Helen Hayes: Will Live Forever

I was delighted to learn that Helen Hayes, arguably the finest American actress of the Twentieth Century, recently got honored by being pictured on the latest “anytime”U.S. postage stamp, now on sale nationwide for 44 cents and usable for first-class postage at any future rate from now on. Miss Hayes, dubbed “The First Lady of the American Theater,” died in 1993 at 92. She was the only performer to win the show business “grand slam” of Oscar, Tony, Emmy, and Grammy. 

She became the first stage actress to win an Oscar, for her role in “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” in 1932. She won her second Oscar 38 years later for her supporting role in the 1970 film “Airport.” 

What particularly pleases me about this recent honor is that Helen Hayes appeared in my first “Snap Malek” Chicago historical mystery novel, “Three Strikes You’re Dead,” from Echelon Press. I set that story in 1938 and found in my research that Miss Hayes happened to be in Chicago that year in the long-running stage drama “Victoria Regina,” in which she portrayed QueenVictoria over a half-century span. Every evening, the actress aged fifty years over the duration of the performance. 

In my book, I had Malek, a Chicago Tribune police reporter, introduce himself to Miss Hayes in a restaurant, and the two of them ended up talking about the newspaper business, a natural topic since the actress was married to journalist Charles MacArthur, who with Ben Hecht co-wrote the famous newspaper stage play “The Front Page.” 

That fictional meeting between Malek and Helen Hayes remains my favorite scene in the book. And the great actress will be in my thoughts once more later this month, when I attend a revival performance of “The Front Page” at a theater inChicago.

A Dramatically Short Career

When I talk about my Snap Malek Chicago historical mysteries to book clubs, schools, and service groups (e.g. Rotary), the real-life character in these novels I get asked most often about is Al Capone. I find this interesting, given that Capone’s rule of the Chicago crime syndicate was so brief.

Indeed, Capone’s fame is far out of proportion to his tenure as the Windy City’s mafia kingpin. He reigned over its underworld for barely six years before being sent to prison for tax evasion in 1931 at the age of 32. He never again was a major factor in organized crime.

In all, Capone spent more time behind bars then he did as the head of the Chicago syndicate. And his successor, Frank Nitti, although primarily a front man for Tony Accardo and Paul Ricca, led the local mob longer than Scarface Al did.

So what drew attention to Capone? He was flamboyant, colorful, and quotable. The newspapers ate up his act. He outlandishly suggested he was a modern-day “Robin Hood,” taking from the rich and giving to the poor. He wore bright colored dress shirts and was a highly visible figure around town, patronizing the best restaurants and getting the best seats to big-league baseball games. And Hollywood loved the Capone persona. More than a dozen actors portrayed him on film, including Rod Steiger, Jason Robards, Ben Gazzara, and Robert DeNiro.

The man’s fast and loose living caught up with him, even in prison. Suffering from syphilis and with his mind deteriorating, Al Capone was paroled from the federal penitentiary at Alcatraz in 1939. He spent his last years in Florida, little more than a vegetable, and died in Miami Beach on Jan. 24, 1949, a week after his forty-eighth birthday.

Terror at the Fair (On Sale Now)

Terror at the Fair by Robert Goldsborough
A Snap Malek Mystery Book 5

It’s the summer of 1949 and Steve “Snap” Malek has been assigned by his editors to cover the Chicago Railroad Fair. For three months this sprawling and lavish event will draw visitors to the showcase on the city’s beautiful Lakefront. Malek, used to getting his headlines covering the gritty Police Headquarters, sees this as the first step in being put out to pasture. Deciding that a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, he accepts the assignment, grumbling all the while.

However, violence has a way of finding the intrepid Snap Malek, even in this least likely of locales. Striking indiscriminately, a killer bearing a grudge against railroads in general, threatens to shut down the highly publicized and well-attended national exposition with a series of bizarre murders.

Before this reign of terror ends, famed filmmaker Walt Disney enters the scene with a theory about the killer, and Malek himself, bloodied and wounded, becomes a target of the madman’s wrath.

Excerpt:

Prologue

He had laid the last of the iron bars in place across the rails, making sure their positioning would cause the ancient and relatively lightweight locomotive to derail and crash, taking with it the open-side excursion coaches crowded with fairgoers. He checked his watch again: twenty minutes until the next train came by, and it always ran on schedule.

This being the darkest stretch along the line, the lethal bars on the track wouldn’t be seen by some chance passerby, not that people walked in this remote area of the fairgrounds anyway.

His work done, he stepped back into a cluster of bushes and knelt to wait, feeling the bulge in his hip pocket. He felt comforted to have it there, although it seemed beyond the realm of possibility it would be needed. No, this would be simple and efficient, the final act in his crusade.

It is almost over now, Papa. Just a few more minutes…

He heard something–footsteps? No, probably just leaves on a tree along the tracks rustling in the breezes wafting off Lake Michigan on the August night. There they came again, louder this time. Definitely footsteps! Perhaps one of the janitorial crew. They seemed very good about picking up rubbish. Whoever it was would have moved on long before the train came along.

He saw the beam of light before he saw the figure. A silhouetted man carrying a flashlight walked slowly along the tracks, playing the light back and forth, back and forth, until its yellow halo rested upon the iron bars. The interloper with the flashlight squatted down to study the bars, then began picking them up and tossing them off the tracks.

He rose from his crouch in the bushes and wrapped his hand around the pistol in his jacket pocket. He walked toward the man, whom he now recognized, and called to him by name, pulling the weapon out. So now, one more must die.

A Call from Rockford Best Seller!

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Augie the Bookman

Few things have delighted me more of late than to learn that my favorite bookstore, Centuries & Sleuths, has won a 2011 Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America. The Raven is given annually for outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing, and C&S is joined in this year’s award by Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis.

Centuries & Sleuths, specializing in mystery, history and biography, is located on a lively and eclectic retail stretch of Madison Street in Chicago’s near-western suburb of Forest Park and is run by August Paul Aleksy, known widely as just Augie. The store, which Augie founded 20 years ago, is a gathering place for mystery and history writers and aficionados. (Full disclosure: The store has sold more than 1,200 copies, collectively, of my four “Snap” Malek Chicago mystery novels.)

Battling as all indies do against the national bookstore chains as well as e-books, big box discount retailers, and Amazon.com, Augie more than holds his own by providing personal service and a cozy, welcoming and stimulating retreat both for authors and readers.

For instance, every month the 1,200-sq. ft. store hosts meetings of the local chapters of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the G.K. Chesterton Society, as well as mystery and history discussion groups. Also, the store is the scene of an annual “Meeting of the Minds” panel discussion, in which professional and amateur actors portray historical figures.

Then there are the author signings—more than 30 annually. Among those who have discussed their work and inked their books at Augie’s including celebrities Peter Ustinov and Steve Allen, as well as a Who’s Who of mystery writers, historians, and biographers of the last two decades.

Join me in raising a glass to Augie Aleksy and Centuries & Sleuths!

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