THE SYNDICATE opens with the ‘hero’ of The Pictures, ex LAPD cop and studio fixer Jonathan Craine, living out in rural California with his son. Craine has left his old life behind him but it seems that LA hasn’t finished with him?
If The Pictures was the story of a man’s redemption, The Syndicate is a test of how far he will go to protect his son. There are still noir influences – aficionados will recognise Bridgeport from Out of the Past (the 1947 film starring Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas), but for The Syndicate, I wanted Craine to follow the classic hero’s journey. It starts when a reluctant Craine is dragged to Las Vegas and tasked by mobster Meyer Lansky with finding the men who murdered Bugsy Siegel. Craine’s journey into the LA underworld will take him through a transformative experience filled with tests and obstacles before he can return home. Solving Siegel’s murder isn’t going to be easy; it’s certainly a trial by fire.
The murder of Bugsy Siegel was famously unsolved. What made you want to write about it?
Bugsy Siegel was a celebrity mob figure popularly known as the man who created Las Vegas. His idea to turn Vegas into a gambling mecca was mocked at the time. Friends thought he was crazy. The fact that in only seventy years Vegas went from a small dirt town to a major entertainment capital is quite something in itself. And Siegel – and the mob – were the catalyst that made it happen. Siegel has been the subject of countless books, movies and documentaries but whilst it was assumed to be a mob hit, his assassination at his home in Beverly Hills remains unsolved. It seemed to me the perfect starting point for a Craine investigation.
Your first novel focuses on the connection between Hollywood and the mob. How is that the case in The Syndicate?
What first drew me to the story was Siegel’s ties to Hollywood. He was friends with movie stars like George Raft, Cary Grant and Clark Gable. Jean Harlow was godmother to his daughter. To the Hollywood community, he was daring and exciting – he became the model for the dapper, well-dressed gangster we often see in movies today. But he also caused issues for a lot of the Hollywood elite. He controlled a powerful union of extras and extorted movie studios for payoffs. There were many people who wanted him dead.
In this novel, you introduce a female protagonist, journalist Tilda Conroy. Tell us about her.
I wanted to feature a character who is a crime reporter because, particularly in the Trump era, it’s a crucial reminder of the importance of the press in a democratic society. The 1940s was a period where press magnates had huge control over public opinion. And they in turn were often swayed by important figures in society. Hollywood figures like Louis Mayer were even more protected than studio heads like Harvey Weinstein are today.
My character Tilda Conroy’s fight against a patriarchal Hollywood system designed to protect itself is – quite coincidentally, I might add – similar to the events of the last year. But seventy years ago, two women paved the way for female reporters everywhere. Florabel Muir and Agness Underwood are worthy of their own books, films or TV series. Battling sexism and unequal pay, they were key players in two of the biggest stories of 1947: the Black Dahlia murder and Bugsy Siegel’s assassination. Tilda Conroy is an amalgamation of these two incredibly important women.
How do you think the events of 1947 are still relevant to today’s readers?
1947 was an interesting time in America. Two years after the war, the country was booming, but many soldiers were left traumatised by PTSD at a time when people didn’t really understand it. Freedom of the press had become a national concern and women were fighting sexism in the workplace. Trouble in Korea and the threat of Russia dominated the headlines. All of these themes are as relevant now as they were then. In many respects it’s as if nothing has changed.
How much research did you have to do to bring that period to life?
For me, research is the best part of writing and because I’m dealing with real characters and a real murder, I take it incredibly seriously. Almost all of the suspects and witnesses in my narrative are real people and my descriptions are based on extensive interviews and biographies I’ve read. The assassination of Bugsy Siegel is mostly accurate, right down to the make of bullets used, the number of shots fired and the contents of his living room. If Jonathan Craine picks up a newspaper, the extracts you are reading are paraphrased from the real headlines, if not quoted verbatim. The British Library’s newspaper archive team were incredibly helpful in that regard.
I’m quite strict with timelines and only made adjustments of a few weeks or so where it felt appropriate. For example, my story is set in June ‘47 but Judy Garland’s first suicide attempt was in July and the closed HUAC hearings in the Baltimore hotel were in mid-May. Both were important events that troubled MGM and I wanted them to feature in the narrative.
There’s quite a lot of violence in the book. How did you approach writing about it?
I’m appalled by violence in real life. Even the sight of blood makes me queasy. But I’m interested in man’s capacity for violence and I think the post-war period was interesting in that regard. Many soldiers had just been exposed to atrocities and were expected to return home without ever talking about the things they’ve seen and done. I was influenced by Dave Grossman’s book On Killing about the psychological cost of war. One of the key aspects of his book is that it proposes that, contrary to popular belief, most soldiers in WWII intentionally didn’t fire their weapons because they had an innate resistance to killing.
That’s something I wanted to reflect in Craine’s reluctance towards violence.
It’s always struck me as odd that in war films and literature violence is very graphic and messy, but in thrillers it’s often quite blasé. In The Syndicate when a character shoots someone, you see the repercussions of their actions. I’m not fetishising violence; I’m showing how physically devastating it can be. And I want the reader to see the long-term emotional toll it takes when you kill a man.