Reap the Whirlwind (Pt. 5)

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Friends,

This post continues a series on my novel in progress. If you are new to the blog, you can catch up on the previous posts here: OneTwoThree, and Four. The novel is now almost halfway complete, though to be honest I have dealt with writer’s block and accompanying challenges over the past couple of months which brought things to a full stop. The second half of any semester is the most difficult for me, teaching wise, since I am snowed under with grading and then end of the semester paperwork. The pain from my injuries is a daily thing which ranges from moderate to murderous. The past six weeks or so, it has been murderous. When you can’t sit for more than 15 or 20 minutes, stand for more than an hour or two, or lie down for more than an hour, it is difficult to focus on anything else. Athletes play with pain. Writers write with pain. I guess I’ll have to just suck it up and soldier on. Something else has been gnawing at me too. Something which I don’t quite know how to handle.

I am a perfectionist in some things. Teaching is one of them. Writing is another. I agonize over every word I say in the classroom. I feel such a solemn obligation to the past that I worry that I’m not doing justice to the experiences of those who lived through the events I teach about. At the end of every class, I engage in self destructive criticism of the day’s lecture where I think of all the better ways I could have said something. Needless to say, I do the same with my writing. Given the current work is an historical one, and of a subject that does not get much attention in the way of fiction, I feel the same sacred obligation. I will type, delete, type, delete, and then type and delete the same line five or six times until I think it sounds right, only to do it all over again when I read over the completed chapter. Once upon a time, I could dash out 6 or 7K words a day in a matter or three or four hours. Now it takes closer to 7 or 8 hours to write 3K words, which is my daily goal. On one hand, being a perfectionist is a good thing when it comes to writing, but on the other and much larger hand, it definitely slows me down.

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Like all writers, I struggle with self doubt. Writing is such a solitary endeavor that forces you to spend hours inside your own head where your personal demons sally forth to assail your confidence. Is anyone going to pay money to read this? It isn’t good enough! The side of a cereal box is more interesting than this garbage! You aren’t going to finish it anyway! I put tremendous pressure on myself. Without getting into too much detail, I teach history part time at a community college. For over ten years, I’ve slaved away at the lowest rung of the academic ladder. Despite two Master’s Degrees, a career outside academia, and a decade of direct experience, it has become blatantly obvious that I will never get a full time faculty position. Given the extent of my injuries, I can’t really do much else and to be fair, I’m not sure I could even handle one of those positions anyway. I’ve been a finalist many times, but these days I can’t even get a first interview. As much as I love being in the classroom, the writing is on the wall. If education, experience, excellent evaluations, and stellar student reviews are not enough to land you a position, then I need to get over my stubborn streak and accept defeat. What does that have to do with my writing? Well, to be blunt, the time has come for my writing to pay. In order for it to pay, I have to beat the writer’s block. And what I write has to be, you know, good. Writing is a struggle. I doubt it comes easy for even the best among us, I do not number among that group.

When you write a period piece, you really have to get inside the period as best you can. My novel is set in 1943 and takes place in two primary locations. Berlin and the inside of a Lancaster bomber. I’ve been out of the right mindset for a long time, so this week I’ve been doing nothing but listening to music from 1939-43 (both British and German) and watching movies and newsreels from the same years. It takes a few days for me to get my mind right to write (see what I did there). I’ve been going through my research files as well as reading the first 11 chapters over again. There is stuff I need to change, but I’m not allowing myself to do that until I’m done with the entire thing. Poring over photos of bomb ruins and bombing victims, reading interview notes, and examining documents and reports is a difficult task, but one you have to do if you want to get it right. Or as right as you possibly can without having been there yourself.

So excuse me now as I gallop off into the sunset on my trusty steed with a redheaded saloon girl behind me in the saddle. (Hmmm…….maybe I should write a western next.)

Alas, I have no horse but I am married to redhead.

Hutch

Pass the Pint, London Can Take It

Friends, Romans, Countrymen,

Yesterday I was interviewed by my esteemed colleague Dr. AJP. You can read my interview here if you’d like. It consists of how I came to teach history and what projects I’m working on. One of the questions asked specifically about my blog and I had to admit it has been some time since I’d put words on the internets. Far too long. My problem is that I have the attention span of a 6 month old baby. I’ll write religiously for a month or two and then I’m like “Oh…..look…..shiny things!” and next thing you know a few months have gone by without a post. I don’t have a good excuse, so I won’t waste your time giving you a bad one. In the interview, I do mention my novel project which as you may recall was the subject of a four part series I wrote. You can find the first article here and sort of take it from there.

