Susan Kelly One of the most memorable community events I ever witnessed in Cambridge was when Martha and the Vandellas came to town. There was no particular occasion being celebrated, as far as I can recall. Somebody just decided that it would be nice if…Martha and the Vandellas came to town.

The event was held outside the Cambridgeside Galleria, a multi-story shopping mall on First Street near the west bank of the Charles River. Before the north entrance to the Galleria was a sort of plaza. In the center was a pool connected by a canal to the Charles. The pool had a fountain that shot water fifty feet into the air and, on windy days, showered everyone on the plaza with a spray of fetid brown droplets. (Remember that song about the Charles River by the Standells: Dirty Water? They killed it with that number.)

That evening—it was in late summer—the fountain had been turned off for the event. In the middle of the pool floated a little boat like one of the excursion craft that plowed up and down the Charles. A ramp had been placed from the edge of the fountain to the boat.

The concert was to begin at seven, but people started gathering for it at five. The ages represented ranged pretty much from Pampers to Depends. Four generations of family groups showed up with coolers, picnic baskets, and lawn furniture. A few cops appeared to maintain crowd control. I saw one I knew and said hello to him. “I remember when Martha and the Vandellas were a new group,” he said.

A little after seven I was perched on a railing surrounding the pool, watching some grubby-looking ducks paddle around in the opaque water. I heard a stir behind me, and the crowd broke into a ripple of applause that became a wave. I turned. Three women in iridescent cocktail dresses and baroquely curlicued wigs scampered daintily down the ramp to the boat. They were Martha and the Vandellas, of course, still looking very good.

They did some of their own numbers—Nowhere to Run and Heat Wave—and covered some Supremes and Temptations hits. A few people rose and bopped to the music. As the concert progressed, the energy in the audience seemed to transform itself into a kind of driving expectation. People began leaning forward in their seats with anticipation. I knew what they were waiting for; I was waiting for it myself.

The singers vamped around for a bit before they did it. Then the notes of the signature saxophone introduction echoed around the plaza. The crowd roared in response. (There’s no other word to describe the sound it made.) En masse, several hundred people rose from their lawn chairs and began…Dancing in the Street.

Grandmothers in their mid-seventies capered with their teenaged grandchildren. Toddlers cavorted. Those who were adolescents when the song was Number One on the charts danced the dances of 1965. The cop I knew looked as if he was mightily restraining himself from joining them.

I looked more closely at the faces nearest me. Each one was effulgent with something. Joy? Exuberance? Plain old happiness? All I could think of was the William Butler Yeats line about the dancer and the dance.

The moment lasted longer than the song. Martha and the Vandellas took their bows. Something stronger than the setting sun cast a communal glow over the audience as its members began folding up lawn chairs, re-packing picnic baskets, and collecting their children.

It was the night everyone in East Cambridge smiled.



Zachary Klein

zachYesterday was Father’s Day and I enjoyed talking to my kids and getting their good wishes. But somewhere along the way I realized that I’m lucky. Jake and Matt are adults and able to understand the racism that exists in our country. I don’t need to sit them down and try to explain the underlying causes that produce nine slain Blacks at their own church. And my grandchildren are too young to understand much of anything since they’re 7½ months old, so Matt and Alyssa won’t be doing any explaining for a while.

But what about the parents who must try to make some sense out of this one and the other countless tragedies that routinely occur to Black people every day of the week in this country?

Me, I go crazy trying to think of solutions to this curse. It’s impossible to outlaw hate so the haters keep hating and passing it down to their offspring. So I desperately imagine redesigning our states in ways that allow people who believe in integration to actually live in integrated communities. Where parents send their kids to schools that look like that old Coke commercial. Where the police don’t predictably shoot teenagers because of color.

A dream and not even a satisfactory one. This idea also creates states where people could simply live with their own kind. Would we call ourselves the United Reservations of America?

So let’s pretend that the vast majority of our population really wants an end to racism and everything it represents. What’s to do?

