Hello fans of golden-era Hollywood, Turner Classic Movies – specifically Warner Bros., and lovers of WWII historical fiction! Last month, I revealed the title, cover, and description of my upcoming book:
ALL THE GIN JOINTS
A novel of World War II Hollywood
Book 1 in the Hollywood Home Front Trilogy
And now I am ready to share with you the first chapter. This opening is unlike any of my previous 11 books because, for the first time, one of my stories doesn’t start in Hollywood. Or Los Angeles. Or even in California. This is the tale of a guy who doesn’t go to Hollywood because he wants to, but instead travels there from Brooklyn because he’s compelled to against his better judgment.
I must admit, it felt strange at first to start one of my books clear across the other side of the U.S. But, as with all my novels, all roads lead to Hollywood eventually.
So here now is the first chapter to whet your appetite:
Humphrey Bogart’s face loomed thirty feet high, filling the screen with his sardonic grin. The Brooklyn Fox Theatre’s sumptuous Spanish Baroque detailing fell away for the guy in the tenth row with the fistful of popcorn and bicycle clips around his ankles.
For Luke Valenti, all that mattered was the SPADE AND ARCHER sign on the window, the roll-your-own cigarette Bogart was filling from his muslin drawstring bag, and the blonde secretary announcing that a prospective client wanted to see him.
“Don’t let her in,” Luke murmured. “Her name isn’t Miss Wonderly. She’ll bring Joel Cairo to your door. And then you’ll have to deal with The Fat Man, who will stop at nothing to get his paws on a statue of a black falcon from Malta.”
He scooped up another handful of popcorn; the redhead at the concession stand always over-salted it. Luke didn’t care. His eyes were now on Mary Astor spinning her yarn about how she’d traveled from New York to find her sister, who’d come to San Francisco with a dubious gent named Floyd Thursby.
Look at how she’s telling Bogart they were never as close as sisters ought to be. Boy, she really knows how to sell that pack of lies she’s dealing out.
But Sam Spade was one hell of an astute reader of people. He probably knew he had a world-class liar on his hands. Luke squirmed deeper into his seat. Cairo was about to offer Spade five thousand bucks to find a black figure of a bird. Don’t do it. It’ll bring you more trouble than it’s worth.
The lobby stretched two stories high to a ceiling of sculpted marble, metallic accents, and six-foot chandeliers of frosted glass. A little overdone, perhaps, but there were worse ways a guy could spend a drizzling November afternoon.
The redhead stood at a circular counter assembling a display of paperbacks.
“These new?” Luke asked.
“The movie’s done so well they’re republishing it. Twenty-five cents apiece, if you’re interested.”
The cover featured a photograph of the black bird from the movie. “THE MALTESE FALCON” was scrawled along the top; Dashiell Hammett’s name was in block lettering along the bottom.
Luke fished out a quarter from his pocket and slid it across the counter.
“You’ve seen this picture a bunch of times. Humphrey Bogart fan, huh?”
Luke liked Bogie well enough, but no more than, say, Gable, Cagney, or Flynn. But there was something about this movie, this role, this Sam Spade. Until he’d figured out what it was, Luke wasn’t prepared to admit anything to anyone. It was the safer choice.
He smiled at her. A bland smile. Intentionally uncommitted. She was cute, in a Shirley-Temple-Grows-Up kind of way. But he could see that familiar spark of recognition flicker through her eyes, which meant the “Say, ain’t you . . .?” question wasn’t far off. He told her he’d better be going and headed for the glass-and-brass doors.
The cacophony of rattling streetcars and impatient car horns crowded Flatbush Avenue. Luke zippered up his windbreaker to keep out the bitter wind blowing from the Navy Yard. It hadn’t been this cold when he’d walked into the Fox, but oh boy, there was no way to ignore that Thanksgiving was coming. He turned right. The German deli next door must have been fixing sauerkraut; the sharp smack of vinegar saturated the narrow alleyway beside the theater.
He always figured that one of these days he’d get to the end and his bike would no longer be there. Some wise guy with bolt cutters would have seen him park in the shadows beneath the fire escape. Not that Luke cared. He hated the damned thing. But that was okay. Only eight more weeks and he wouldn’t have to slog around Brooklyn avoiding paint trucks and pushcart vendors, runaway mutts and old ladies with walking sticks.
He unlocked the chain from the back wheel and snaked it into the leather pouch attached to his bicycle seat. Fifty-six days. Yep, he could do that.
The pop of chewing gum caught him off guard.
