Remembrance of Crooked Deeds Past
To mark the publication of the newest anthology edited by Michael Sims, The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime: Con Artists, Burglars, Rogues, and Scoundrels From the Time of Sherlock Holmes, Art Taylor hosts a Q&A and gets Sims talking about all manner of subjects, but especially the sheen that past deeds and writings take on years after the fact:
In your introduction, you talk about nostalgia being part of
the potential attractiveness of these stories for today’s readers, and
they’re certainly charming on a number of levels. Is it nostalgia or
charm (or what else?) that gives you personally the most satisfaction
in reading these stories?
First, the stories are almost always funny and cleverly structured
to be surprising. I find them charming and I admit I’m also drawn to an
era that is comfortably pre-nuclear and pre-TV (not that I consider TV quite
as bad as nuclear weapons). Also, in a recent radio interview about
this anthology, I caught myself describing these miscreants as, of all
things, “freelancers.” I had to correct myself and say, “That is, um,
you see, they’re crooks, of course, but they’re independent
crooks – outside any system.” It was a ridiculous moment of
self-realization to blurt out in an interview, but it reminded me of
what, deep down, I secretly love about some of these characters: their
complete independence. No one tells them what to do; they exist
entirely outside all established systems; most are invisible and
supremely free. Their very definition of themselves is about their
intelligence and independence.
Do I admire real con artists and burglars? Nope. They prey upon
gullible doofuses such as myself. But these stories are basically
fantasy. I also enjoy Harry Potter but have no more desire to meet
Dementors myself than I do to meet real crooks, primarily because I’m a
Sims’ comments resonate with me now that I have recently finished a rediscovered “true biography” by one Bob Moore, a Glaswegian man who may have titled his 1935 tome DON’T CALL ME A CROOK! but, had he known the term existed, likely would have appreciated being thought of as a “freelancer.” The book was pressed into my hands at last week’s crime fiction panel up near Columbia by Dissident Books publisher Nicholas Towasser, who’s reissuing the book next month, and while I admit to a bit of awkwardness at the time, it all melted away with Moore’s opening phrases:
I would like to go back to Hoboken, but if I did Heinz Billings might get at me, because he said he would wait forever; though I think myself it is terribly mean of a man to say he will wait forever, when all you have done is to take some money out of the till in a speakeasy. It is not even as if it was his in the till, because I helped him myself to get it off the sailors when they were not thinking anything about their money, so you could rightly say that the money was half mine. I think it is mean of Heinz Billings, but then, of course, I always knew Heinz Billing was a mean man.
So, you see, I cannot go back to Hoboken while Heinz Billings is alive, and I cannot go back to the rest of New York either, because there was the time the man was killed that held me up outside Kelly's Clam Broth House, and the police came with the gun and asked me questions in my hotel. But they did not think I had killed him at the time, because they let me go away all right, but you never can tell when the New York police will come after you. And if they did they might find out about the diamonds and Mrs. Carr's ring.
<p> How could I not read on? And so I did, and found myself ensorcelled (albeit with many dollops of skepticism and the occasional eye roll and smirk) in Moore's crazy tales of traveling the world by ship, over and over, during the 1920s, where he encountered gunfights, judges with unfortunate tendencies to sleep with underage girls, illicit booze at the height of Prohibition, gangsters, other people's money, and the lessening of morals that were never really there to begin with. So what if his writing style is a little clunky – it's the mark of someone well-acquainted with telling stories out loud, even if the only audience looking back at him came from a mirror. And if the stories are a little exaggerated, stretched out of proportion, too outlandish to be believed, well, who are we to judge after almost 75 years?  Especially since this is all we have as testament to the existence of Moore, whose name was almost certainly pseudonymous and whose whereabouts remain more or less mysterious. </p> <p> It remains to be seen whether DON'T CALL ME A CROOK! will attain the "lost classic" label Towasser advocates for in his introduction, but there's no denying the verve and momentum of Moore's storytelling ability that rises above seeming sociopathic tendencies, ethnic slurs and general self-justification for the crimes, large and small, he cops to committing. Bob Moore isn't one to be admired, but he likely wouldn't have known what to do with admiration, what with the next port of call on the horizon. </p>