I suppose we can just limp along from one murder to another and accept that nothing of import will change. But I’m not built that way. I can’t sit idly by and watch the disintegration of my society without at least considering some alternatives to the status quo.

I’d start by demanding that all presidential hopefuls begin talking about the 46.5 million people who live in poverty with almost half of them children. Worse, 20.4 million people, were living in deep poverty which means they were living 50% below the poverty line that our government has established. Compared to non-Hispanic Whites, Hispanics are more than twice as likely to live in deep poverty, and Blacks are almost three times more likely to live in deep poverty.

Now take a look at more numbers for minorities: Among racial and ethnic groups, Blacks had the highest poverty rate at 27.4 percent, followed by Hispanics at 26.6 percent and Whites at 9.9 percent. (These numbers come from the 2013 census and I don’t believe it’s gotten any better.)

It’s damn hard to enjoy Father’s Day when so many kids (and their parents), are suffering in a land of plenty.

And even many of our best hopes aren’t talking the talk. I know Bernie Sanders, and a couple of other candidates have spoken some about this issue, but almost always under the rubric of the middle class. Always the middle class and “working people.” Of course we should redistribute wealth to help solidify both those groups, but I want to hear politicians speak about poverty. To take the issue head on and tell us their plans to eradicate it. As some before me, (Martin Luther King to name one) I too believe that it’s impossible to untangle poverty from racism—though there are more facets to racism than just hunger and hopelessness.

White America has always found a way to oppress then blame our victims. And within our boundaries victims are almost always minorities. We’ve done it historically, socially, and culturally so hard and for so long throughout our country’s entire history that it’s become a disease. I’m not talking about an emotional or cultural disease, but one that’s invaded the very being of White people.

This isn’t a metaphor but something I believe to be literally true. Epigenetics, (the study of the process by which genetic information is translated into the substance and behavior of an organism: specifically, the study of the way in which the expression of heritable traits is modified by environmental influences or other mechanisms without a change to the DNA sequence), probably explains an important underlying cause of our racism. In other words, who we are is a combination of our genes and the way the environment affects the expression of those genes. We are racially sick.

We are racist because we have swallowed our own myths about Black people so thoroughly they’ve become part of who we are—right down next to to our genes. We are racially sick.

I’m aware this also works the other way around: minorities have become infused with how their environment impacts them. But frankly, racism is a White peoples’ disease and, if we really want to get rid of our malady, our focus has to be on ourselves and all the institutions we as Whites have created. Until and unless we eradicate poverty and root out our own disease and the unhealthy racist institutions we have created—oppression and violence and blame the victim—will never end.

Difficult for a father to explain to his kids on Father’s Day. That all us White folks have an illness called racism, virtually all our institutions reflect this illness, and since I brought you into this world, you kids have it too. And it’s probably gonna take the rest of your lives, and beyond, to cure it if we, as a people, even bother to try.

And try we must because if we don’t confront our sickness we will forever be locked in a society that will continue to breed separate and unequal. Now that’s a tough tale to tell on Father’s Day.

Memories of Central Square, Cambridge


Susan Kelly

Susan KellyA few days ago, I was driving through Central Square in Cambridge. “Yow,” I remarked to my companion, “This place sure has gotten slicked up.” And it had. Many small businesses had vanished. An entire block of little shops and restaurants had been wiped out by an enormous red brick and plate glass entity of no immediately identifiable function.

It wasn’t always so. Back in the eighties, Central Square was the most urban part of Cambridge. At least it looked more like a city—like a very small Newark, I always thought—than Kendall Square, which, dominated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, resembles a sort of high-tech Tomorrowland, or Harvard Square, which remains, despite the intrusion of chain retailers and fast food outlets, the playground of scholar-Bohemians.

Back then, the Cambridge Police Department was housed in one of the most unusual buildings I’d ever seen: a wedge-shaped buff-colored structure occupying a wedge-shaped piece of land at the intersection of Green Street and Western Avenue. It always made me think of an arrow pointed at the heart of Central Square.