Properly chastened, I sallied forth this morning to try and find a worthy subject of which to write. Truth be told, the subjects are worthy of a better writer than I, but I digress. Normally I make a pointed effort to not discuss current events on my blog. It isn’t that I don’t have opinions on things, of course I do, but I don’t really think you’d be interested them. However, today I will break my rule a tiny little bit, only because it is what inspired what I decided to write about.

You’d have to be living under a rock to not know about the terrible tragedies to strike Manchester and London. Nothing I can say would bring comfort to those mourning the loss of a loved one. However, a certain picture making the rounds on social media caught my eye and sparked today’s topic. I chuckled when I saw the photo of the gentleman racing away from the scene of the London attack with his pint. Given drink prices in London, I don’t blame him. But it also speaks to something else. Something deeper.

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On this, the eve of the D-Day anniversary, we in the United States should remember that before we entered the war, and even before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the British stood alone against Hitler. The Germans hit London hard. At one point, German bombers flew over the city on 57 consecutive nights. People lost their homes and their lives. Over 1 million British homes were damaged or destroyed and half of all British deaths took place in London. Add to that 1,000 British firefighters who died in the line of duty.  In October of 1940, the British government commissioned a short film called London Can Take It. It was primarily aimed at an American audience to reassure them there was no chance of the British giving up. To quote Churchill, the “full fury and might of the enemy” was indeed turned upon them and the British public emerged from the darkness and carried on into a future which saw IRA bombing campaigns and now attacks by Jihadis.

It also reminded me of an audio file I listened to of a Lancaster crew over Germany in 1943. The same spirit of the man carrying the pint can be heard in their voices. “They’re firing at us now.” “Are they?” “Yep.” The boys in Bomber Command were in their late teens and early twenties. They came from all over the Commonwealth. Australians crewed planes alongside South Africans, Welshmen, Canadians, and Scots. Night after night they flew over blacked out German cities bristling with vipers nests of searchlights and Flak batteries. Night fighters prowled the skies looking for them. Nearly half of all Bomber Command crews were killed in action. The odds of finishing a tour of 30 ops in 1943 or 44 were long indeed, yet they kept calm and carried on (a phrase coined by Churchill during the Blitz). These men had gigantic balls made of steel.

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The same spirit which saw the British through the dark days of the Second World War and the dark days of IRA attacks in British cities from the 70s-90s will no doubt see them through their current situation. You will never defeat a country where people think to save their pint in the midst of unspeakable horror. You will never defeat a country where people, night after night, listen to German bombs raining down upon them with no thought of surrender. You will never beat a country willing to stand up to the Nazis alone. The resolve of the British people is, quite simply, unbreakable.

Hutch

 

Reaping the Whirlwind (Pt. 4)

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Dear Readers,

I’ve reached the 1/3rd point of my work in progress. It’s been a mixture of slow and fast going. I write much slower now than I ever have before. When in college, I could dash off 10 pages in a matter of an hour or two. Now, my 3,000 word a day limit sometimes takes me the better part of 6 hours to finish. Of those words, maybe half of them are actually any good. But books a rewritten more than they are written. That’s what editing is for. The important thing is to get the first draft finished. I’ve identified several issues with the overall plot and layout which will require extensive revision. I may end up cutting the four characters down to two so that I can get more in depth into them and their world. We’ll see. There is much left to write.

As I slave away in front of the computer, I have been pondering great works of World War 2 fiction that I’ve read in my life. If you are a writer, you have your favorites that influence your style and even the type of fiction you write. I’m a HUGE fan of the Dave Robicheaux series by the great James Lee Burke. Indeed, my completed novel is a mystery set in a fictitious Texas town on the Gulf Coast. It’s pretty good, actually. I haven’t take the time to revise and edit it though. I might once I finish with my current project. So please allow me a few moments to discuss my favorite World War 2 novels. For those who tough it out to the end, you’ll get to read the opening of my own novel So Others May Live. 

Bomber by Len Deighton. This is an incredibly written novel which takes place over a 24 hour time span. It details everything that went into planning and carrying out a bombing raid on the fictitious German town of Altgarten. At the same time, it also details the town itself with all its secrets and intrigue. Deighton is a master storyteller. As an added bonus, the BBC did a radio dramatization of the novel in the early 90s too, so you can both read it and then listen to a radio version of it. Both are excellent. I would tell people that if they read any novel about the Second World War, make it this one.

