Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Welcome Back, Welcome Back, Welcome Back!




HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: All hail and hooray! Guess who’s here? One of the original Reds, a Red from the first moment there was a Red, a founding Red–– The amazing Jan Brogan.

We are so honored and thrilled to welcome her back into the Jungle Red fold for the day—(although once a Red, always a Red, you know that!) And she has wonderful news. A brilliant new book!

So of course, we peppered her with questions, as you can see. What you cannot see are the rose petals we have strewn in her path, and the champagne we are drinking in her honor.

HANK: First, How are you? And what have you been doing?

JAN: I’ve been good — busy. I had three grandchildren born in the last three years — and that will keep anyone pretty busy, and I’ve been teaching journalism summers at BU. And thanks to the COVID quarantine, I was also able to finally finish another project I’ve been working on for a decade or more, a book that’s really from heart, that I started thinking about before I had any kids when my husband and I sailed a lot.

I found out about these New England women who left their small towns to sail across the globe with their whaling captain husbands.

That novel is historical/suspense, almost a hero’s adventure, about two wives who sail during the Civil War, when Confederate raider ships hunted down Yankee whale ships — as far away as the Arctic Circle — and burned them at sea. It’s a little bit of Civil War history few people know about. So I’ve been reading a lot more history than mystery these days, but I miss you guys at Jungle Red and I miss the mystery community. I am psyched to be able to reconnect at this year’s New England Crime Bake.

HANK: Tell us about this new book! It’s out now, and it's different!


JAN: The Combat Zone: Murder, Race and Boston’s Struggle for Justice,  is about the tragic 1976 murder of a Harvard football player in Boston’s old Combat Zone, the two trials that followed, and the victim’s younger brother’s quest for justice and revenge. It’s all told within the context of a racially divided city, exploding with protest and violence, and shows how jury trials in a highly-publicized cases can be about more than the actual crime.

HALLIE: How did you get involved with this project?

JAN: After I finished Teaser, my last Hallie Ahern book, I wanted to do something different. I said out loud to anyone who would listen that I was looking for a story that really “needed to be told.” A friend heard me say and he connected me with Danny Puopolo, the victim’s younger brother, who at the time, was working with a Hollywood director and former classmate of the victim to do a movie. I agreed to write the screenplay, on spec, on the condition that I could also write the book with complete journalistic independence.


JULIA: In the book, Danny is very candid about his pain and his struggle with revenge. And how far he was willing to go to get justice for his brother when the courts failed him. Why was he willing to tell such a personal story?

JAN: Danny is modest guy who doesn’t like to talk about himself. Danny was willing to reveal his own struggles only to illustrate the injustice he felt was done to his brother. He’s a private person and this is still a painful subject, it was, really, a tremendous sacrifice.

DEBS: There are a lot of historical murders to choose from. Why did you write about this one?

JAN: This was the most publicized murder in Boston in the 1970s, and it had historical implications. Outrage over this murder set in motion the city’s determination to close the Combat Zone, once a crime-ridden “anything goes,” red-light district that doesn’t exist today.

The trials also changed the way juries were chosen in Massachusetts – ending the legality of striking potential jurors based on race. Which was really important because until then, prosecutors routinely struck Blacks from juries in the state and the nation. There was also a lot of intrigue outside the courtroom drama, itself. Because the victim was Italian-American, raised primarily in the city’s North End, then the headquarters for the mob, there were continual rumors of mob revenge–some of them true.

LUCY: Critics say that the story is very unbiased. Did you start on one particular side? Or did your thinking change at any point?

JAN: Forty-five years after the fact, when I mention the Puopolo murder someone invariably says – oh that’s the one where the kid got murdered because he went to the Combat Zone “looking for sex.” That’s untrue, unfair and blaming the victim. So, I started out wanting to set the facts of the case straight: Andy went to the Combat Zone only because the entire team – 40 football players – went as part of a standard Harvard end-of-season ritual. 

Andy was a hero, coming to a teammate’s aid. I began the project outraged at the justice he didn’t receive, but the more research I did to try to understand the wild seesawing of the jury, the more I learned of many other injustices in Boston at the time. Criminal justice was deeply flawed and needed to change.