Despite the police presence, Central Square was, in the 1980s anyway, Cambridge’s very own open-air drug flea market. Every third person on the street was ready, willing, and able to sell you some kind of illicit pharmaceutical. The phone company eventually ripped out all its booths in the Square because nobody was using them except dealers arranging deals. This was, of course, well before the advent of cell phones and text messaging.

There was a fair amount of street crime as well. Bishop Allen Drive was the scene of constant muggings and purse-snatching. Women got sexually assaulted in the alleys. There were shootings and stabbings. And the Square had a sinister past that wasn’t so far in the past. Local legend held that the body of one of the victims of an early 1970s serial killer reposed beneath the foundations of a high-rise on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Prospect Street. Ira Einhorn, before he became internationally famous as the Unicorn Killer, was said to have lived for a while in an apartment on Massachusetts Avenue. The location pointed out to me was adjacent to a funeral home, which in retrospect seems entirely appropriate.

But Central Square had undeniable charms. There was the original Ken’s Steakhouse, famous nationally now for a line of bottled salad dressings, and the original Bread and Circus whole foods grocery. People came from the hinterlands (Brookline and Newton) to eat Mary Chung’s Chinese cuisine. There were, at one point, seven Indian restaurants within a two-block span, and a falafel palace. (If memory serves, it actually did call itself a palace.) Back when Argentine restaurants weren’t thick on the ground, there was one on Mass. Avenue.

The Central Square Cinema exhibited the movie King of Hearts (the Philippe de Broca flick about the inmates taking over the asylum) uninterrupted for five years, surely its longest sustained run on the planet. A block or so down Mass. Avenue was the Orson Welles Cinema, apparently the only theater in the world named after the director. (Welles visited it in 1977 and gave his imprimatur to the concession stand, which sold Cadbury chocolates before they were widely available in the United States.) The Welles was picketed in 1985 by a group of nuns when, in 1985, it showed a movie that portrayed the Virgin Mary as a pregnant basketball player and her boyfriend Joseph as a cab driver. I happened to be walking by the theater the night the protest took place. I passed a cop I knew, detailed there for crowd control. He grinned at me and tilted his head at the group of nuns. “Gotta protect the penguins,” he said.

The following May the Welles burned down when a popcorn machine caught fire.

The word “dive” might have been coined to describe the Cantab Lounge on Massachusetts Avenue. And in fact that was what everyone called it. Dim and grungy, with a canopied entryway, the Cantab catered to a mixed group of locals, students, and a few thrill-seekers venturing in from the burbs in search of urban grit. Sometimes they got a few more thrills than they anticipated, such as on the night a disturbed patron pulled a double-edged knife and began menacing the clientele. The police arrived and were able to subdue and disarm him before anyone was hurt, including the disturbed person.

But the Cantab was most famous as the venue of Little Joe Cook, The Peanut Man. Born in Philadelphia in 1923, Cook started singing gospel at age five. Thirty years later he switched to rock ‘n’ roll and hit the big time in 1957 with a song called “Peanuts.” In 1977 he began a regular gig at the Cantab. “Hey, all you hamburgers and cheeseburgers,” he’d greet the audience, which would respond with a burst of cheers and applause. Cook, the gold peanut medallion around his neck glittering through the haze of cigarette smoke, would lead everyone in a group prayer before beginning his act.

Up the street was the Massachusetts chapter of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). Once when I was walking past there a young man emerged from the building, struck a theatrical pose on the sidewalk, and bellowed: “I fucking hate the fucking rich.” Since there was no one within earshot who could be remotely described as rich, especially me, the message seemed a bit wasted.