A Time to Love and a Time to Die by Erich Maria Remarque. Wait, I hear you saying, isn’t he the guy that wrote All Quiet on the Western Front? Yes, Dear Readers, he is. This novel is, in my opinion, perhaps better even than his best known work. It takes place over a short span of time and involves a German soldier on leave from the Eastern Front. Particularly evocative of the paranoia and claustrophobia of wartime Germany, Remarque does an excellent job showing the behavior of people in wartime. It is worth noting that Remarque’s books were banned in Nazi Germany and he fled to Switzerland. In retaliation, the Nazis arrested his sister who remained behind. At her trial for undermining morale, the judge said “Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach but you, however, will not escape us.” She was beheaded in 1943. Remarque eventually immigrated to the United States and became and American citizen. He married actress Paulette Goddard who was both incredibly hot and a redhead. But I digress.

The Burning Blue by James Holland. A friendship. A forbidden love affair with a best friend’s twin sister. Spitfires. The Battle of Britain. They blend together in this wonderful novel to create a perfect tale of wartime England. Told through a series of flashbacks whilst the main character lies recovering in a hospital bed in North Africa, the book starts a few years before the war and builds towards an exciting climax. You feel for the main character as he lives on a razor’s edge during the Battle of Britain. You want him to get the girl and you genuinely grieve when he doesn’t. Or does he? The aerial combat scenes are magnificent as are the personal interactions between the characters. Holland is a master of aviation fiction. (See his other work A Pair of Silver Wings as well.) For fans of British period dramas (Foyle’s War, etc) or The Battle of Britain, I highly recommend this novel. If you want to find yourself behind the controls of a Spit, read this book at once.

Berlin by Pierre Frei. This is technically not a World War 2 novel as it is set in Berlin, but it is at least in the immediate post-war period. A serial killer stalks the streets and a Kripo detective is partnered up with the Americans to track him down. What is really neat about this novel is that you have a chapter about each victim that tracks their lives up until the instant they are murdered. Then you’ll have a chapter about the investigation of their death. Getting deep into the lives of the characters makes their deaths all the more tragic. The novel does an incredible job of describing post-war Berlin; the hunger, the black market, the fraternizing between GIs and German girls that wasn’t supposed to be taking place, the secrets people tried to keep about the lives during the Nazi era. The author was born in Berlin in 1930 and grew up there. First published in German in 2003, it was translated to English in 2005. Definitely read this, especially if you like murder mysteries.

Payback by Gert Ledig. “When the first bomb fell, the blast hurled the dead children against the wall.” Holy F–k! What an opening! This book is rare and difficult to get a copy of, though used copies do exist. First published in German in 1956, it was not translated into English until 1999. The author served on the Eastern Front and was sent home after he was wounded near Leningrad. Whilst at home, he experienced Allied air raids which are the subject of this novel. The book isn’t long. The whole thing takes place over the course of an hour or so in a nameless town as it is pummeled by bombs. Each short chapter tells about one person in the town. Before each chapter is short piece where the character introduces themselves to the reader. You see the raid unfold with all its macabre horror. From a 16 year old girl raped in a cellar as bombs fall to the dead unburied by explosions and hurled into the trees, Payback provides a stomach churning glance into life under the bombs. The book is controversial because British and American audiences do not generally like to read about what their bombs did. Still, this book is an anti-war classic and a must read.

Now, Dear Readers, as promised, here is the opening to So Others May Live. Keep in mind this is an unedited first draft and I cannot state with certainty that this will be the opening scene in the finished product and even if it is, it’ll probably be a bit different.

Fire. A tornado of fire. Flames shot upwards, a thousand feet or more, and turned the night sky to daylight. Wind swirled around the base of the inferno. Over the roar of the conflagration, a new sound emerged like the scream of wounded animals. People staggered over the rubble choked streets as the heat seared their bodies. Clothing burst into flame. The human torches ran in circles until they dropped to the street and lay still. The wind grew in intensity until it lifted, first children and then adults, and hurled them into the seat of the fire. They screamed and flailed in the air until the flames devoured them. Hair burned. Clothes burned. Even the streets burned. The odor roasted flesh overpowered that of the phosphorus driven firestorm. Somewhere, a bell rang.  

There you have it, friends.

Hutch

Reaping the Whirlwind (Pt. 3)

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Dear Readers,

As I share my journey in writing my book, I thought I’d take the time to share a little about the research process. You can read the other parts of this series here: Part One & Part Two.  My previous completed novel is a mystery, and since I was an investigator, I know something about solving crimes. As my latest work is historical fiction, I thought it worthwhile to say a few words about how the research process works for me.