JENN: What was the hardest thing about writing about such an old murder?

JAN: By the time I got involved, many of the key players, the prosecutor, the judges, early defense attorneys—had died. I was extremely lucky and grateful that Hank helped hook me up to one of the key defense attorneys, Norman Zalkind. But I was frustrated in researching the three defendants. 

Two had already died and Leon Easterling, who had stabbed Andy to death, contacted me when he found out I was writing a book, but only to try to get me to pay him to talk to him. Journalists don’t do that. 

After he passed away, his wife at first said she’d talk to me but then she changed her mind, based on pressure from other family members. So, I had to scour the Internet for old Combat Zone friends and acquaintances of the three defendants. I was lucky, extremely lucky, to find any.

RHYS: The book is a lot about how publicity affects a trial, as a long-time journalist, how did you feel about the media’s role?


JAN: Until I wrote this book, I had no idea how powerfully media coverage can affect a verdict. Or how, during the initial coverage of a murder, wrong information is reported and then, re-reported. Misinformation, even if corrected, remains in the public’s mind, and all coverage impacts the jury – sequestering comes too late. But there was also some excellent reporting that helped me put together a historical record, so I’m torn. The only thing I’m sure of is that in a highly-publicized murder, the only way to get a fair trial is to move to different venue–which almost never happens.

HANK: SO GREAT! Oh, you all, if you have not met Jan, just know that none of us would be here chatting every day if not for her participation at the beginning! What questions do YOU have? And what thoughts do you have about Jan’s topics and themes?

************************

JAN BROGAN is an award-winning journalist and novelist living just outside of Boston. She is the author of four mysteries, including Final Copy, and A Confidential Source, which was bought by Transactional Pictures for development into a television series. She has worked as a correspondent for the Boston Globe, and as a staff writer for the Providence Journal and the Worcester Telegram. She teaches journalism at Boston University’s Summer Journalism Institute, and has freelanced for Boston magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Forbes.



 
The Combat Zone” Murder Race and Boston’s Struggle for Justice tells the story of the brutal 1976 murder of a Harvard football player in Boston’s old Combat Zone and his family’s  struggle to come to terms with both a devastating loss and a criminal justice system that produced two trials with nearly opposite verdicts. The story, humanized through the victim’s brother, who struggles for revenge, is placed within the context of a racially divided Boston in the late 1970s. The story traces the contentious relationship between Boston’s segregated neighborhoods during the busing crisis, shines a light on a racist court system that allowed lawyers to strike potential jurors based on their race or ethnic identity, and lays bare the deep-seated corruption within the police department. What emerges is a fascinating snapshot of a city in transition at a pivotal moment in its not so distant past. 


JAN SAYS: Tomorrow night, (Wednesday Oct. 6) I’ll be speaking at the Boston Public Library at 6 p.m. for anyone in town who’d like to stop by.  Proof of vaccine and preregistration required.  https://bpl.bibliocommons.com/events/610584c24372f23d004df0d5   

Books are available through most independent bookstores

Amazon: 

Supply chain issues have been a problem at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble so: 

I’m pleased to be able to offer a 30 percent discount if you order straight from my publisher.  
30% OFF WITH CODE MAS032 
or 1-800-621-2736 



47 comments:

  1. The media is still a powerful influence [and not always a good influence when, as you say, misinformation is long-held by some]; it’s interesting that the change of venue is so seldom used.
    And, sad to say, victim-blaming still happens . . . .

    This sounds like an amazing story to tell, Jan, but a particularly difficult one to research. You mentioned that several of those deeply involved had passed away . . . did that force you to abandon some portions of the story simply because it was impossible to get the information you needed?
    In any event, “The Combat Zone” sounds amazing and I’m looking forward to reading it.

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    1. Joan, that's a great question -- one I hadn't thought of. I'd say that the research defintely shaped the story. Had I better luck with researching the defendants, the chapters about them, I think, would have been longer. That said, there were things I did learn about that them I didn't include because it was so deeply personal, I didn't feel comfortable running it without validating it. But it did impact how I felt about the verdicts.

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  2. Jan, welcome back, what a fascinating project! You needed such tenacity and bravery to see this through. Were you nervous at any point about pursuing such a difficult story?