I had a semi-alarming experience in broad daylight in Central Square. I was ambling down Prospect Street when a guy popped out from between two parked cars and planted himself on the sidewalk in front of me. He was a scarecrow from hell: ragged and filthy, his hair a greasy snarl of witchlocks. Grime was tattooed into his skin. So rank was the odor he emitted that the waves were nearly visible, like heat shimmer off sun-baked asphalt. His eyes had the flat inhuman shine of reflector plates.

“Gimme some money or I’ll kill ya,” he rasped, and shuffled toward me.

“Get lost,” I snapped, and swerved around him. I broke into a trot, ready to duck into the nearest open shop.

I looked back over my shoulder. The scarecrow was immobile, gazing after me. Then he shrugged. “Nice ass,” he said.

And that was Central Square, back in the day.



By Zachary Klein

I’m an outspoken pacifist. I cover my eyes while watching most violence I see on television or in the movies. And I continue to believe in humanity, despite the gruesome reality that surrounds us.

I also earn my living writing about murder, betrayal, greed, and as much of the dark underside in our society as I can possibly perceive and understand.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Nothing. Writing is an art and I believe that every type of art gives all of us the space to experience the truly ugly strands of human nature without having to act them out. I’ll go even farther. It doesn’t have to be art. I believe the same about pornography, politically incorrect movies, and any “make believes.” I feel exactly the same about video games—though I haven’t played one since Tetris.

I know the argument that viewing/reading violence, sex, and the politically incorrect, actually encourages people to act out their inner uglies. I just don’t believe it. Worse, arguments like those have tightened control on what we can see, listen to, write and produce. We’ve lost a serious amount of creative space, not added. In fact, I think that throughout history, restriction and censorship has done more damage than what it tries to condemn.

A few nights ago Sue and I were flipping through mainstream channels, spotted the film Airplane, and stopped to watch—though we’d seen it a boatload of times. The movie had been released in 1980 and, at the same moment, we turned to each other and agreed that it would be impossible to make that movie now. “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” pilot Peter Graves asks a little boy. (Not allowed to crack wise about pederasty these days.) A stewardess blows a rubber doll. (Where besides a fetish flick can you watch that?) An airport manager sniffs glue. And much, much more that defies our current cultural zeitgeist. Nothing in the movie was sacred. Oh, Airplane was rated PG.

The politically incorrect parts were making fun of and lambasting racism, sexism, drug use etc, rather than promoting it. Know what? Our kids did not grow up traumatized from sexual innuendo. (Who do you know that became a racist after watching Blazing Saddles?) No matter how you slice it, there’s a loss here.

I’ll grant my belief that every type “make believe” as a space to allow the worst of ourselves to be harmlessly encountered is difficult to conceive. Especially since we live in a world with an amazing amount of violence and perversity that has always, and continues, to exist. It’s tough to see how crime writing has reduced crime when crime is rampant. That writing about murder has reduced killing. But I believe it’s tough to see because the gift of imaginary freedom has always been buried under reality. And reality isn’t particularly pretty.

We’ve been socialized to think entertainment is simply that. For fun. That art is something to read, watch, and sometimes feel. And it’s that socialization which has reduced the power of “make believe” and I believe added to real life’s crushing brutality.

So before we can get an honest answer to my proposition, we actually need to eradicate the social/political/poverty and race issues that cause the actual violence in which we live. Only please don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Even if we were magically able to staunch the blood flow, there will always be an underside in everyone and that’s not going anywhere. Except into imagination which I as a reader and writer hold most dear. For the “make believe” we read in crime fiction or see in violent movies or hear in some dark music is a space that allows us to visit, explore, and treat the worst parts of ourselves—harmlessly, and then come back to our normal lives and sit down at the dinner table.

I’m not saying I write detective fiction simply for the good of humanity. In past columns I’ve mentioned the wonderful similarities I see (and sometimes get to enjoy) between playing jazz and writing detective fiction. (To be honest, probably more traditional jazz than total free-form.) The excitement of taking a paradigm and pushing at its boundaries. The novelist’s pleasure of bringing their audience into unknown places and unexpectedly intense situations.