The past is like a foreign country. It has its own language, culture, and living conditions. I find it best to approach it in that way. Now, I have always had a healthy interest in the past. I don’t know exactly why, but I’ve been reading about the past since I was five years old. That’s when I checked out my first book from the library and it just so happened to be a history book. I’ve been held captive ever since. I have a personal library of 2,000 books and the largest single subject is World War Two. Both of my grandfathers were veterans of this war. My grandmothers’ brothers all served as well (one was killed). All of my grandparents’ friends either served in the war or went through it on the home front, so in a way I was surrounded by it as a child. I studied history in college not because I planned on actual doing anything with it (I was happily a fireman in those days) but because I enjoyed the subject. The same goes for my graduate degree in History. Then I changed teams and became a police officer, still with no plans to use my degree, though I started teaching part time as an second job way back in 2004. I never would’ve guess I’d get hurt. I’m still teaching, and it is still part time because I’ve been told I’m not “full time material”. But I digress.

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My book deals with two interconnected pieces of the war. First, is the bomber offensive against Germany, particularly that waged by the British. Thankfully there are some excellent books and documentaries on the topic. I start at the time and read general World War Two histories, then general books about RAF Bomber Command, and finish off with specific books written by people who flew Lancaster bombers over Germany. I have also consulted books on the British Home Front. Start broad and finish specific. The second piece of the book deals with the German Civil Defense system, particularly the fire brigades and how they coped with devastating fire bombing raids. This proves a little more difficult to research as there is not a large amount of material in English. For this aspect, I use interview notes I’ve complied while speaking with those who experienced the war in Germany as civilians, including some who served in the Luftschutz and/or the fire brigades. These interviews were conducted long ago, and long before I decided to write a book. I also read general history books about Nazi Germany, then books specifically about Berlin during the War (and there are some great ones), and finally the published recollections of German civilians. I’ve also uncovered some excellent training videos done by the German government to instruct civilians how to respond to incendiary bombs. For the sake of comparison, the study of the London Fire Brigade during The Blitz and of the British ARP and Civil Defense system has been important too.

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Bomber Boys. 45% of all RAF Bomber Command aircrew were killed in action.

In some ways, I feel as though my entire life has been one big study session and this novel is my final exam. In that case, I hope I pass. I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself. Writing is a difficult enough undertaking, but with historical fiction I feel a solemn obligation to get it as “right” as I can. I feel I’d be doing a great disservice to the men and women who lived through this tumultuous period in our past if I fudge the truth. Maybe that’s asking too much of myself. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction where the author is so knowledgeable that they can’t help but dump massive amounts of information in a single paragraph to the detriment of the story. To help resist that urge, my motto is : “Storytelling first”. Tell the story and weave the history around it, do not weave the story around the history. But get it right, nonetheless.

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My book is divided into four parts. It takes place over the space of 36 hours and there are four main characters, one male and one female in England and the same in Germany. (There are, of course, a host of secondary characters who dance across the pages. Some for longer than others.) Each chapter is from the point of view of one character and each part has eight chapters. This is how part one is structured:

Part One: Afternoon, Sunday, November 21, 1943

Chapter One begins with Flying Officer Michael O’Hanlon, 22, as he finishes up his weekend pass with his fiance Grace. He has one more mission to reach his 30th which will give him a spell off of operations and an assignment to a training unit. They have plans to marry then. His reason for a weekend pass? The previous Wednesday he brought his plane back from a night mission over Germany with a dead top turret gunner, a dead wireless operator, and a seriously wounded navigator. His Lancaster received heavy damage and his crew got the time off to allow for repairs and to allow for replacement crewmen to be found. Now he will fly his last mission with half his crew inexperienced.

Chapter Two begins in Germany where Oberwachtmeister Karl Weber is teaching a class to a new draft of recruits. These aren’t military recruits, however. Karl is a veteran member of the Berlin Fire Brigade. One of the few men with experience still around owing to the constant drain on German manpower in Russia. Even Karl served during the early days of the war before a wound allowed him to resume his civilian occupation where he’s served since 1929. His recruits? Four young Hitler Youth boys 15-6 years old. Full of love for their Fuhrer and a belief in their own invincibility. The other four recruits are four young women who range in age from 17-20. It will be with these kids that Karl and the three older men at the station must wage a very different war than that waged by Michael O’Hanlon. While one drops bombs, the other tries to save lives amidst the rubble. Both are scared, yet they do their jobs anyway.

