In for a Pound
by Richard Marinick
Published by Justin, Charles & Company
284 pages, 2007
Remember Eugene Izzi?
If you do, I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts -- with the odds geared to you -- that the first thing you think is: “Suicide. Weird suicide.”
Which is a shame.
Eugene Izzi was a wonderful writer, his books were full of darkness, and grim as hell, but they never lacked humanity. In fact, his books were brimming with humanity, dashed hopes, ambitions gained and lost, and innocence killed and found again. What could be more human than all of that?
It is my fear that Richard Marinick’s novels will be overshadowed by his past. You see, he was a prolific thief of armored cars. To put it in crime-fiction terms, he was the Parker of his thievery gang, the planner. But he was caught before anyone was killed by his gang and served 10 years in the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk. Before getting into the robbery game, Marinick was a state trooper in Massachusetts. Now, at 56 years old, he proves that you can always turn your life around.
Marinick’s also a damn fine writer. His debut novel, Boyos (2004), was a fierce and violent heist novel, brimming with passion and, yes, humanity. There are no cardboard criminals in Boyos, spouting Tarantino dialogue; nor does the author rip off heist masters like Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake). His novels are completely original and fresh.
His second and latest work, In for a Pound, proves that Boyos wasn’t a fluke success. Moving the focus away from a professional thief and his gang, Pound is a story of redemption. Of regaining your place in your community. Of finding those connections that make you human. Like Boyos, the protagonist in Pound draws a bit -- maybe more than a bit -- from Marinick’s own life story and the men and women he knows personally, be they criminals or police officers.
In these pages, we’re introduced to Delray McCauley, who used to be a Massachusetts state trooper -- a good one. But in a bust gone bad, a cop is beaten into a comatose state and McCauley is accused of aggravated assault and sent up for a three-year stint at Norfolk. After being released, he sets about leading a quiet life, tending bar and keeping to himself, his only indulgence being the Yoo-hoos he loves to drink. Pound would’ve been an interesting novel if it had simply told the story of a man trying to find his place again -- that’s how good Marinick is at establishing the setting and feel of ex-con McCauley’s existence. But this book doesn’t stop there. Before long, the protagonist’s new life is disturbed when an old friend of his from the police force comes to him for a favor. It seems that a suitcase full of very sensitive materials has been stolen from the office safe of prominent Boston lawyer Esmond Cotter, and the cop wants McCauley to retrieve it. He is asked to take on this task, because he’s a “Southie” boy, born and reared, and he can walk in the worlds of both crooks and solid citizens. At times, In for a Pound almost feels like a western, with a lone man walking the streets and asking questions and getting results, because he knows the right people. Joining McCauley in this investigation is young private investigator Mackey Wainwright, who was originally hired for the job, but failed to get any results.
Marinick writes his characters with a subtle pen, never judging their actions or their pasts, be they regular law-abiding types or mobsters. In a surprising treat, players from Boyos show up here too, and not only do they often play big roles, but they’re integral to the plot of Pound, and it is a joy to see them again. It would be a crime to say who shows up (and it would greatly spoil Boyos, a novel that you need to approach knowing next to nothing about it), so you’ll just have to find out for yourself. I love the rhythm of In for a Pound, the way the dialogue crackles like a great old rock song. But behind the predatory growl of the Southie streets that Marinick writes about beats a very strong heart and great local color. There’s a lot of passion and honesty in this author’s sophomore effort.
Richard Marinick himself is fiercely intelligent, as I discovered by interviewing him. Over the course of our exchange, he talked about his writing, the criminal life, the legend of mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger, and so much more. With In for a Pound, Marinick has staked his place in the pantheon of great writers such as Westlake and George Pelecanos. He deserves to be known as a man and a writer first, and an ex-con second.
Cameron Hughes: What was an average day in prison like?