But more than the personal enjoyment, I believe that, without proof, our work as crime writers contribute to the hope of a better, less violent, more tolerant world. And whether or not we collectively, cognitively, acknowledge it, all the multiple forms I mentioned above give promise to that hope.

We need imaginary violence. We need a place for kinkiness, we need a space in which we can safely (for ourselves and others) try out anything we want to be—without actually being it and without fear of reprisal.

We need more Breaking Bads, Sopranos, Deadwoods, Big Sleeps, Red Harvests, and especially more movies like Airplane.

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus ~ Mark Twain

Why We Write about Crime

By Susan Kelly

Susan KellyI’m going to take a bold leap here, and speak for Zach as well as myself, and a host of hard-working people who pour their guts into their writing. Somehow, I don’t think Zach and the others will mind. But if I’ve presumed too much, I ask everyone’s pardon.

So…why do we write about crime? Well, there are two practical considerations. Publishers, traditionally, have always liked books that can be labeled: mystery, science fiction, romance, fantasy, historical, or western. The categories can be sub-divided; under the rubric of “mystery” you will find novels in which the detective protagonist is a cop, a private eye, a forensics expert, or an amateur. There are novels featuring major historical figures–Ben Franklin and Abe Lincoln come to mind-as the chief investigator. Hard-boiled. Soft-boiled. The descriptor is a marketing tool, and is, for booksellers as well as writers, publishers, and readers, a useful one.

The second pragmatic reason for writing about crime-particularly in novel form-is that the writer starts out knowing what he or she has to accomplish. The basic storyline exists before the writer has set pen to paper, or finger to keyboard. Someone has to commit a crime, and someone else has to solve it, or attempt to solve it. It’s a huge relief knowing what you have to do. The beginning and ending are more or less ordained, freeing you to concentrate on character, dialogue, setting, and theme.

But the larger question remains: Why do people write about crime? And, for that matter, why do people like to read about it? As individuals we know that our lives will, sometimes, be very hard. We’ll lose our loved ones, sometimes before their time, sometimes in terrible ways. As a group, we understand that the world could end tomorrow if some kook decides to start a nuclear war. We live with the intellectual and visceral awareness of loss: personal and communal, past, present, and future. So why should we add to those fears and sorrows by reading fiction and non-fiction about the darkest side of human nature? What’s fun or relaxing or entertaining or instructive about a narrative involving a homicidal child rapist? Or a fanatic impelled by ideology and inner demons to commit genocide? Or someone who arranges to have his or her spouse killed in order to collect on an insurance policy? Or a serial killer?

Simple answer: Because it’s cosmic. It’s more cosmic than anything, even sex. It’s about life cut short by a death that was a violation of the natural order. Murder affronts us all. We witness injustice; we look for someone to redress the injustice. Jews would call this tikkun olam, to heal or repair the world. Or restore the balance of the universe, if you want to look at it in medieval or Renaissance terms.

Speaking of which, I’ve always believed that the true ancestor of the crime novel is the medieval romance itself. All the elements are there. The twenty-first century fictional detective functions exactly as the fourteenth-century fictional knight did. A wrong is committed, evil threatens good, and the knight or detective sets forth to right the wrong, to vanquish the evil. And protect and defend the innocent.

The knight, like the detective, is a flawed human being. But, most importantly, both adhere to a code of honor.       As humans, we have always been obsessed with the need to put things right. The urge cuts across time, culture, nationality, and religion. It has never not been with us, any time, anywhere. The fact that sometimes we succeed in putting things right encourages us to go on trying to do so. The fact that very often we don’t succeed in putting things right may spur our efforts even further.

So what crime writers do, I suppose, is take that urge and make of it a story. Create characters to act it out, and set up a stage for them to do so. Provide a backdrop for the action.

Mostly-although perhaps I should speak only for myself here–we don’t do it nearly as well as we’d like.

But we keep on doing it.

And we hope you’ll keep on reading it.