Chapter Three follows Grace Robinson,21, the daughter of a doctor and the only surviving child now that her brother, a Commando, was killed at Dieppe, as she leaves Michael at the train station. She can tell something is wrong with him, but she doesn’t know what. They haven’t known each other for long, just a few months, really, but she desperately wants him to return after his next mission so they can get married. Grace has not told her father of her plans to marry, much less her plans to marry an Irish Catholic from Belfast. She also harbors a deep secret, one which is alluded to, but that she won’t speak openly about. Should she tell Michael before they marry? Grace wanted to tell him while he was on leave but decided not to burden him with it before his next and hopefully last flight. Grace understands as much about Michael’s war as any civilian could. She was in London during The Blitz and knows firsthand the power of bombs. To that end, she and Ursula might get along if their countries weren’t at war.

Chapter Four introduces us to Ursula whom we briefly met at the end of Chapter Two. She’s a serious, redheaded German girl who lives on the edge of Charlottenburg in the western part of Berlin. Her parents are dead. Frau Muller died in an accident in 1937. Herr Muller, a Social Democrat who referred to the Nazis as ‘Hitler and His Circus Clowns’ died of a heart attack on the day Germany invaded Poland. This was perhaps for the best as he was spared the deaths of his two sons, both killed on the Eastern Front. Ursula got those telegrams instead. She works as a telephone operator and shares a small apartment with two other young women, also phone operators. But she nurses her own deadly secret. We follow Ursula as she delivers forged identity papers to a group hidden in a warehouse. They have another assignment for her tomorrow night. Pick up a pistol and deliver it. She leaves the warehouse, in the middle of the blackout, and reaches her apartment building as the air raid sirens begin to howl in the distance.

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Each of these chapters are taking place simultaneously. The next block of four chapters which finish up Part One pick up where each of these chapters leave off. My working title is So Others May Live though I am also strongly considering A Terrible Symphony which was how reporter Edward R. Murrow described a night trip over Berlin in a Lancaster ten days after this story takes place. Which one do you like best? Since I’m not finished with the book, I’d not wedded to any particular title.

Many thanks to you all for sharing this journey with me. I do not know everything there is to know about World War 2, but I do know a lot. I’d be more than happy to help anyone with their war related questions and I place my library at your disposal. If you’d like to know specific titles I’ve found useful whilst researching my novel, please ask and I’ll forward you a list.

Hutch

 

 

Murder, Utility Knickers, and the Seamy Side of Wartime England

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Friends,

Arson investigators have a difficult job since the crime in their case, fire, can do a number on your crime scene! (as can the firefighters sometimes) That said, it leaves evidence behind also. You just have to know where to look for it. Fires leave patterns, accelerants leave traces, and people leave clues. This makes a tough task a little easier. Imagine returning to the scene of a murder only to find out that it has been bombed into oblivion. That, Dear Readers, was the task faced by the intrepid Inspectors from Scotland Yard during the Second World War.

Though often we look at times of national catastrophe or struggle as a uniting factor that brings people together, that does not negate the fact that under it all a criminal element still lurks in the shadows. In the case of the blacked out cities of Europe, those shadows grew larger and the hiding places more numerous. Even Berlin, the city at the center of Hitler’s Empire was rocked by a series of bizarre sex murders in 1940 though the government kept it secret as the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo) quietly worked the case. In fact, as we will see, secrecy was a big issue in dealing with crimes in wartime.

Sir Robert Peel created the Metropolitan Police in London in 1829 while serving as Home Secretary. This paved the way for the first large professional police force in the world. And, maybe more important, it led to police officers being called “Bobbies” or “Peelers”. In fact, the Irish (my people!) brought the term “Peeler” with them to the United States and it was the first commonly used slang for police officers in eastern cities in the US. Can’t say it is all that popular anymore. I never got called that during my time in law enforcement. But it would have been cool if I had. By the time England declared war on Germany in September 1939, the British police force and the government intelligence branches (MI 5 and 6) were up to the challenge. Just as they had with the Fire Service, the government hired thousands of auxiliary policemen to help fill the spots left open by those who left to enlist in the military. However, the detective inspectors tended to be long term men who knew their way around a crime scene.

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When I was a “peeler”, I worked weekends, holidays, and night because crime doesn’t take a vacation or sleep. Nor does it disappear just because your country is at war. As soon as war was declared, the British police force helped the government in rounding up enemy aliens and people with suspicious loyalties for internment. Some of those interned were British citizens, but that did not stop them, just as it did not stop us from interning Americans citizens with Japanese ancestry.  One question that we must consider is why did crime rates in England go up during the war years? I suppose there are a variety of factors. First, large numbers of people are thrown together in stressful circumstances. That is a major part of it. Second, we have the fact that for soldiers and civilians alike in England, death could come on any given night. This can give rise to a certain sense of fatalism and an anything goes attitude. And then you add in the increased opportunity for crime with blackouts and the like. Thus wartime England was not as safe as you might think.