Richard Marinick: In the morning I’d usually rise around 6. Begin my day with morning prayers that I’d remain safe, avoid conflict and be able to see trouble coming, whether it be from inmates or the guards (who we referred to as “screws”). I’d then hit a small mat on the floor and crank out anywhere from 2,000 to 2,500 crunches. That would take almost a half hour. At 7 [the guards] would make a “standing” count (head count), call chow shortly after. The count would “clear,” meaning we had “movement” outside of the blocks and we could go to the yard, gym, whatever, around seven-fifty. I’d hit the yard and run five miles. Afterwards, around 8:30, I’d report to work at the gym, sweep, mop, whatever, then work out for another two hours: weights, pull-ups, dips, heavy bag, speed bag, end with sit-ups. When I attended the Boston University prison education program, if I had a class in the morning, I’d cut the workout short, return to the gym in the afternoon. Other free time was spent -- average four to five hours daily -- working on homework assignments from the various classes I was enrolled in. Every day around four, weather permitting, I’d walk the yard with a friend, a mafia capo from Revere [Massachusetts] serving a murder and racketeering sentence. I was with this guy and his crew the entire time I was in Norfolk State Prison. Every day in the gym I trained with him/them, ate with them, walked the yard, et cetera. This guy was a good guy, I learned a lot from him. At night I never watched TV before 8 o’clock, ever. I’d watch until 10, unless something special was on; otherwise, lights out.
And you got yourself an education in prison. How much of a struggle was that in an environment like that?
I didn’t look at it as a struggle. The educational opportunities presented by the Boston University Prison Education Program were more like a gift, and I considered myself blessed to have them. I knew the guards hated us for taking advantage of the BU program, so that gave me the impetus to work twice as hard. I couldn’t allow the system take a chunk of my life without taking something back in return. If I hadn’t, they would have won. I could fight back and win by never returning, taking something out of the system that could move me ahead in the real world, by becoming enlightened.
You were an armored car robber. Why armored cars? What was your role?
Like Willy Sutton said many years ago (though he was talking about banks), “Because that’s where the money was.” You could walk into a bank and, depending on the type of bank robbery it was -- and there are differences -- you could walk out with anywhere between $25 and $200,000. Or you could hit a truck and take hundreds of thousands. When we were apprehended at a roadblock in 1986, we asked one of the cops back at the station how much we got. He replied, $806,000. I was shocked, because I had honestly expected to grab well over a million. We took every dime in the truck (leaving the change). I would not have done this score if I had known it was less than a million.
My role in these scores was that of a strategist.
Where do you think you’d be if you had not been caught?
Maybe dead. Maybe doing a life bid in some federal joint. We had another score planned, a much bigger one. We would have whacked that (and some associates did while we were inside for over $3 million). I had plans for the money [from the 1986 score]; one of them involved a two-acre plot of land, in Madaket on Nantucket. I was going to sit on it for a few years, then build a house. I like to think that had we been successful, with the multi-million-dollar score, I would have pulled myself away from the life. But could I have?
Did you always write, even before you got your college education?
Since I was 20 years old, I knew that I was meant to be a writer. I remember working as an automobile painter in Concord, Massachusetts; being 22, driving up Route 128 North on my way to work in the morning and deciding on a pseudonym. With only a high-school diploma at the time, I had no idea how the dream would be realized, but had no doubt that it would [be]. During the gangster years, perhaps in an effort to keep the dream alive, I wrote. Oddly, I wrote children’s stories, some of which I still have, and someday [I] plan to return to [them]. I remember reading them to my mum, her loving them and encouraging me to go back to school to refine my skills. By that time, though, I was too immersed in “the life,” [and] I had a cocaine problem. I was an extremely angry individual channeling that emotion into a dangerous and destructive lifestyle.
Did writing become a serious endeavor for you during or after prison?
It became a serious endeavor after I took some creative-writing classes in the BU program, and participated in a couple of PEN seminars. From the feedback I received, I realized that, yes, I had a lot to learn (still do), but also there was something there. With the encouragement of my professors, I continued and was fortunate, with the help of former Harvard University professor Munroe Engel, to be published while still in prison. Following my release in 1996, I did not write anything for over four years. It was only after I completed a screenplay course at Emerson College [in Boston] that I decided not to write a screenplay, but [instead] a novel based on an idea I had knocked around for years. Boyos was the result.
Why crime stories?
[Ernest] Hemingway once said, “Good writing must be based on an intimate knowledge of a subject.”
The Departed was a very entertaining movie, but had actually little to do with Boston. I know. When I was a state trooper I was completely legit, wouldn’t have thought of tarnishing the badge and, at one point, I had a good opportunity to. Matt Damon’s character was crooked. I don’t like crooked cops, see them as cowards hiding behind their shields. You want to be a criminal, be one; be a cop, then be a cop. You play both sides, you’re lacking.
In Boyos, a book about armored car robbers, were a lot of the characters based on real people from that life you once had? Some are obvious, but others might not be.
