J. L. ABRAMO is a long-time educator, arts journalist, film and stage actor and theater director. His evolution to writing crime fiction might have been ordained by the fact he was born on Raymond Chandler's fifty-ninth birthday. Abramo's short fiction appeared in various anthologies, but his success as a novelist began when his Catching Water in a Net (the first in his Jake Diamond series) won the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel. A subsequent Jake Diamond novel, Circling the Runway, won the Shamus Award for Best Original Paperback Novel of 2015 presented by the Private Eye Writers of America.
Abramo also created a new series in 2012 with Gravesend, which introduced Homicide Detectives Samson and Murphy of Brooklyn's 61st Precinct. The detectives return in Coney Island Avenue during the dog days of August in Brooklyn where the men and women of the 61st Precinct are battling to keep all hell from breaking loose. Innocents are being sacrificed in the name of greed, retribution, passion and the lust for power—and the only worthy opponent of this senseless evil is the uncompromising resolve to rise above it, rather than descend to its depths.
Abramo stops by In Reference to Murder today to talk about the book and researching settings and historical periods to make his writing more accurate:
I have always been partial to novels in which location plays an essential role in the narrative. Dennis Lehane’s Boston, George Pelecanos’ Washington D.C., Loren Estleman’s Detroit—not to mention Dickens’ London and Hugo’s Paris. I tend, therefore, to take the settings of my novels very seriously—both in terms of significance and accuracy.
In fiction, when a story is set in a real and specific city—be it San Francisco, Los Angeles, or New York—I believe the accuracy of the locale needs to be non-fictional. Geography is sacred. Readers are willing to suspend belief to a great extent—but if you have two characters meeting at the corner of Coney Island Avenue and Ocean Parkway, two streets which never intersect, you will lose a large number of Brooklyn readers very quickly.
When writing places I am not very familiar with—Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Oakland, Chicago—the research is both extensive and educational. I study maps. With locations I am more familiar with, having lived in those places or visited many times—San Francisco, Brooklyn, Denver—I rely on recollection but always double-check geography. In writing Gravesend and Coney Island Avenue, it was a journey back to the places where I had grown from infancy to manhood—re-walking the streets of my past—making certain those streets were represented correctly.
I have also had to do a great deal of research with regard to period. In the first Jake Diamond novel, Catching Water in a Net set in 2000, Jake turns 40 at the end of the book. By the time the third in the series was released, set in 2003, Jake was 43. The fourth book in the series, Circling the Runway, came nearly a dozen years later, 2015, however (since I didn’t wish to have my protagonist pushing 55 years old quite yet) I decided to set the narrative back to 2004. This required re-familiarization with the sports, music, literature, movies, and other historical events and cultural elements of that year. It required study. Similarly, for Chasing Charlie Chan, set in 1994 and flashing back to Hollywood and Las Vegas in the late-forties, I needed to do a great deal of reading about those periods and about the characters in the book who were actual historical figures. In cases like these, research for a novel can be enjoyable—the knowledge gained about the highly successful and prolific Charlie Chan film franchise was fascinating. Non-fiction books such as The Charlie Chan Film Encyclopedia, Las Vegas: An Unconventional History, We Only Kill Each Other—and many newspaper and magazine articles about Werner Oland, Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel, Mickey Cohen, Meyer Lansky—were invaluable and terrifically entertaining. I was also aided and inspired by the works of James Ellroy—L.A. Confidential and others.
The investigative work of my protagonists—whether private eye Jake Diamond in California or Brooklyn NYPD detectives Samson, Ripley, Senderowitz and Murphy in Gravesend and my latest novel, Coney Island Avenue—tend to be more about intuition, legwork and often luck than about highly scientific forensics. For that research I tend to go back to reading about true crime investigations from the pre-CSI era. I also seek out older private and police detectives who recall the good old days of criminal investigation—when being a gumshoe meant hitting the pavement—and who enjoy sharing reminiscence over Scotch.
Although I write predominantly fiction—I am committed to truth and fact when it comes to specific locations, time periods, vernacular and personalities. Homework is always required—but it is the kind of homework that is challenging, enlightening and, for this writer, a world of fun. And more fun yet—my next novel will require brushing up on my Italian language skills.