Luke didn’t move.
Another pop. Louder this time.
He turned around.
There were four of them. Street punks with their arms crossed, weight on one foot, tapping the weather-worn cobblestones with the other. Raggedy dungarees. Home-knitted sweaters unraveling at the elbows. One kid wore a pork-pie hat that was too pristine to be his. Seventeen or eighteen years old, maybe nineteen at most. At twenty-two, Luke wasn’t much older than they were. But he was outnumbered, and by the looks of them, they knew how to land a punch better than Luke ever could—or would want to.
A pudgy ruffian with a crew cut stepped forward. “Nice bike.”
Luke knew better than to break eye contact. “It’s okay.”
“Better’n okay.” The ruffian stepped closer. His gang followed suit. “Which is why I’m gonna do you a favor.” His three acolytes snickered on cue like it was their job, which it probably was. He bunched his right hand into a fist and punched it into the fleshy palm of his left with a lazy rhythm.
Talk about a cliché move. What’s next? Calling me a dirty rat? “Wo-o-o-o-ow.” Luke stretched the word into five syllables. “We’ve only just met and already you want to do me a favor. I should introduce myself.” He pulled his bike forward until the sign attached to the rear rolled into a patch of sunlight.
Luke gave them a good, long chance to read it.
VALENTI FAMILY CONSTRUCTION
BUILDERS – ALL TRADES – HANDYMEN
No job too large or too small!
We’ll treat you like family!
Come see us at 18th Ave & 70th Street
Telephone JEfferson 3-4411
The rhythmic palm-punching stopped. “You work for the Valentis?”
Years ago, Luke had learned to leave a ponderous pause before replying, “I am a Valenti.” Emphasizing the ‘am’ did all the heavy lifting.
An acolyte with dirty fingernails took a step backward. He looked like the dimmest of the bunch, but he knew when to beat a hasty retreat.
Mr. Pudgy looked Luke up and down, not ready to admit defeat. “You? A Valenti?”
Dirty Fingernails said, “He’s the other one. The runt of the litter.”
Luke had often wondered if people called him the runt of the Valenti litter, but this was the first time somebody had said it to his face. It wasn’t an inaccurate description. Luke had five older brothers—much older. Sal, the bricklayer, had twenty-two years, eight-and-a-half inches, and fifty pounds on Luke.
So, yes, he was the runt. But still, to hear someone say it out loud stung worse than a hornet. Not that these low-rent punks needed to know that. The vinegary air prickled Luke’s eyes, but he dared not blink. “Be smart and walk away while you can.”
Luke didn’t draw another breath until he could see the backs of the Dead End Kids of Flatbush.
Walk away while you can. That was rich. Sometimes it was good to be a Valenti. Rarely, though. Hardly ever, in fact. But it came in handy when you were outnumbered four-to-one in a dark alley where nobody would hear your screams for help.
* * *
Luke was a block from home when he heard the roar blasting down 16th Avenue. He was tempted to keep pedaling and go—where? The Bay Ridge Candy Shop for an egg cream, maybe. But that would only put off the inevitable.
Closing the gate behind him, he leaned his bike against the brick wall and covered the Valenti Construction sign with a tattered blanket. Pop’s voice barreled through the open windows along the side of the house.
“WHAT HAVE I BEEN SAYING ALL THIS TIME?”
Gauging from the full-throated response he got, all five brothers were there, braying like a Greek chorus. And if the brothers were there, the wives were, too, and their thirteen children. Running, screaming, jumping, crying, laughing, whining, arguing. God forbid one of them should sit quietly in a corner.
Luke stepped into the house and stood in the doorway to the spacious dining room. The Valenti dining table was a six-hundred-pound mahogany behemoth. Pop sat at the head, a Brooklyn Eagle spread in front of him. “I’ve been saying it. Over and over. Something’s gonna happen.” He tapped the paper with his finger. “Sooner or later those damned Krauts were gonna take a shot. And now we’ve lost the Reuben James.”
Luke positioned himself at the periphery of the family crowding around the table. “What’s the Reuben James?”
“It takes balls to strike a U.S. destroyer.” Sal thumped the table. “Especially after they torpedoed the Kearny.”
“Roosevelt didn’t declare war when they sank the Kearny,” Pop thundered. “But two destroyers in two weeks? More’n a hundred deaths? Roosevelt’s gonna order the navy to attack any German vessel in the safety zone. After that, Congress will repeal the Neutrality Acts. And that means merchant vessels are gonna be armed.”