To begin with, the fact that London remained blacked out for much of the war and people spent a lot of time in bomb shelters meant that your everyday burglars had a field day. Rings of mostly youth with a few professionals thrown in, would watch houses after dark. When the air raid sirens went off, they would see if the people left to go to a public shelter. If so, they could break into the house with little fear of detection. As an added plus, if the house was hit by a bomb or incendiary, then it would obliterate the evidence! Perfect! The British government took a dim view of this as they also did looting bombed out homes but with their resources already stretched thin, combating it proved to be a very tough task. Fraud and the black market also consumed resources, but more important than that was the “serious” crimes of rape and yes, even murder.

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Time and space dictate that I can only share a few cases with you. First, we have the Dobkin Case. Apparently Mr. Dobkin got tired of his wife Rachel and decided to kill her. Plenty of murders have their origins here it seems. Anyway, he murdered her and buried her body under the rubble of a bombed out church hoping that if she was discovered, the authorities would write it off as a bombing victim. Almost, Mr. Dobkin. Almost! It took over a year for anyone to discover the body and owing to the fact that she had obviously been dead a while, an autopsy was conducted. During said autopsy, the intrepid pathologist Dr. Simpson discovered that the hyroid bone was fractured, thus indicating Rachel died of strangulation. Oops! And as an added oops, Mr. Dobkin covered her body in lime hoping to speed the decomposition but he used the wrong type! (Builder’s lime rather than quicklime) That may have actually preserved the body better than it would have otherwise been! The jury convicted him in less than a half hour and he was promptly hanged. Makes you wonder if other people tried this very thing and got away with it, doesn’t it?

Though often called a serial killer, our next dealer of death is really more of a spree killer. In serial murders, the killer has a “cooling off” period in between according to the almighty F.B.I. Young Gordon Cummins did not. He went on a six day murder spree earning him the very English name, “The Blackout Ripper”. On February 10, 1942, the body of a 40 year old woman was found in an air raid shelter. She had been strangled and her handbag was stolen. Inspectors and the pathologist surmised that the killer may have been left handed. The next day, a prostitute was found murdered in her apartment. The victim had been strangled, had her throat cut, and had her sexual organs mutilated with a can opener which was left at the scene. The scene was eerily reminiscent of Scotland Yard’s most famous open case, Jack the Ripper, as it looked like one of his crime scenes. Luckily, they were able to get prints off the can opener. The Home Office clamped down on the story as they did not want to spark a panic. However, worse was to come. And quickly.

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Gordon Cummins

The next day, yet another prostitute was discovered murdered in her apartment. The scene was one of the most brutal you could encounter back then. She had been strangled with a stocking. The killer took the time to mutilate her with several objects and to violate her body with a candlestick. The next day, he struck again. This time the victim was not a prostitute but a 32 year old married woman. She too was strangled and mutilated. Word reached the press despite the wishes of the Home Office and they dubbed the killer the “Blackout Ripper”. Unlike Jack, this guy wouldn’t quit. He took a day off after his fourth murder and on Valentine’s Day, he struck again. This time his dastardly deeds were interrupted by the arrival of a delivery boy and his victim survived. She reported he was wearing an RAF uniform and when he made his getaway, he left his gas mask and its case behind! Hours later a prostitute reported she had been approached and then attacked by a man in an RAF uniform too. She fought him off and he left his belt behind during his escape.

His gas mask had a serial number and inspectors tracked it to a Gordon Cummins. Upon searching his apartment, they found items belonging to the victims and matched his prints to the one on the can opener. Naturally, he was promptly convicted and even more promptly hanged, during the middle of an air raid, no less! He may have killed other women and there were some within Scotland Yard who believed he did.

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Evelyn Oatley, the beautiful second victim.

As much as we would think that hard times bring a country together, as you can see, the worst elements of our society are still very much present for duty also. When the Americans arrived in England, our cousins across the pond liked to blame the presence of our soldiers for the increase in crime. They said at the time that the problem with the Americans was that they were “overpaid, oversexed, and over here!” I doubt that had all that much to do with the increased crime rates though it not doubt added to the rate of unwed pregnancies, after all, some of the English women wore utility knickers. One Yank and they were off! VD rates soared as did prostitution. I’ve seen estimates that one out of every ten American soldiers in Europe during the war contracted some sort of “unwanted guest” but I do not know how accurate those statistics are.

