A multigenerational Commonwealth caper fit for Stephen King
Every five or so years, much media and subsequently general attention falls upon the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, or more specifically the priceless works of art that disappeared from the place making for the biggest caper in Hub history. This go-round, the true-crime podcast Last Seen, a joint foray into the case from WBUR and the Boston Globe, is taking a fresh new crack at it, while first-time author Scott Von Doviak took another route completely and imagined the whole saga from scratch.
In his kickass new release on Hard Case Crime, Von Doviak paints pulp tales that are inspired by three eras—the 1940s, the 1980s, and the 2010s—in order to weave a unique fiction about the elusive Gardner paintings. Charlesgate Confidential draws on the writer’s own time in Boston at Emerson College, during which he actually lived in one of the buildings where his story takes place, and uses local lore and culture as a tapestry throughout.
There are many books about this city and its checkered past—fiction and nonfiction, entertaining and otherwise. Von Doviak’s work stands out dramatically, not only for its clever time-hopping, but for its sexy, loaded language and ability to illustrate the city’s underbelly then and now.
We sat with the author at the Little Donkey in Cambridge last time he was in town to ask about this massive rookie feat, which already caught some major props (and a book jacket blurb) from the legend himself, fellow Hard Case writer Stephen King.
Do you have a lot of Boston connections?
I grew up in Maine, then I went to Emerson and studied film. The actual dorm in the book, the Charlesgate, was the dorm I lived in for several years. It was opened as a hotel in the 1890s, then fell on hard times in the depression when the mob took it over—I ran with that idea.
What were the big rumors surrounding the place back when you were a student?
We were always told that Eugene O’Neill had died in the building. That wasn’t true—he died in a BU dorm down the street that had been a hotel back in the ’40s. There was a long list of stuff that wasn’t allowed because the wiring was so bad, and also Ouija boards were banned in the dorm—I don’t think I ever saw it in writing, but it was generally accepted that it wasn’t allowed [because the place was so spooky].
Were you writing at the time?
I wrote a little for the Berkeley Beacon, the school paper. I used that in the book too. After that I went out to LA and was pursuing screenwriting, and I just had a series of bad showbusiness jaunts. I moved to Austin, and around the late ’90s I started writing movie reviews for an online site, then this guy at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram saw them and needed another film critic. So I started doing that and did 10 years for the paper. They usually had me on the movies they didn’t want to do, which was good because you could really hone your writing if you have a bad movie to write about.
How long had you been out of Boston by the time that you decided to write a novel about Boston?
The last time I lived here was 1993. But that period always stuck with me, and the building and the history were interesting to me.
Did you start with the concept of writing in three eras? What’s the preparation for that? What did you do for research?
I found a lot of articles online, but one summer when I was up here I went to the Boston Public Library and dug around there too.
It’s weird, I didn’t have a detective wall chart or anything like that, but I did want it to be a crime story—I wasn’t interested in writing a ghost story. Some kind of big crime that would set everything off in the ’40s, then would reverberate through to the present day.
When I was trying to think of what the biggest crime would be, I thought robbing Fenway Park, and then it dawned on me that it had been done [in Chuck Hogan’s Prince of Thieves, the book later turned into the Ben Affleck movie The Town].
The Gardner heist happened while I was in school here, though. I was going to completely fictionalize it—make up the name of the museum, and the paintings and everything—and then I just thought to pull it out the ’90s and stick it in the ’40s, when security would have been even worse since they didn’t have cameras.
What was important for you to get into the ’40s, mindset-wise?
I tried in terms of dialogue for people to speak [the appropriate way], so guys in the ’40s talk like they are in the ’40s. That was the idea anyway. It was a lot of film noir stuff I was drawing on. … I thought that was my strength—somebody else can describe a room for five pages, but not me.
How does a first-time fiction writer land at such a significant imprint? How did it all come together?
I don’t know—the publisher told me that he hadn’t ever done it before. I initially had an agent from my first nonfiction book. I didn’t even know if he remembered me, but I sent it to him and he liked it. He only sent it to the top five publishers, though, then decided that he is out of the fiction game. And so, after trying around with a few more agents, I just sent an email to Hard Case Crime, where I really thought it belonged, and they said, “Yeah, send it to me.” A week later I got a huge long email and they said that they were going to publish it. That was in April of last year.
And how does one get blurbed by Stephen King?
He actually wrote the first Hard Case Crime book. [The publisher] approached him and actually just wanted a blurb [for an earlier book], and Stephen King wrote him a whole book instead. They’re friendly—[King] has since done a second book with [Hard Case]—and they said they were just going to send [Charlesgate Confidential] to him to see if he liked it. And then I’m just sitting at a bar one day and I look at my phone and it says, Stephen King has followed you on Twitter. I didn’t think he followed it to tell me I sucked, and as it turned out he wound up tweeting about it a few times.
It’s all still pretty hard to believe.
Scott will read from Charlesgate Confidential at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge on 10.12 and at Books on the Square in Providence on 10.13. For more information visit hardcasecrime.com.