Last summer I read Second Street Station – A Mary Handley Mystery, the first of a new series of mysteries about Brooklyn’s first woman detective. I recently had the chance to ask Levy about Second Street Station, its characters, the research behind the book and his next story in the series, Brooklyn On Fire.
BCM: Thank you, Larry for taking the time to answer these questions.
LHL: You’re welcome, Barb. I’m glad to do it!
BCM: I like how you combined historical fiction with a mystery format. I imagine you did a lot of research for the historical side. How did you manage the merge? Are you a mystery reader? A history buff?
LHL: I guess the short answer would be a lot and a little bit of everything. What I mean by that (ah, the long answer) is yes, I did a ton of research. There is research on every page of Second Street Station. Besides just the historical facts that I have woven into the story, there is language. Every time a character speaks I had to make sure people uttered those words in the late 19th century. Thank God there is Merriam Webster online which tells you when a word was first used. As far as the other questions are concerned, I have been a storyteller for over thirty-five years. It’s my job and my passion. True, I have mostly written for television, and this is my first novel. The point is though that I love good stories whether they are mysteries, historical fiction or contemporary, and I was totally taken with this one. As far as managing the merge, I’ll tell you a secret. Shush, don’t tell anyone. A fictional part of the book is making Goodrich, who was a real person, Edison’s bookkeeper. That was how I felt I could seamlessly merge the murder with the dubious and immoral tactics of moguls.
BCM: It’s fun reading about a time period in which there is no technology. Was that a freeing experience? Were there challenges to constructing a plot without your characters using computers and smart phones?
LHL: It’s funny that you bring that up. For years, I have been critical of television shows or movies where a person finds out that the person they are looking for is at a certain place and they rush to that place. I keep asking, “Why don’t they just call them?” In 1888 when most of Second Street Station takes place, there were definitely no cell phones and not everyone had telephones, especially not the poor. So, there were times when I had a situation where it would be so much easier to make a phone call, but Mary couldn’t. In some ways, it was helpful because I had to be more creative in my storytelling. In my next book, Brooklyn On Fire, Mary has to tell her parents some important news. She calls a neighbor a block away who has a phone, and that neighbor tells her parents.
BCM: Related to the absence of technology in the 1880s, I would guess that crime scenes were very different back then, too. Did you have to do specific research related to these scenes and references, or was it easy to write a crime scene without modern CSI procedures getting in the way?
LHL: Yes, I had to do specific research about crime scenes at that time. For instance, fingerprinting wasn’t used yet and blood typing was not yet a reality. I also had the advantage of having access to the newspaper articles of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which was around back then and had articles about the actual crime scene.
BCM: Over the years, I’ve read a lot of the books my kids have read in school, especially during the middle school years. Many of them are historical fiction and not all of them are interesting. It seems to me that an adapted version of Mary Handley’s character would fit well into the young adult genre and make history interesting to kids. Would you ever consider writing young adult books?
LHL: Yes definitely, if the right idea came to me. To me, it’s all about the story and my passion for it. I love it, but writing is hard work, and I have found that if I’m not obsessed with the story, it’s even harder. Having been a television writer, I have certainly at times taken jobs to write stories that didn’t grab me. I have found those to be just that – jobs. Maybe that is why my career has been unusual in the area of media writing. I’ve written half hour TV, hour TV, TV movies, animation, and features. In a business that tries to pigeon-hole you in one area, I’ve done them all. It’s made it more interesting to me. But as far as a YA novel or any novel, the important thing is my interest in the story. Writing a novel is a lot more work than a TV show or even a movie, and I’d have to really like the story.
BCM: I think Mary’s character is great. She’s not exactly a women’s libber, joining the other suffragettes on the streets. She just does what she wants to do and is modern in her thinking. I read that you could find some information about the real Mary Handley, but you needed to develop her character for your story. What was that process like? Did you have an early idea of what Mary would be like?
LHL: I had an early idea of what Mary would be like, but like in any writing process, I developed her more as I continued to plot my story. You’re absolutely right in that I wanted her to be modern in her thinking and have to deal with the problems it caused at that time. I also wanted to make her an independent thinker who didn’t join groups, because they followed the lowest common denominator theory – simplifying and lowering their goals to appeal to the most people. To be honest, there’s a good deal of my daughter in Mary along with qualities of other women I admire. I wanted her to be brilliant and witty, yet also vulnerable and fallible. Because of the time, she also had to be headstrong in order to dare to pursue what she wanted in life. To me, it’s easy to love Mary.