The main character, [Jack] “Wacko” Curran, was a compilation character created from elements of myself, and two other guys. I borrowed a lot of real nicknames from actual people, i.e., Leppy, Dizzo, Moses, et cetera. The real people are in no way anything like the fictional characters. South Boston -- the old Southie -- was truly a magical place, chockfull of characters who were bigger than life. The gangsters were only part of it. I remember my grandmother, May -- born and raised in Southie’s Lower End -- telling me, as a kid, how Southie was “God’s country” and really believing it (and I did too). Her relating so many wonderful stories about the place that, upon my request, she would recount over and over again over the years -- they never got old. So you could say, in many ways, [that] I am, in fact, writing about real people.
Where did the idea for In for a Pound come from?
It is loosely based on two events. The first is the conviction of a Boston police officer friend of mine for a crime which he did not commit. Sentenced to three years in [a federal penitentiary], he was lucky enough to have the sentence suspended while appealing the finding, which was overturned nine years later. The second event -- and I cannot really discuss this without giving up too much of the plot -- involves the 11-month commitment/incarceration I experienced in Bridgewater State Hospital, Massachusetts’ maximum-security prison for the criminally insane. Following that, I was transferred to the “normal” state prison system, where I was to remain for the next nine-plus years. To give you an idea of how bad Bridgewater was, in the 11 months I was there, there were seven murders or suicides (or maybe murders that appeared like suicides). There was a huge investigation of the place (which continues to occur periodically) following my transfer. I was glad to be out. The good news: there’s a book about the place in me.
Why write an (unofficial) private-eye story with In for a Pound?
My publisher wanted me to write a sequel to Boyos. I did not want to write it -- seemed like more of the same thing. That story was told, I had a lot to learn, and it was time to move on to something else. It seemed a logical move to something along the mystery line. I looked at the great Boston writers -- Bob Parker, George V. Higgins, Dennis Lehane, et cetera -- determined what they were writing and got some ideas. I didn’t want to write a traditional P.I. story (I didn’t know how to,anyway). I read some Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Lehane, Parker, then wrote 200 pages of a story, and it was shit. There were some good parts, though, I salvaged and then (on the advice of Dennis Lehane) I switched from first-person (which I’m lousy at) back to third. I did not want to write a traditional P.I. story. More something along the lines of the old Have Gun, Will Travel/Palladin TV series. Where you’ve basically got a protagonist who’s muscle for hire. Give him a police background and I figured I’d have something -- a guy with experience with no obligation to follow the rules.
Did you always plan for Wacko Curran’s story from Boyos to continue into In for a Pound?
I mentioned that my publisher requested a sequel to Boyos, but I was against it. I decided that if I brought Wacko into IFP it would work, so I did and I’m glad. I like this guy.
What did you learn about writing from one book to the next?
Primarily, I learned just how much I don’t know.
Reading Raymond Chandler blew my mind, but from him I learned how to better write details of interior scenes -- the rooms in houses or buildings that my characters might find themselves in. I picked up a few tricks on describing the environment from a local master, Dennis Lehane. Elmore Leonard showed me I could include thoughts, what the character was thinking (without saying, “He was thinking.”). I learned a lot but realize that I’ll have to continue applying these “tricks” over and over again before they’ll become second-nature. So much to learn, and I’m thinking, I’ll be 57 soon; I don’t have a lot of time.
How is the Irish mafia in Boston structured and run, as opposed to mafia organizations in other cities?
From my experience with real mafia figures (guys from the old regime -- things might have changed), they had a very strict hierarchy. In New England, the boss was in Providence, Rhode Island. Beneath him in Connecticut, western Massachusetts, [and] Boston, were the under-bosses. Beneath them, the captains or capos in charge of the street guys, the soldiers. In theory the big boss in Rhode Island got a piece of everything the various crews earned anywhere in New England. Everything funneled upwards. The Irish mob was different. There was no strict hierarchy; the mob was made up mostly of a loose confederation of crews. James “Whitey” Bulger’s crew was the largest, the most entrenched. They were involved in everything: murder (they’d kill at the drop of a hat), loansharking, racketeering, drug sales, fencing, gambling, et cetera. But, at the same time, there were other crews operating too. Some specialized in drug sales (marijuana, cocaine); another might be into hijacking trucks (and selling the swag to Jimmy Bulger’s crew); and other crews, like the one I was associated with, specialized in armed robberies. We didn’t discriminate, we stole from everyone: drug dealers, bookmakers, banks, armored cars. We never had to kick in a dime to Whitey (no one referred to him by that moniker, ever -- we called him Jimmy). But, say we came across something, like a nice diamond score; we would, out of courtesy and respect, go down and see Jimmy, [and] ask, did he like anything? If he did, he would pay us for it, but at a cut rate.
