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· H.B. Berlow ·
A few weeks ago sixteen artists gathered at the Wichita Library to recite their poetry accompanied by music. In short time I learned that one of those poets, H.B. Berlow, also writes crime novels.
By the time I arrived home to Greater Medora, I had a Facebook friend request from Berlow. I accepted.
A day later I could barely believe my eyes! H.B. had posted a mugshot that looked like it belonged in my “Wanted” postcard collection. He commented: “This is career criminal Neil McCauley from his Alcatraz mugshot in 1954. He was the inspiration for Robert De Niro’s character in the movie ‘Heat.’ And I just figured out how to include him in Book Five of the #ArkCity Confidential Chronicles.”
I commented: “I would sure like to hear more about this!”
H.B.’s response: “Let’s get together and talk.”
We made arrangements to meet in Wichita at the Beautiful Day Café.
I searched online for Berlow’s bio and found it:
“H.B. Berlow (1962- ) studied filmmaking at the University of Miami in the 80’s; was involved in the Boston poetry scene in the 90’s; and is a former president of the KWA (Kansas Writer’s Association). In fiction, he has concentrated largely on hard-boiled and neo-noir, having been inspired by such writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompsom, and James Ellroy. He has delved into various elements of experimental fiction and verse. He discusses his passion for writing at http://tikiman1962.wordpress.com.”
Prior to meeting with H.B., I did a little more research. The cover of his Ark City Confidential novel shows automobiles from the 1930s. I wondered, what’s the crime drama about? I learned that Baron Witherspoon is a police detective, a hard-boiled street cop, ready to rumble. This flawed yet enduring hero, with identity issues from his youth and the war, lives to fight for justice in Arkansas City, Kansas.
H.B. and I met over brunch. He expected us to hit it off since we had both read our poetry at the library, we’re both authors, we collect postcards, and I’m a retired cop while he writes crime fiction. Boy, was he right!
Ark City Confidential is the first book of a series. It takes place during 1933-34. Book two, Secrets of the Righteous, covers the years 1935-38. The third book, being written, takes place in 1943 during the war. Book four, set in 1948, is outlined. Ideas for the last book, in 1954, are still developing.
Since historical novels require a lot of research, I figured H.B. might have lived in Ark City. Not quite. His wife, Shelia, has an uncle and aunt who live in the community. For years Shelia’s uncle has been telling stories about “Little Chicago” where gangsters would lay low from Chicago’s heat.
These tales lit a fuse in Berlow’s creative mind, and he continues to do research on the border town because each book in the series requires greater detail.
Making sure that historical information is accurate is a huge undertaking. For Berlow, it meant figuring out where the buildings and businesses were located. He also had to be cognizant of only using law enforcement terminology, tools, and techniques available during that era.
Even though book five is down the road, it’s important and fun to figure things out ahead of time. A character can be introduced in one book, like planting a seed, but not fully mature into a multidimensional character until a later publication.
I asked H.B. about Neil McCauley. It was his Alcatraz mugshot posted on Facebook that had attracted my interest. I learned about H.B. and Shelia touring Alcatraz. Afterwards, Shelia commented to her author-spouse: “You should figure out how to fit Alcatraz in your books.” Thanks to her idea, career criminal McCauley is itchin’ to get back into action in book five.
I’ve watched a few neo-noir movies, like the Maltese Falcon, but that doesn’t mean I understand the term. I asked H.B. He explained that neo means new, and noir means a crime element. During the mid-1940s to late 1950s noir movies, mostly in black and white, influenced by German expressionism, showed the darker side of humanity when it was brought to the surface.
Berlow commented that neo-noir movies don’t have happily-ever-after endings like in The Wizard of Oz.
I asked Berlow about how he got started on writing neo-noir. He explained that when he was studying screenwriting at the University of Miami he was immersed in lots of film.
Writing crime fiction allows authors to reveal a dark side of people that they’d rather hide. Berlow offers, “We all want to look good but if we’re sinister, it’s going to come out.”
To emphasize his statement, Berlow gives an example. “People will comment, ‘He’s only like that when he’s drunk.’ I don’t believe that. He’s that person.”
Now I’m looking forward to reading Berlow’s novels. I’ll start with Ark City Confidential. I’ve heard from readers that his “characters are real and raw and compelling.” I’ll meet Police Detective Baron Witherspoon and the gangsters he battles in Little Chicago.
I’m curious how dark this neo-noir will be. I don’t expect The Wizard of Oz but I’m not ready for Dante’s Inferno.
Until next time, happy writing and reading!