The Making of The Terrorist Next Door
This one's personal.
As I was finishing my seventh Mike Daley/Rosie Fernandez story, Perfect Alibi, I decided that I wanted to take a little break from the series to write something new. I'm not retiring Mike and Rosie; I still have some new adventures for them. And I wanted to write a story that wasn't about a lawyer.
I've always wanted to write a book set in my hometown of Chicago, and I've been promising my mom that I would do it sooner or later. Well, I guess I didn't do it sooner, so now it's later. I'm a third generation native of Chicago's Southeast Side. For those of you who know Chicago, my grandparents lived near old Comiskey Park, then they moved to Hyde Park near the University of Chicago. My grandfather on my mom's side ran a grocery store at 37th and State on the site of what became the Robert Taylor Homes. My grandfather on my dad's side sold men's clothes at several stores in South Chicago for almost fifty years. My parents grew up in Hyde Park. We lived at 74th and Yates in South Shore from 1958 until 1961, then we moved to 92nd and Oglesby. The neighborhood changed in the late sixties, and the police now refer to it as "Terror Town." We moved to Wilmette in 1970.
For more than a century, South Chicago was an industrial area where the steel mills were located. The largest mill was the U.S. Steel South Works, which extended about two miles along the lakefront from 79th Street to 95th. At its height, about 20,000 people worked there. The mills closed in the nineties, and the area is now a big empty lot awaiting redevelopment. The mills were built in the late 19th Century, and for the next hundred years or so, South Chicago was a thriving community of smokestacks, steeples, schools, stores, bars and restaurants. Generations of Irish, Italian, German, Eastern European, Russian, Polish, Slavic, Mexican and Jewish immigrants came to South Chicago to work in the mills and service the needs of the community. Many of the stores and auto dealerships along the business strip on Commercial Avenue were owned by Jewish merchants. You can still see Hyman's Ace Hardware at 87th and Commercial. The Goldblatt's Department store at the corner of 91st and Commercial was the chain's most lucrative outlet. Large churches such as St. Michael, Immaculate Concepcion, and Our Lady of Guadalupe still serve the community. Congregation Bikkur Cholim had over eight hundred members during the early 20th Century, and was the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the Chicago area until the building was finally sold in 2008. When most of the Jewish families moved to the suburbs in the sixties, Bikkur Cholim began sharing its building with a Baptist Church. Interestingly, its last rabbi was Rabbi Capers Funnye, Jr., who happens to be Michelle Obama's first cousin. Rabbi Funnye's little flock of predominantly African-American Jews expanded, and eventually Bikkur Cholim merged with another African American synagogue on the Southwest Side. Rabbi Funnye is now the Senior Rabbi of Beth Shalom B'Nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, one of the largest African American synagogues in the U.S.
I didn't want to simply write a postcard to my hometown or doing a history of my old neighborhood. I needed a character and a story worthy of South Chicago. The character became Detective David Gold. The story became The Terrorist Next Door.
I have a huge bias—I like to read and write character-driven fiction. I always start with character and find a story as I go. When I started thinking about writing a book set in South Chicago, I wanted to write about somebody who embodied the neighborhood. South Chicago is a blue collar enclave where people work hard, keep their noses clean, and try to create better lives for their kids. Detective David Gold also embodies the values of his parents, a high school teacher and a librarian, who didn't flee the neighborhood when most of the Jews moved to the suburbs in the sixties and seventies. Harry and Lil Gold had this old fashioned idea that South Chicago was their neighborhood and they weren't going anywhere. That ethic rubbed off on their son. It also provided an opportunity for me to create characters who embodied the history of the Chicago Jewish Community.
David Gold is a very smart guy. He graduated at the top of his class at the University of Illinois (my alma mater). He went to the University of Chicago Law School for one year, then decided to became a cop in South Chicago. He quickly moved up the ranks to detective. If there is one word to describe him, it's "relentless."
When you write crime novels, it helps if your protagonist has access to the criminal justice system. First, it gives your hero a reason to take on a case—it's his/her job. Second, it gives your character some built-in expertise in criminal investigations. Third, it gives the protagonist access to other people who can solve crimes—other police officers, experts in weapons, explosives, etc. In this respect, I've always believed that it's easier to write a protagonist who is a professional crime-solver than an amateur sleuth. The first instinct of most amateurs (such as yours truly) is to call the cops.
Homicide detectives tend to be more interesting if they are outsiders within the confines of the criminal justice system. Think of Dirty Harry Callahan or Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch (not all detectives have to be named Harry). Detective David Gold is an outsider within Chicago PD. He's highly decorated and he has an excellent reputation as a detective, but he's also resented by some of his peers because he doesn't accept money and he plays by his own moral code. He's also an outsider in his own neighborhood. South Chicago is now predominantly African American and Hispanic. Gold and his father are among the few remaining white people left in the neighborhood. In the opening scene of The Terrorist Next Door, Gold explains to his new partner, an African-American detective named A.C. Battle, that he still lives in South Chicago because his family was there first—his great-grandfather had immigrated to South Chicago in 1894. Battle (whose family had lived in South Chicago for almost forty years) is surprised to find out that the neighborhood had been all-white and predominantly Catholic and Jewish for almost a century before the African-American community moved in. Gold assures him that there was much more to the story.
Gold has even more baggage. He was widowed when his wife and unborn daughter were killed in a single-car accident on Lake Shore Drive. He lives with his 83 year-old father, who suffers from the aftereffects of a stroke. His longtime partner, Detective Paul Liszewski, was killed when he and Gold stumbled into a bomb-making factory in South Chicago. In fact, the story opens when Gold is about to receive a medal for stopping a terrorist attack—and he's paired with a more experienced detective—A.C. Battle.
And, of course, it helps if a story has a plot. Since Gold's partner was killed while they were breaking up a terrorist threat, I decided that Gold and Battle would face another lethal terrorist threat. Over the years I've met several people who have worked for the FBI and Homeland Security. They're terribly concerned about another 9/11, but they also have great concerns about a homegrown terrorist who is working off the grid—a "lone wolf." One retired FBI agent asked me the following question: "How many people would have died in Times Square if the guy who tried to set off a bomb there hadn't been such an idiot?" As I pondered the answer, I had the beginnings of my story.
As I began doing research for this book, it became evident to me that my FBI friends' concerns were well founded. With a few quick strokes on the Internet, it's absurdly easy for anybody to figure out how to make a bomb. While the authorities have a lot of high tech tracking equipment at their disposal—especially for tracing cell phones—it became clear to me that a really smart terrorist could create a lot of havoc without being traced. It was very frightening. It was also a plotline that I couldn't resist. I want to make it clear that this book isn't a manual about how to make bombs. In fact, I've included some disinformation to make it harder for somebody to assemble a homemade bomb.
So now you know about the characters and the plot. But there is one more element that I need to discuss—Chicago. I didn't want to make Chicago just a backdrop in this book. I wanted it to be a character. This is a Chicago story populated with Chicago characters—including the city itself. David Gold is an authentic Chicagoan—hardworking, loyal, honest, smart, and responsible. He's doesn't suffer fools. He doesn't like BS. And, of course, he's a Sox fan. . . South Chicago is a consummate Chicago neighborhood. It's changed a lot over the years, but it's also stayed the same. From the churches to the steel mills to the smoked shrimp at Calumet Fisheries on the 95th Street draw bridge, it still embodies the core values of my hometown. Even though we moved to Wilmette in 1970 when I was twelve years old (and I've lived in the San Francisco area since 1980), I still tell people that I'm a South Sider. I hope this is reflected in Detective David Gold and The Terrorist Next Door.