“You predicted it!” Tony leaped to his feet. Luke wasn’t sure why. Then again, he could rarely figure out why any members of his family behaved the way they did. “I remember!”
Enzo Valenti stroked his chin like he was the Oracle of Brooklyn. “We’ll be wearing army uniforms by Christmas—oh. Luke. You’re home.”
That’s when you notice me? When you bring up the sorest subject possible? And now I feel like a deer caught in the headlights of a Valenti Construction truck barreling along the Sunrise Highway.
Silence had fallen over the dining table. Luke smiled weakly. “War’s inevitable, huh?”
“You heard Pop,” Rico said.
It was a safe bet that Old Man Lombardi over on 63rd Street had heard Pop—and that guy was deaf.
“I hope you’re not hungry.” Luke’s mother, Sara, swiped a lock of her blonde bangs to one side. “Dinner’ll be late. Just meatloaf tonight.”
“But I like your meatloaf,” Luke told her.
She pulled a tight smile. No teeth. No warmth. “I’ll call you when it’s ready.”
In other words, none of this concerns you. You with your 4-F status and your “Exempt from War Service” card. What an embarrassment to the Valenti name. You’ll never be fitted for a U.S. Army uniform, so go do whatever it is you do when you’re not outside pedaling that infernal “We’ll treat you like family!” sign between here and Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Luke retreated through the kitchen to the back door, where he stepped into the November chill. The Valenti yard stretched the width of three houses. It wasn’t so much a yard as a field.
When the Valentis had got off the boat from Italy in 1881, they had looked for cheap land to buy. Manhattan was out of the question, so they’d crossed the bridge to Brooklyn, where they found a block big enough for six houses, three facing 16th Street and three facing Ovington Court. Enzo Valenti had had a plan when he got married: five boys in ten years. Sara had held up her end of the bargain: one after the other, right on schedule. Sara Valenti was nothing if not efficient.
Enzo had set out to teach each rambunctious kid a different skill. The oldest, Sal, was allocated bricklaying, drywall, and wallpaper. Next came Tony, whose fate was to become a carpenter, roofer, and layer of outdoor paving. Rico was the electrician. Carlo, a.k.a. Cal, was the plumber. And Vic was taught carpeting, tiling, counters, and indoor fixtures.
The reward for learning a trade was a house. One per son, built from scratch, was the best advertising that Valenti Construction could get. Who wouldn’t go to the guy who’d built his sons’ homes?
It was a grand plan. And it had worked exactly as intended.
Until a surprise baby had come along twelve years later.
Let’s not give him an Italian name to help him fit in, though. Let’s not call him Lucca so that we can shorten it to Luke, like we did for his brothers. Let’s call him Luke, because growing up knowing there was no actual place for him wouldn’t make him feel enough of an outsider.
Luke parked his butt on the wooden bench below the kitchen window. The communal backyard was blissfully free of the usual semi-feral nieces and nephews running around like savages. He slid the paperback out of his pocket and traced the silhouetted falcon with a fingernail.
“Thank God for cool air!” Cal’s wife, Patty, stood at the open window above Luke. “I can only take so much brawn and bravado.”
“Our Valenti menfolk,” Mom replied. “Put ’em in a room together and they could warm Ebbet’s Field in February.”
“They’re sure looking forward to marching off to war.”
Mom sighed. “Boys and their guns. Whatcha gonna do?”
“I kinda feel sorry for Luke, though.”
Luke craned his neck to hear better.
“That hang-dog look; it was the same one he wore when he came home from the enlistment station. He could barely say 4-F out loud. It was like Father Bernard had told him to scream the worst curse word inside St. Athanasius.”
“You talking about my baby brother?” Tony was son number two in the pecking order and Luke’s least favorite. Mean when sober, nasty-mean when drunk. “Did you see what he had in his pocket? It was the book of that movie he goes to see all the time.”
“The one about the falcon statue?”
“Twice in the past couple of weeks I’ve seen him coming out of the Fox. I pass it on the way to that job up near the Navy Yard. Jesus Christ, what kind of dud goes to the movies by himself? Everyone knows you only go to neck with your favorite girl in the back row.”
Patty giggled. “Do you think he’s queer?” Neither Tony nor Luke’s mom replied, so Patty’s question hung in the air like soiled laundry. “He’s, what, twenty-two and never had a girlfriend. Okay, so he’s quiet and shy and 4-F, but he’s no hunchback from Notre Dame.”
“I really don’t wish to think about it.” A disdainful sniff had crept into Mom’s voice.
