Guest Author: Peter James
In July 2011, I was having dinner in New York with a detective friend in the NYPD, Pat Lanigan. He told me that his great-uncle was Dinny Meehan, the feared and ruthless head of the White Hand Gang – the Irish Mafia who controlled the New York and Brooklyn waterfronts, and much else – from the 1850s until the mid 1920s. It was one of the White Hand Gang’s methods of disposing of enemies in the Hudson that led to the expression, taking a long walk down a short pier.
Dinny Meehan was responsible for kicking Al Capone and other lieutenants of the Italian Mafia, the Black Hand Gang, out of New York – which is why Capone fetched up in Chicago.
In 1920 five men broke into Meehan’s home in the Dumbo area of Brooklyn, and in front of his four-year-old son, shot Dinny Meehan and his wife. The wife survived, and the boy went on to become a famous basketball player. The culprits were never identified. There was speculation whether it was a revenge attack organized by Capone, or a power struggle within the White Hand Gang from Meehan’s deputy, “Wild Bill” Lovett. Meehan’s widow had no doubts, confronting Lovett in a crowded bar, and he was eventually murdered, too.
Pat Lanigan volunteered to let me see the archive material. It sparked an idea which grew into Dead Man’s Time, where instead of become a basketball player, the boy ends up in Brighton as a hugely successful antiques dealer and we pick up nine decades later, when he is an old man, with memories and a still unsolved family mystery.
Brighton, which began life as the smuggling village, Brightelmstone, has always been a magnet for criminals. It holds the unique distinction as the only place in the UK where a serving Chief Constable has ever been murdered – Henry Solomon, in 1844.
If you were a villain and wanted to design your perfect criminal environment, you would design Brighton!
The city has a large, transient population, making it hard for police to keep tabs on villains, and making it easy for drug overlords to replace any of their dealer minions who get arrested. Sited at on the coast, transients who drift down the country reach Brighton and have nowhere left to go, so they stay. Its main police station, John Street, is the second busiest police station in the UK.
It is hardly surprising that the term “knocker boy” originated in Brighton. Several former knocker boys helped me in my research, telling me their many tricks of the trade.
In 1996 the Independent ran the following damning headline:
If your antiques have been stolen, head for Brighton – The Sussex resort is now a thieves’ kitchen for heirlooms
Many of the seemingly legitimate Brighton antiques dealers were just as bad as the knocker boys, hiding behind a veneer of respectability. Simon Muggleton, formerly Head of the Brighton Police Antiques Squad, told me that although the police were well aware of the activities of the ring they were never able to make any arrests.
One of the most scary moments I’ve ever had was last April, researching Dead Man’s Time in Marbella, the capital of the so-called Costa del Crime. A British bar owner greeted me by saying he was a big fan of my novel, Dead Man’s Grip. ‘I liked the torture in that one.’ He said. ‘Had a bit of a nasty shooting in here,’ he told me. A dispute between two men over a girl, resulted in the boyfriend being shot in each testicle and another six times in the chest. I asked the bar owner what the price was for getting someone ‘whacked’ in Marbella. ‘You just have to give a Moroccan a Bin Laden,’ he replied. He explained a Bin Laden is a €500.00 note – apparently as scarce as Bin Laden sightings used to be, and a Moroccan would take a day ferry across from Ceuta, do the hit and be back in Morocco the same day – and could live two years on that money. Life doesn’t come – or go – much cheaper.
Peter James is the #1 international bestselling author of the Roy Grace series, with more than 14 million copies sold all over the world. His novels have been translated into thirty-six languages; three have been filmed and three are currently in development. All of his novels reflect his deep interest in the world of the police, with whom he does in-depth research. He lives in England. The 10th novel in his Roy Grace series, Want You Dead (Minotaur) will be published in the US November 18, 2014.