“It’s the summer of 1894, and an infidelity case has brought Private Investigator Mary Handley to a far corner of Brooklyn: Coney Island. In the midst of her investigation, Mary is contacted by a convicted man’s brother to reopen a murder case. A prostitute was killed by a Jack the Ripper copycat years ago in her New York hotel room, but her true killer was never found. Once again it’s up to Mary to make right the city’s wrongs.”
From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles about one of New York City’s first female detectives, Mary Handley, comes this third late-1800s, Brooklyn-based murder mystery, written by Lawrence H. Levy. The third book is aptly called Last Stop in Brooklyn as a reference to Coney Island, which was back then a far ride from the city and a place for people to have fun, go on rides, and even stay at an elephant-shaped hotel!
We hopped on the phone with Lawrence H. Levy to learn more about the Mary Handley character, Brooklyn in the late 1800s, and his inspiration for the books.
As an American TV and film writer and producer known for titles such as Saved by the Bell, 7th Heaven, Roseanne, and Seinfeld, what inspired you to write a book series?
“A while back I was helping my son for a school project, and found out about the Edison Tesla problem and Goodrich murders (which are real cases in this fictional book series) through old Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles. Reading about it, I found that the Brooklyn Police Department hired a woman, namely Mary Handley, to solve the murder.”
After reading more about Mary Handley, the cases she worked on and how she was ahead of her time in the way she handled prejudice towards women, Levy was intrigued and began creating fictional characteristics to make Mary Handley come to life. As Mary’s character grew more and more into a strong-headed Irish woman solving crimes in all corners of Brooklyn, Levy fell more and more in love with the character.
What was the biggest challenge switching from TV and film to book writing?
“In television and film, you have to depend on the actors to get a message across, but in a book you get to choose this, and it is your decision. Because of the commercial breaks in TV writing, you write with cliffhangers to continue coming back after ads, and in books this is done with chapters.”
How do you make these mystery crime books such page-turners?
“The most important things in all writing comes back down to “bedtime stories” and how they make you wonder what happens next. However, on TV you don’t have time for extraneous stuff, while in a book you can add extra things, but I don’t want to read descriptions for pages, so I do it effectively in a few sentences.”
Brooklyn looked a whole lot different in the late 1800s, so how did you do research to find out what the borough looked, sounded and smelled like in this time period?
“I did a lot of research for language, what words that were used, and Merriam Webster says when this word is used. I then checked the words against the timelines of the words in the lines I was writing for the characters. Being inspired by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles about the Tesla and Goodrich crimes that Mary Handley was working on, going down a rabbit hole of articles of the time also helped me paint a picture of what Brooklyn used to be like.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Levy used to go to Coney Island with his parents, recalling it as if it was a trip to Disneyland. In Handley’s days, Coney Island looked quite different, Levy explains, with high levels of segregation, and a so-called “anti-everything man” who owned two hotels in Coney Island at the time. Inspired by Handley’s obvious dislike and disbelief in xenophobia and segregation through the articles he read, Levy said it was interesting looking back at what Coney Island (and the United States) once was, and how that has shaped the neighborhood throughout the years.
So, who is Mary and what are the three stories about?
“She was a powerful woman way before this time of female independence and strength, and while she lived a long time ago, the topics covered in the books are still relevant today. From feminism and racism, to crime and political tension, the three books all cover these topics from Brooklyn’s first female detective’s perspective. No one knows who she truly was, but the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote a lot about her cases, so she was real, but her characteristics are fictional.
In the first book, she deals with the infamous Goodrich murder, which she actually worked on, and in the second and third books, she is a private investigator on her own and these stories are not based on her experiences, but real life crimes, real life politicians, and the 1 percent was a thing back then, too.”
What are some of the most interesting things you learned while doing research about Brooklyn in this time period?
“One of the coolest things I learned was that there was an elephant shaped hotel in Coney Island at the time. However, I think one of the most interesting historical facts were that Thomas Edison had a dark side, where his notes were found saying that “the deed is done” and he had said he could go ahead with his movie camera. This was, most likely, referring to the disappearance of a Frenchman on a train in Europe who was on his way to get a patent for his movie camera!”
In collaboration with Crown Publishing, we are raffling off 10 Last Stop in Brooklyn books between February 26 and March 26!