump and his movement scheme to enforce an anti-democratic autocracy. Meanwhile, attempts at institutional reform continue to be neutered by corrupted right-wing politicians and judges. Maybe that will change before hell freezes over. Lots of high-minded people keep working to defend democracy. It's tough, however, while the masters of Trump universe continue their criminal enterprises without fear of consequences

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


Umberto Tosi's books include, The Phantom Eye, Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published widely, most recently in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His nonfiction has been published widely in print and online. He began his career as a journalist for Los Angeles Times and an editor for its prize-winning, Sunday magazine, West, and as editor of San Francisco Magazine. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago.


Enjoy my latest Hollywood noir detective thriller: The Phantom Eye (a Frank Ritz Mystery) newly released in paperback and ebook by Light Fantastic Publishing.

 "Tosi 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.


Marsha Coupé said…
Umberto, are you sure you’re not a cat? You have lived at least nine lives. Big lives. And interesting. Boston. San Francisco. Chicago. I love the characters you write about. Fiction and non-fiction.

I have known a number of women murdered, sadly. All from a time in the 80’s when I worked for a Women’s Crisis Shelter. The women were murdered by husbands, boyfriends and lovers, like your sister-in-law and Susan. Maddening and heartbreaking.

Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Umberto. As usual you tell it as it is, name names, refuse false comforts. What a pity such enlightenment isn't more widely shared.
Reb MacRath said…
Umberto, if I hadn't already discovered your new series, this would've brought me to it.
Umberto Tosi said…
Many thanks, Marsha, Bill and Reb! Marsha I never knew you worked for a Women's Crisis Center nor had such tragic stories to share. Tell us more, please.
What an exciting life, Umberto - but I am not exactly envious of you having known three murder victims. I think the closest I have come to it was being at university with someone who later attempted to murder his wife.
Sadly I think people on this side of the Atlantic can also get rich by devious means and are apparently beyond the law.
Peter Leyland said…
A very interesting piece Umberto, showing a great deal of knowledge of crime and criminals in the US. One of my favourite lines is Chandler's from The Simple Art of Murder: 'down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.' Somewhat unfashionable these days, or am I just older? Thanks for the post.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you, Cecelia, and Peter. Great quote from Raymond Chandler. Not at all unfashionable.

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