BCM: I was very interested to learn about the Edison-Tesla rivalry and particularly about Edison’s personality. Both figures were certainly creative and had all sorts of human flaws. I guess there was a lot of information about these men. In addition, I think most people know about the early ingredients in Coca-Cola, but I did not know about cocaine-laced wine, Vin Mariani, or about Edison’s use of this drink to keep him going. Was this an easy fact to discover in your research?
LHL: Easy is a relative term. I can’t even remember how long it took me to find that information. It all melds together now in one huge effort. However, during my research, I discovered that cocaine was considered the wonder drug at that time. Vin Mariani was the most popular wine in the United States. Queen Victoria, the Pope, Robert Louis Stevenson. Thomas Edison and others all endorsed cocaine. I found a quote from Edison, who was renowned for working long hours, saying how it cleared up the cobwebs after working all night. The dangers obviously weren’t clearly defined yet.
BCM: Tell me about the cover for Second Street Station. I really like it. It reminds me of an etching and seems true to the time period. How did you come to decide on the design and colors?
LHL: I wish I could take credit for the cover. The wonderful artists at Random House/Crown/Broadway Books came up with it and sent it to me. All I did was say, “Wow!”
BCM: Regarding the cover, it’s always fun to return to it after reading the book, and understand what the picture is depicting. Seeing what The Bowler Hat looked like was a bonus to me. Was it difficult choosing what to include on the cover?
LHL: It’s interesting you say that because my line of thinking was different and I was obviously proved wrong. I didn’t want to see the faces of my characters on the cover. I figured that everyone would have a different impression of what they thought Mary or the Bowler Hat looked like and I didn’t want to destroy their images by showing them a picture. However, everyone loves the cover, as do I, so there. I was wrong.
BCM: I like how you include some exciting action scenes in which Mary escapes by the skin of her teeth. I especially liked the trolley scene in which Mary shoves the trolley driver off and takes the whip and reins. It reminded me of an Indiana Jones movie, funny and entertaining and a nice addition to the historical part of the book. Do you think your experience as a comedy writer influenced these scenes? Did your experience make these scenes easier to write?
LHL: Again, easy is a relative word. However, I firmly believe that there is humor in anything you write because humor is part of life. If the action or story is heavily dramatic with no light moments, I find that somewhat boring and unrealistic. Do I have a tendency to see the comedy in situations? I probably do, but I try very hard to make that comedy real and not take over a dramatic story, ruining the serious moments.
BCM: Your next book is entitled Brooklyn On Fire will be released on January 19, 2016. What is it about?
LHL: In Brooklyn On Fire, Mary is asked to investigate the possible murder of a woman’s uncle. It blossoms into a triple murder case involving political and personal scandal, taking her to Richmond, Virginia and back again. Many of New York’s elite families are involved (the Huntingtons, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Rockefellers), and it all revolves around the annexation of Brooklyn by New York City (Brooklyn was its own city back then). It was a lot of fun writing, and I hope everyone enjoys it.
BCM: Will we see more of Mary’s family in Brooklyn On Fire? Will the officers at the station become more developed regulars?
LHL: Definitely. Elizabeth, Sean, and Jeffrey Handley are back and their relationships continue to evolve. Sean has been promoted at Second Street Station. Chief Campbell also has a new job and is intricately involved. Billy O’Brien, the older police sergeant who has known Mary and Sean since they were born, also returns.
BCM: What else is in the works? A TV or movie version?
LHL: I have been fortunate to have had a lot of interest in that area. Warner Brothers and several other companies have inquired. However, I am taking it slowly in that area. I want to do justice to Mary and not just turn her into some cartoonish, kick-ass 19th century woman.
BCM: Thank you, Larry. Looking forward to Mary’s next mystery!
Lawrence H. Levy is an American film and TV writer. He is a Writers Guild Award winner and two-time Emmy nominee. He has written for many hit TV shows, including Roseanne, Family Ties, Saved by the Bell and Seinfeld. Second Street Station is his first novel.
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