    And when can we look for the historical suspense?

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    1. Ah, thanks Roberta. I'd say I was nervous probably 80 percent of the time during this project -- especially at the point when the killer, who was still alive then, emailed me and wanted to get together. At one point, the victim's brother offered to go with me -- for protection -- which wouldnt't have been a good idea. But he -- Leon Easterling -- wanted money from me. And journalists don't pay for interviews. Also, there was a gap when it didn't look like I was going to be able to sell the book, so I dropped the project for a couple of years and Leon passed away.

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    2. And the historical suspense is still percolating. It's definitely a woman's book and my agent is male with a heavily male list, so we both agreed I should try to find a woman who specializes in historicals. That has taken much longer than I thought.

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  3. Jan, I am so excited about both your new books! What's the status of the screenplay you wrote? Will that movie be made?

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    1. Edith, The director couldnt' sell the project. I still have the screenplay but I don't think its going anywhere. It was a fictionalized version of just one angle of the book.

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  4. Jan, congrats on both books. They sound amazing!

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  5. Before I respond to these comments individually, I just wanted to thank Hank and the Reds, for having me. It's such a great feeling to be back at JungleRed, I had no idea that I'd feel this nostalgic!

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    1. As a long-time reader and commenter of this wonderful blog, I want to say a big THANK YOU to you, Jan, for being a founding Red, who helped get it going in the early days. JRW is an online community I cherish.

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    2. WE are SO pleased you are here! LOVE THIS! ANd yes, it makes me feel nostalgic, too. xooxoo

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    3. It's so much fin to have you back, Jan!

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  6. Wow, Jan, congratulations on both books and thank you for being an original JRW. I begin almost every day right here.

    This book sounds very interesting. I was wondering why I knew so little about this and realized that I was living abroad then. I remember the Boston busing crisis, the explosive racial tensions and even the MLB race controversy of the time.

    Journalists have a lot of influence and the way in which a story is told certainly sways public opinion. If telling a story to the public was just listing facts, without emotions, would people draw their own conclusions? But, the weight of words cannot be denied. How does one report something without choosing sides? Misinformation takes it further. Disinformation, worse yet. And leaving out the part that disproves your leanings is a type of misinformation, as well.

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    1. Thanks Judy. You know I teach journalism to high school kids at a summer program at BU and I have to wrestle with some of the questions you ask. I think a good journalist has to try to listen to both sides. And the more drawn you are to one side, the more important it is to make yourself listen long and hard to the other side. Because the truth is never absolute.

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  7. Jan, what a compelling backstory to your book! As a journalist, are there times you ask yourself "Why am I putting myself through this?" Because it must be hard to deal with a case like this day in and day out. The verdict won't change, history won't change. And yet, you keep on, kept on, until you finished this book.

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    1. Thanks Flora. And with this particular book there were many times I did ask myself that question, and times when I put down the project. I had one publisher want me to write it on spec and I said no -- because I knew how much work it was going to be. Then that same publisher gave me an advance -- but went out of business three weeks after I turned in the manuscript. So most of those feelings had to do with publishing. I always say that writing is a compulsion more than a career and this book proved that! (at least for me)

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  8. Congratulations on your recent book AND the arduous process to write it! I wonder if you'll write another book detailing your journey with this book.

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    1. hahaha.I don't know if that would be encouraging for aspiring writers, or depressing. But thank you!

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  9. Congratulations on persevering with this writing project that became this book, Jan. Your story certainly proves that persistence and commitment are vital ingredients for the telling of important stories.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words. I hope the rest of the world thinks this story is as important as I do!

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  10. Dear Jan! So happy to see you here again!! I remember vividly when you started writing this book. As a journalist AND mystery writer, it was so up your alley. And I know you found aspects of MAKING UP murder mysteries limiting. Wondering if you think you'd go back to making it up, and if there were challenges in writing true crime that you hadn't anticipated?

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    1. Hi Hallie! I miss you. The biggest challenge is dealing with people's memories which differ and also sometimes change, and also my own memory. Checking every fact five times to try to avoid errors.It would have to be a great story to get me to write another true crime book. I am dying to write a new novel.

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  11. Fascinating! Jan, I'd really like to know more about the wives travelling with their sea captain husbands. Hope to see that book published soon!

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    1. Judi, Thank you so much. I sort of feel that if I could weather the many storms and get The Combat Zone published, I should be able to get the Wives published. I hope I'm not being overly optimistic, but if there's one thing I can do, it's persevere.

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  12. Okay, I am trying and trying and BLogger is not letting me comment! SO--this is AMAZING--and you are so persistent in your wonderful research! I wonder if the Boston Globe will pounce on this for the Sunday Magazine--wouldn't that be perfect? COngratulations!

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  13. This sounds like a fascinating and painful story. I don't remember it at all but I was living in El Paso, Texas at the time, so that's my excuse. I have to wonder at school officials unofficially sanctioning excursions like these.

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    1. Hi Pat,
      I know, and the Puopolo family never sued Harvard. But no one did that back in the day. It was a different world.

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  14. I just had trouble posting too, so this might come up twice, but thank you so much Hank. From your lips to God's ears as they say. And thank you for connecting me to Norman. He's been my biggest champion.

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    1. Aw, my pleasure! I love how this all fits together!

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  15. Hi, Jan!! It is so wonderful to see you here! We miss you!! What a journey this book has been for you. It's a fascinating story and one I knew nothing about. The repercussions of the case made me think of the Stephen Lawrence case in Britain. That case changed policing in England. Anyway, so looking forward to The Combat Zone. Huge congrats and many hugs!

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  16. Jan, it’s so exciting to see you here today! Would you believe that just last night I was wondering what you were up to these days? I’ve missed you here on JRW.

    I can hardly begin to imagine how difficult it is to write about true crime decades after the incident. It’s understandable that people would have different memories of how things happened. Just talk to any member of your family about an incident that happened 20 or 30 years ago and every perspective is different. I admire you for sticking with the project and overcoming so many obstacles to complete it.

    DebRo

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    1. Oh Deb, that is so sweet and warms my writer's heart. And thank you. And yes, I never challenge my husband on his memory of events anymore. And never fully trust mine, after having done this project.

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  17. Oooh. Can't wait for the book about women on ships! I read a non-fiction account some years ago called Hen Frigates (wives on ships, not Civil War)- just fascinating. And the brand new book? I did not live in Boston then, but had a few years earlier. I remember the Combat Zone (only by hearsay!) and the turmoil of early 1970's politics in the city.Some names still produce a shiver - something about it on Antiques Roadshow last night.

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    1. Triss, I love that book, Hen Frigates. And really, Antiques Roadshow? Maybe a neon sign?

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    2. Antiques Road Show episode was about turmoil in 70's Boston, not the Cambat Zone per se.Remember a photo of an American flag being used as a weapon against a Black man in a suit? They had the man- an attorney on his way to work that day - and the photographer, on the show to talk about the context of the photo. And Louise Day Hicks was mentioned...

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  18. So looking forward to reading this, Jan. We were just talking about shows we're binging, and mine, FOR ALL MANKIND, is set in 1974 for the first season. I remember the seventies! I was a kid and a teen! But at the same time, it was SO utterly different from today; in culture, social understanding, laws, technology, medicine - everything.
    It doesn't feel like it's history, but the bicentennial year is as far away from today as Warren G. Harding, the first silent movies, and Prohibition were from my teen years.

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    1. I know Julia, the 70s were wild. The best thing about the research is it makes me feel a lot better about today. And so much of it came as a surprise to me when I lived it and in Boston.

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  19. Welcome back, Jan! This book sounds amazing. I am so looking forward to a new Brogan!

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  20. Jan, congratulations on the three grandbabies! What a lovely reason to be busy.

    I'd never heard of this case before, or of the Combat Zone. 1976 was so different, from a news point of view. Now everybody everywhere can know everything, almost as it happens. It must be a lot easier to do research of more recent events, for sure.

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    1. And think of all the surveillance, and cell phones, and SO many new tools. Jan did SUCH difficult and gritty and truly journalistic research!

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  21. Jan... Can't wait. Can't wait. Can't wait.

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  22. I used to work at a theatre nearby and the guys in the light box would send me over there for food. It's a good thing for them that my father never found out. (Reen Carter)

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