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Hey lady, on a scale of zero to America, how free are you tonight?

As tempting as it is to complain about working conditions, and Lord knows I did enough of that when I was a peeler, at least you don’t have to work whilst bombs fall around you. Air raids tend to make a right cock up of crime scenes. Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about bombs. Rookie patrol officers on the other hand……

My name is Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who never met an English girl wearing utility knickers, unfortunately.

P.S.: For more along these lines, check out Murder on the Home Front by Molly LeFebure and the PBS film by the same name.

Murders in Paradise

Postwar Los Angeles, where prostitutes and pimps, perverts and panty sniffers mingled with detectives and derelicts, cowboys and conmen. As the city’s population exploded with a postwar housing boom, organized crime exploded as well. Bugsy Siegel set up the Flamingo Hotel where his buddy Mickey Cohen ran a gambling racket. In 1947, the mob had Siegel bumped off after they grew suspicious that Siegel and his insanely attractive, if a little off in head, girlfriend Virginia Hill were skimming money. Someone popped Siegel with an M-1 Carbine through the window. Was it really money? Or did his own girlfriend set him up? We’ll never know. Virginia was found dead in a park in Austria in 1966, an apparent suicide. After Siegel’s death, Cohen grew more influential along with his top lieutenant, bag man, and enforcer Johnny Stompanato. Handsome Johnny went on to date the gorgeous Lana Turner until her thirteen year old daughter stuck a knife in him. A kid punched the most dangerous man in town’s ticket for him. Officials ruled the death a case of self defense.

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Virginia Hill…..femme fatale. In my mind, I picture her as a redhead. Femme fatales always have red hair.

Gangsters imported reefer and H while Hollywood stars basked in the Golden Age of American films. High ranking officials within the city and the police department were on the take as well. LAPD ran a Red Squad to track known and suspected communists as well as protection rackets. High ranking police commanders looked the other way while gangsters slung dope, preferring to target black teenagers and pachucos for drug offenses without targeting the supply side. Who were the good guys? Who were the bad guys? Who knows! Everybody was out to make a quick buck. And there were plenty of opportunities for that in the City of Angels.

There were plenty of opportunities for murder as well. The defense industry in Southern California boomed during the war years and with the end of a shooting war and the beginning of the Cold War, it showed no signs of letting up. During the war, single women made their way to the city to work, renting rooms in flophouses, hotels, or private residences. The men came home after 1945 and brought domestic homicide with them. Couples fueled by alcohol battled with fists. Sometimes, the wife ended up dead. Women offed their husbands sometimes too. And, of course, you have the murder suicides. The police had little difficulty solving domestic homicides and sent plenty of men to the gas chamber at San Quentin. But was there something else stalking the city? Some diabolical fiend out to torture, murder, and mutilate women?

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Ora Murray

On the night of July 26, 1943, Ora Murray, 42, went out dancing with her sister at the Zenda Ballroom. She hooked up with a dapper man who called himself Paul. He offered to drive her around a show her the sights in Hollywood. Orra agreed. Several hours later, a dog owned by a the caretaker discovered the partially nude and badly beaten body of a woman on a golf course. It belonged to Ora. Her undergarments had been violently ripped away and the killer removed her dress and then wrapped it around her body. He also placed a white gardenia on her shoulder. Odd, that. Strangulation was the official cause of death. Now this murder took place just outside the city limits and so the Sheriff’s Department handled the investigation, which went nowhere fast. Meanwhile, the bodies continued to stack up.

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Georgette Bauerdorf, a life lost too soon.

She was young, rich, beautiful, and, on Oct. 11, 1944, very, very dead. That night, Georgette finished her shift as a hostess at the Hollywood Canteen where she danced with servicemen. When she drove away in a Pontiac Coupe, it was to her own rendezvous with death. At 11:00 am the next morning, a maid found her body floating in the bathtub with the water still running. She wore the top part of a pajama set, indicating that she returned home unmolested and prepared for bed. Her badly bruised knuckles and scratches on her bare thighs told detectives that she did no go gently into that good night. The police believed she returned home, ate a snack, and was attacked by a person whom she may have known. They further postulated said person might have been lying in wait. A neighbor said they heard her yell “Stop! You’re killing me!” around 2:30 am but they ignored her cries as they assumed it was a simple domestic dispute. (Other than the “You’re killing me part, I guess.)  Though the killer beat Georgette and put her face down in the bathtub, the police found a bandage shoved down her throat which caused her to asphyxiate. The killer drove off in her car which was found abandoned later, gas tank empty. The case went cold and investigators never found her killer.