What is it about Boston that attracts so many writers?
I don’t know if Boston, anymore than any other large city, actually attracts writers. Most of the better-known authors who write about Boston -- if you look at Parker, Lehane, Higgins, [Jeremiah] Healy -- are from the city, or at least, the surrounding metropolitan suburbs. The old, “write what you know” adage. Boston is a small city, and though it’s changed dramatically from the time I was a kid, up until my late 30s, [it] was a bastion of ethnic enclaves, each area rich in their own lore. For a long time Boston has been a hotbed of both the Irish mob and La Cosa Nostra -- they were simply an accepted part of the fabric that made up the city. A lot of fodder for a writer.
Why is Southie so infamous?
South Boston was the last bastion of the Irish mob in America. Large, powerful and murderous, it was an entity to be reckoned with up until only 12 years ago. Another reason, I think, is the fact that Whitey Bulger, the head of the Irish mob -- wanted for 19 murders -- remains on the run, 13 years after he disappeared (though he has been seen around here over the years, for a fact).
The dialogue in your books is so fast and real. As a writer, how did you learn to write people well?
Concerning dialogue, my main influences have been George V. Higgins, and more recently Elmore Leonard. Like a lot of writers, I don’t so much think what my characters are saying as “listen” to them. I write the way I “hear” them. I try to write dialogue the way people actually talk.
Does it ever frustrate you when a show, movie or book glamorizes the criminal life or gets it wrong?
Yeah, it’s aggravating. That’s one of the reasons I wrote Boyos. My goal was to give the reader a passport into that criminal world. I wanted them to see what it was really like. When I was involved in my book tour, I’d have people say to me, “Hey, it couldn’t have been as violent as that.” And I’d say, “You shittin’ me, it was worse, I toned down the book because I was afraid it wouldn’t get published.” Yes, there are good real crime movies out there, like 1984’s Thief or GoodFellas, Casino. Then there are good entertaining crime dramas like Heat, and City of Industry and The Departed.
What was Whitey Bulger like for people who lived in Boston at the time he ran crime and the gangs? Was it mostly just in Southie?
Jimmy Bulger was feared and respected, and even liked by quite a few people over here. He had this bullshit Robin Hood charade going on, and a lot of them fell for it. Of course I think maybe a large number were willing to go along because no one in their right mind dared criticize the guy. He’s charged with 19 murders, but I, and people I know, put the number a little higher, around 40 or so. Funny thing: On a business level, any meetings I had with him were cordial. He exuded this dead-on, chilling confidence that communicated clearly that he was in charge, any problem? I had no doubts. His influence extended well beyond South Boston. For years he was the most powerful criminal figure in New England, with national/international connections.
You’re a prison counselor now. How did you get that job? And why?
Actually, I am not a counselor. My official title is “Re-entry Instructor” and we’re not talking semantics here. My duties involve developing curriculum for a variety of groups that we run here in Norfolk. My groups include Introduction to Creative Writing, Advanced Creative Writing, Slow-Burn Anger Management, Life Skills, the Dedham Alternative Center Poetry Group and Recovery Tool Kit, a substance-abuse group.
I had people, influential people, who believed that I wasn’t just another “dirty ex-con,” that I had something -- my own life experience -- that I could use as an example for others that bad guys can change. A lot of folks -- my college professors, prison social workers, Catholic nuns from the Sisters of Bethany, a prison ministry -- busted their butts to help me to change. I wanted to give back, believing it was the only way to move forward.
What’s next for you?
I am currently writing a screenplay for Boyos. It’s a totally different animal than a novel. Dennis Lehane said something like, “The difference between a screenplay and a novel, is the difference between a giraffe and a cantaloupe.” There has been a lot of interest in Boyos from film people over the past few years. A Hollywood producer wanted to option the book before it even hit the shelves. For various reasons it didn’t happen. I have no doubt that someday Boyos will be up on the big screen. Talk to anyone who’s read it and they’ll say, “When are they making the movie?” My answer remains the same: It’s coming.
I’ve also begun my third novel. Got a title, the first chapter completed, and some great ideas to develop. I’ll be moving out of South Boston for this one, into Charlestown and up into the North Shore. I’m excited -- fact.
After so much happened in your life, what did it feel like to finally have a book published, and now a second one?
God’s good. | January 2008