A Criminal Magic
GUEST POST by LEE KELLY:
The pitch for my latest book, A CRIMINAL MAGIC, is THE NIGHT CIRCUS meets THE PEAKY BLINDERS, and for anyone who’s seen that twisty, violent BBC drama, you’ll know this means there’s some pretty hardened criminals in this one. My story takes place during an alternative Prohibition-era America, but instead of alcohol, magic has been prohibited. And just like during real Prohibition, gangsters have created an extensive, lucrative underworld to make sure people still get what they want, despite the letter of the law.
Because the magic in this novel is tricky and dangerous by nature, I knew I needed gangsters that weren’t just ruthless – these wise guys had to be clever, driven, and one step ahead of the sorcerers they employ in all aspects of their illegal trade. For inspiration and ideas, I naturally turned to history. Here are some of the notorious, hardnosed gangsters that most inspired me while writing A CRIMINAL MAGIC:
Owen “Owney” Madden was a New York gangster nicknamed “the Killer,” and aptly so as he was known for his very public executions. Madden more than once gunned down his rival gang members in the streets, and he allegedly shot a man on a trolley for flirting with his date. Despite being a hothead, he was also a shrewd businessman, and ran The Cotton Club (as well as some other swanky speakeasies) in New York City. In my novel, Erwin McEvoy, the boss of the Irish Shaw Gang, is loosely based on Madden (with a little Boo Boo Hoff thrown in there too. Boo Boo’s up next).
I have to admit, I was first attracted to Max “Boo Boo” Hoff because of his name, but the more I read about this Philly-based crime boss, the more fascinated I became. Hoff was a boxer turned gangster, and his bootlegging operation was so successful during Prohibition, it’s claimed he had an office of operations with 175 phones and a weekly payroll of $30,000 (in the 1920s)! Also known for his partying and extravagant lifestyle, Hoff frequently rubbed shoulders with celebrity types at his lavish affairs.
Also intriguing was Guiseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria, the head of the New York Italian-American mafia – the city’s powerful crime alliance known as the Five Families – during the later years of Prohibition. But Masseria was a bit of an underworld dictator: he even required monetary tributes from other Families as testaments of their loyalty. His reign naturally didn’t last: several families declared war on Masseria, which broke up the crime dynasty and led to his execution. I loosely based my novel’s Italian-American gang, the D Street Outfit, on Masseria’s New York operation.
And of course, no list of Prohibition-era gangsters would be complete without Al Capone. Though my novel’s young gangster-on-the-rise, Harrison Gunn, is actually nothing like media-hungry Capone was, I couldn’t believe that Capone was at the height of his power and became a Chicago crime boss in his mid-twenties. So I made Gunn younger (originally he was going to be middle-aged), to help rev up the tension between him and my female protagonist, Joan.