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Elizabeth Short. The Black Dahlia.

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The Crime Scene.

She is perhaps the most famous dead girl in American History, a young woman drawn to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood with dreams of becoming an actress. But like so many would be stars, reality soon set in. Her mutilated and bisected corpse was found in a vacant lot on 49th and Norton in Los Angeles on January 15, 1947. Elizabeth Short was only 22 when she died. Journalists dubbed her The Black Dahlia, and her murder has inspired much speculation in the decades which followed. I’m not an expert on her murder, though I’ve read widely about it. There are numerous suspects, though none were ever charged. What the person or persons responsible for her death did almost defies even the most diabolical minds. They kept her alive for at least a short period of time.  Bound, tortured, forced to eat feces, the official cause of death was determined to be bleeding from multiple deep lacerations to the face coupled with shock from repeated blows to the head. It is the most heinous of crimes, and Elizabeth Short never got the justice she deserved.

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Jeanne French.

Not even a month after Elizabeth Short died, another woman, Jeanne French, met her death at the hands of a fiendish killer. She was 45 years old, a nurse, a pilot, and the former wife of a rich Texan in the oil business. A construction worker on the morning of February 10th saw what he thought was a pile of women’s clothes. He walked over to investigate and saw a fur coat. When he lifted it, the man received quite a shock. Underneath the coat was the brutally beaten, nude body of Jeanne French. The killer struck her in the head with a blunt instrument, perhaps a socket wrench, and the proceeded to beat and stomp her to death. The blow to the head didn’t killer her. Internal bleeding from her fractured ribs did. It took her a long time to slowly bleed to death. The coroner believed she was probably unconscious after the blow the head, a small mercy for sure. The killer then removed red lipstick from her purse and wrote “Fuck You, BD” (or maybe PD) on her body. She’d had a fight with her estranged husband the night before her death, but his whereabouts at the time of the murder were attested to. Jeanne was last seen alive at a club in the company of a “swarthy” man. They left together. But this, as the others, went cold. Police rounded up the usual suspects, but came away with nothing.

From the file labeled weird comes the strange case of the murder of 15 year old Lillian Dominguez. On the night of October 2, 1947, young Lillian attended a school dance. When it ended, she set out for home with her sister and a female friend. As they passed the intersection of 17th Street and Michigan Avenue in Santa Monica, the trio crossed paths with a man who walked by them in the darkness. They walked a few feet and Lillian told her sister “That man touched me.” A few steps later she yelled “I can’t see!” and promptly collapsed and died on the pavement. The cause of death? Stabbing. The killer stabbed her straight in the heart with either a stiletto knife or maybe an ice pick. Though she had two companions with her, they were unable to give any description to the police other than the fact that the killer had been male.

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Death prowled these streets.

And there were others. Too many to give full attention to, as they deserve. Evelyn Winters, 42, found nude, beaten and strangled to death in March of 1947. Laura Telestad, 37, found nude and strangled with a strip of cloth. Body dumped in a vacant lot. Rosenda Mondragon, 20, found nude, tortured and strangled. Body dumped a mile from where Evelyn Winters’ body was discovered. Gladys Kern, 50, a real estate agent found dead in a house she was scheduled to show in 1948. Beaten and stomped to death. Louise Springer, kidnapped in her car. Found beaten, strangled, sexually assaulted and sodomized with a tree branch. Jean Spangler, 27, had been a roommate of Elizabeth Short. Jean disappeared and her body was never found.

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Was Los Angeles in the grips of a fiendish serial killer? The short answer is maybe. I’m not an expert in homicide. When I was a detective, arson was my specialty, but I’ve received training in homicide investigations and have been around them, so I know a bit. The manner and method of some of these cases would indicate that the police may have had one assailant on some of them. But others don’t really fit given the age or manner of death of the victim. I do think we can say with some certainty that some of these cases were the work of one person. Murders are not new. Crime is not new.

If anything, the study of history teaches us that f—-d up people have been around forever. Serial murder is not a recent phenomenon, nor are sexual homicides. Though we look back with a bit of nostalgia, the truth is Los Angeles was trapped in its own true life noir tale in the 1940s. With the police and city administration on the take, evidence could be made to disappear (as happened with the evidence associated with the Dahlia case). Cases could be penned on a minority to protect a well connected individual. Though the police were able to do more forensically at the time than you might think, it wasn’t enough. Given the time that has passed, these women will never get justice. Their killers got away with it. And that, Dear Readers, is a tragedy.

Hutch