The oven door gave off a metallic clang, which meant that Luke’s mother had yanked it open with more force than it needed. Had she wondered if Luke was a homo? Had everybody else in the family? And everybody in Bensonhurst, too?
Luke jumped off the bench. If he reached the inside stairs unseen, he could sneak into his bedroom with nobody the wiser.
Luke’s bedroom had five uneven walls, a sloping ceiling, and a window that overlooked the driveway. He’d left it open that morning, so now the room was freezing cold. He hooked the latch with his pinky finger and closed it.
I could tell them about the crushes I’ve had. All of them girls. Yes, that’s right. Girls. But none of them returned the affection once they learned that I’m the runt.
He dropped The Maltese Falcon on his bedside table next to Why England Slept. Whoever this John F. Kennedy was, he knew a thing or two about the crumbling situation in Britain. Luke would have suggested those gun-happy Valenti fellas read it before they rushed off to war, but it would have been a waste of time. When was the last time any of them had voluntarily cracked opened a book?
The hullabaloo floated up from downstairs. Luke caught “Iceland” and “convoy” and “torpedoes,” but the rest was the same old bombastic tumult. He pulled a shoebox from under his bed. Digging past the pencils and charcoal strips, subway tokens, his Edward R. Murrow autograph, and a Lone Ranger mask, he reached beneath a battered program from the 1939 World’s Fair to his East New York Savings Bank passbook.
He cracked it open and looked at the total. Not that he needed to. He knew the exact amount: $179.36.
Eleven dollars from next month’s pay would take him to $190.36.
Another eleven dollars from the following month would push him past the magical two-hundred-dollar mark.
Two hundred dollars meant freedom.
Two hundred dollars meant escape.
He gazed up at one of the few pictures on his wall: an 1850s etching of Anacapa Island. Sheer, wild cliffs banked downward to the Pacific Ocean. It was the sort of illustration he loved to draw for the unalloyed pleasure of it, but had shown his efforts only to his Aunt Wilda.
He retrieved a cardboard tube from under the bed, popped open its lid, and coaxed out the sheet of paper coiled inside. Anchoring it on his desk with four large stones he’d found on Brighton Beach, he ran a flattened palm across it and examined his progress.
He had drawn Montauk at the far end of Long Island a bunch of times, always the same composition: Fisher Tower rising eight stories on the far left, the Montauk lighthouse on the right. And in the dead center, a huge bonfire lighting up the shore.
He selected a charcoal strip from the shoebox and shaded the flames licking the sky, brushing the paper in light, upward strokes, giving them depth and intensity. He worked at them until the aroma of meatloaf filtered into his room. He figured he had at least fifteen minutes before he had to return downstairs and face the hollering hordes. Once, just once, wouldn’t it be nice to sit down to a family dinner where nobody raised their voice? Pipe dream, Luke told himself. Nothing but a pipe dream.
He reinserted the drawing into its tube and returned it under the bed. Back at his desk, he opened the drawer and withdrew a secondhand map he’d discovered at a junk store. He unfolded it and ran a finger along the fancy lettering at the top:
DETAILED MAP OF LONG ISLAND,
NEW YORK STATE, 1937
“Nearly there, bucko. Eight more weeks.”
He picked up a pencil and drew a small lighthouse at Eaton’s Neck, Shinnecock, and Fire Island. He shifted the map until Montauk sat in front of him. Gripping the pencil more tightly, he sketched another lighthouse, much larger than the other three. It allowed him to include more detail, like the windows in the two-story house at the base and the thick band of dark paint striping the middle of the lighthouse itself.
Mom’s voice rang up the stairs. “Five minutes.”
He glanced at the book on his nightstand, then back at the map, and added an extra detail. To anyone else, it looked like a nondescript bird. But Luke knew it wasn’t just any old bird perched on top of the Montauk lighthouse. It was a falcon. More specifically, a Maltese falcon.
ALL THE GIN JOINTS is due for release JULY 2021
ALSO BY MARTIN TURNBULL:
Book 1 – The Garden on Sunset
Book 2 – The Trouble with Scarlett
Book 3 – Citizen Hollywood
Book 4 – Searchlights and Shadows
Book 5 – Reds in the Beds
Book 6 – Twisted Boulevard
Book 7 – Tinseltown Confidential
Book 8 – City of Myths
Book 9 – Closing Credits
Chasing Salomé: a novel on 1920s Hollywood
The Heart of the Lion: a novel of Irving Thalberg’s Hollywood
Connect with Martin Turnbull: