Silvertail Books (silvertailbooks.com)
‘So it’s a historical book.’
The NYPD sergeant stood in the Fifth Precinct, in Elizabeth Street in the heart of New York City’s Chinatown. He had delivered a statement of fact with all the blunt authority you’d expect from a New York cop. I blanched for a second – it hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that the book I was researching on this trip to the city was, in fact, historical.
I said, ‘Yeah, I suppose it is.’
That was April 2019. I was writing my fourth novel, Rat Island, set in NYC in 1995 and had flown across the Atlantic to walk the streets of the city for the first time in twenty-six years. I also had an interview with former NYPD narcotics detectives about their experiences on The Job, and dollars in my pocket for a night of drinking at The Dublin House bar on the Upper West Side, a favourite hang-out of mine when I spent a lot of time in New York back in ’95.
Strolling the streets of Chinatown, where a significant chunk of the novel takes place, I had come across the station house in the narrow, tenement-lined street as night fell, the green lamps either side of the entrance glowing in the shadows. I knew the officers inside would have better things to do than indulge some guy just walked in off the street claiming he was writing a book about the area, but the cops on duty were courteous, welcoming and gave a little of their time to talk about the precinct.
When I left the station it hit me again that – yes – Rat Island was a historical novel. The New York I walked that night was clean and felt almost airy. The streets of Greenwich Village, where I spent a lot of time back in the nineties, were weirdly prim. Families and kids gawped in Times Square at night. The subway after ten was filled with all kinds of people: when I rode the trains at night back in the day, there were few women in the carriages after ten or eleven p.m.
They say write what you know, which is why Rat Island is set in New York City in the year 1995. I spent a lot of time in the city back then, and it was a very different New York to the gleaming, gentrified metropolis of today. By providence or luck my younger, raw-and-callow-self kept a diary back then describing the New York of that time, recorded in scribbles or hangover-scrawl, some of which makes it into the novel.
Like the Times Square and 42nd Street of the mid-nineties, the preserve of pushers, hookers, street-preachers and bored-looking cops; the strip of peep-shows and porn emporiums stretching from 42nd to Madison Square Garden.
“A cop was standing on the corner fifteen feet away working hard not to notice the wicked business going down on his patch. The buildings of midtown rocketed skyward, swallowed by low rags of cloud oppressing the early evening bustle of the streets.”
Passing a body on the platform of West 4th Street subway station on a regular Monday morning, a couple of police officers standing around to keep commuters at bay.
“The uniforms on the platform milled around the sheet next to the northbound track. West 4th Subway Station was oven-warm despite the cool, damp May night up at street level.”
The large numbers of emotionally disturbed homeless on the streets, turfed out of hospitals and facilities by uncaring legislature.
“A man with Einstein hair in a tattered check suit was reciting the declaration of independence over and over to a burly moustachioed man running a hot dog cart nearby.”
New York was a city in which I was robbed on the subway after a boozing session on my birthday; an apartment in which I stayed was burgled twice in a week; and a bar I frequented was the scene of a shoot-out, luckily when I was sinking pints in another place. I knew bartenders, construction workers, au pairs, burned-out boxers, scam artists, taggers and a lot of men on the moving crews. Some were South Bronx guys, trying to wean themselves off heroin with methadone and hold down some kind of income for their families.
There was a store where they would occasionally go to buy cigarettes. Once, one of them took out a book of matches. A fictionalised account is in the book.
“J.J. spread a folded subway map on the dashboard. The books of matches displayed the legend “Angelica’s Market” on the cover flap. Willie took one and opened it then pulled the matches up to reveal a small cellophane package of white powder.”
So Rat Island is about New York when the Big Apple was still pretty rotten (although in many respects, more febrile, exciting and diverse: but that’s another story).
But it is also a crime thriller. Those drugs that ‘J.J’ is about to snort in that excerpt have to come from somewhere, and in the novel that somewhere is the Golden Triangle. Back in ’95, Hong Kong was still a UK territory, so the book is about a Hong Kong Triad/NY Chinatown Tong operation bringing heroin into the city from Myanmar. Once stateside, an Irish-American mob distributes the drug throughout the Five Boroughs of New York, often via their moving company. The DEA, NYPD and Hong Kong cops have a task force building a RICO case against the organised crime groups, but they need an ‘in’ to the Irish, and someone fluent in Cantonese and the ways of Triad criminality. Enter Callum Burke, Belfast-born sergeant in the Royal Hong Kong Police Force, and Sergeant Bobby Ho, a Chinese cop in the Force. Bobby will undertake surveillance and monitor wire taps on the Chinese element, Callum will infiltrate the Irish mob.
Again, after my experiences in the United States, I spent almost 14 years living in Asia and travelled extensively. It’s no coincidence that in Rat Island, as Callum is struggling to keep his head above water with the Irish Crew, the novel charts the journey of the narcotic, and Triad Dragon Head, Tony Lau, from the poppy fields of Myanmar to the dusty villages and big city lights of Thailand, to floating heroin refineries off the coast of China. There are incidents in Hong Kong and Japan, where I lived and worked. And all the while, the drug and the godfather – who has a personal vendetta against Callum from his Hong Kong police days – move closer to New York.
I loved writing Rat Island and poured all I could from personal experiences, research, and interviews with those former NYPD detectives – who were generous of their time, and fantastic company – into the writing to make it as tough, uncompromising and exciting as all those reference points I have loved through the years: movies like The French Connection, The Taking Of Pelham 123 (1974), Inside Man and more; and books like the crime stories of John Godey, the novels of Richard Price and Peter Blauner, and the non-fiction work of T.J. English.
Will Callum infiltrate the Irish gang to the top? Will he redeem himself after a shady past in Hong Kong? Can he find redemption for the loss of his marriage and estrangement from his young daughter? And most importantly, can he stay alive long enough for Bobby Ho and the task force to build enough evidence to break the mob?
I hope you enjoy the journey as those questions are answered; like riding the A Train at midnight on a hot summer night in Manhattan back when you didn’t take a bite of the Big Apple, it took a chunk out of you.