Steve Bassett - Intense Drama in 1946 Newark
Steve Bassett was born and raised in Newark’s crime-ridden Third Ward and, although far removed during a career as an award-winning journalist, he has always been proud of the sobriquet Jersey Guy. He has been legally blind for more than a decade but hasn’t let this slow him down. He received three Emmys for investigative documentaries, and the California Bar Association’s Medallion Award for Distinguished Reporting on the Administration of Justice. Polish on his mother’s side and Montenegrin on his father’s, with grandparents who spoke little or no English, his early outlook was ethnic and suspicious. It was a world in which cabbage, potatoes, sausage, and heavy homemade dumplings reigned. As a very young boy, he witnessed the second Great Migration of Blacks from the South and how the war-time jobs had disappeared, leaving behind joblessness, poverty, and growing crime. A social and economic pandemic emerged but was largely ignored amid the euphoria of WWII victory, an incessant class and racist virus even more widespread today. He has written two non-fiction books and the first two multiple award-winning novels of his Passaic River Trilogy, “Father Divine’s Bikes” and “Payback-Tales of Love, Hate and Revenge.” He lives in Placitas, New Mexico with his wife, Darlene Chandler Bassett. As our Author of the Day, Bassett tells us all about Payback.
Please give us a short introduction to what Payback is about.
Payback – Tales of Love, Hate and Revenge, the second book of my noir Passaic River Trilogy, was launched last December is already the winner of the 2020 Reader Views Literary Award Mystery/Thriller. It is a drama so intense that it would be improbable anywhere but 1946 Newark. Across the country, millions were dealing with the loss of loved ones, and horrible memories were being buried for the greater good. But not in Newark. Two mutilated bodies were pulled from the putrid Passaic River, and the sawed-off arm of a third man was found neatly wrapped and tied at the city dump. The victims were members of the German-American Bund, Hitler lovers who had to pay the price for supporting a murderous madman. Someone was sending a message that only revenge could clear the mind and free the soul. Two homicide cops quickly realize they are in over their heads as they grapple with ambition, greed, racial tension, international intrigue, and a powerful church on the take.
Payback is the sequel to my award-winning Father Divine’s Bikes whose awards include the 2018 Solo Medalist Winner in the E-Book General Fiction category of New Apple Fifth Annual Indie Book Awards; 2018 Finalist International Book Awards (American Book Fest) in Genre Fiction; and 2018 Finalist Best Book Awards (American Book Fest) in General Fiction.
What inspired you to set your story in 1946 Newark?
Newark in the years before and after World War II was both the literal and metaphorical urban locale that experienced the beginning of the racial and ethical pandemic that started to sweep the country. Today we are suffering the consequences with no end in sight. Police brutality had become endemic as the count of blacks killed by cops continued to grow. These blend with gruesome predictability the vast majority of these claims occur in impoverished neighborhoods torn apart by joblessness, poverty, and crime.
Was there anything in particular that inspired you to write this book?
In 1967, Newark was devastated by one of the deadliest race riots during that turbulent decade. More than twenty persons were killed and entire neighborhoods reduced to ashes, including the one where I grew up. Shortly after the riot, I took time off from my job as Urban Affairs investigative reporter for the Associated Press in San Francisco to revisit my boyhood haunts. When I walked up Springfield Avenue, I was sickened by what I saw. Everything was gone. All that remained were vacant lots where there were once scores of prosperous black businesses, all had gone up in flames. That’s when the seed for my Passaic River Trilogy took birth.
You, yourself were born and raised in Newark. how many of your own experiences did you write into the story?
Many. I have never lost sight of my roots. Yeah, I spent 35 years as an itinerant news scribbler for three newspapers, the AP and CBS television news, but I’ve always been proud of the sobriquet “Jersey Guy.” Polish on my mother’s side and Montenegrin on my father’s, with grandparents who spoke little or no English, my early outlook was ethnic and suspicious. As a very young boy, I witnessed the second Great Migration of Blacks from the South and how the war-time jobs had disappeared, leaving behind joblessness, poverty, and growing crime. This was fertile ground for the birth and nurturing of a young iconoclast like me.
Why does revenge play such a central role in this story?
The setting is 1946 when the euphoria of WWII victory became dimmer each week that the post-War joblessness and hopelessness increased and my family’s concern, like many others, addressed the question of why the hell did we fight the war in the first place. These concerns grew into hatred when it became obvious that Uncle Sam was taking extraordinary steps to rehabilitate Germany, Japan, and Italy, while thousands of returning Veterans returned home to firetrap tenements, a shrinking job market and asked the question, “Is this what I put my life on the line for?” The Fascists responsible for the war had to pay the price for the millions of deaths they had caused. So who should we go after? In my book, I create a revenge-seeking madman who singled out former members of the German-American Bund, Hitler lovers who had to pay the price for supporting a murderous tyrant. And the grotesque murders began.
How has Newark changed since 1946?
Sad to say, or should I say very sad to say, not very much. After the riots of 1967, racism just didn’t go away because the problem had risen to where bloodshed was the consequence. You don’t have to look any further than the results of a three-year federal investigation of the Newark Police released in 2014 that concluded in no uncertain terms that the cops on the street were racist and brutal. This was shown in how they handled routine traffic stops and minor crime that involved Blacks, especially Black males. Surprise, surprise. The same rough handling was not used on whites in similar circumstances.
Does the book contain an underlying message? What do you hope readers will take away from it?
As I’ve already said, we’ve all got to pay attention to what’s happening around them, and even though it might not directly affect you, don’t kick our urban problems under the rug. This especially pertains to our local and regional public officials. We put the blinders on in 1946, and if we want to be honest, we haven’t taken them off. Hugh Addonizio, a native of Newark’s mafia controlled North Ward, is an example of how deep official hypocrisy and corruption can sap moral outrage from the very sinew of a city. A seven-term Congressman, Addonizio stepped down in 1962 to run for mayor on a platform to rid the city of City Hall corruption. In 1969, two years after Newark’s bloody race riots, he was indicted for extorting kickbacks from city contractors. He was sentenced in 1970 to ten years in prison and fined $25,000. Mayoral corruption comes with the territory in many American cities. Catherine Pugh stepped down as Baltimore mayor in 2019 after it was learned that she coerced City schools to use the children’s book she had authored as an official text, pocketing the profits. Later in 2019, she was charged with tax evasion, fraud, and conspiracy and sentenced to three years in jail. Hell, It’s pretty damn easy what has to be done, keep your eyes open, ask questions no matter who’s toes you step on, and most of all, VOTE.
Readers say you have a highly descriptive, thoughtful writing style. Why do you take this approach?
I did not want my book to be a sanitized version of history. In 1946, political-correctness was nowhere on the horizon, and if it were, the denizens of inner-city Newark would have said, “Go to hell” to the purveyors of PC self-righteousness. Sure, much of the dialogue and situations are offensive, gruesome murders are just that – gruesome and bloody. Adultery ain’t pretty. And when a husband hands out punches during his marriage, he leaves behind a wife with a puffy face, bruises and a split lip that beg for a truthful description no matter how upsetting. I want my readers to be more than disturbed, I want them to be outraged by what is said and done in “Payback.”
Payback describes exactly how the underworld in the Jersey area worked. How much research has this book required from you?
I believe this is a good point for me to mention that I have been legally blind for more than a decade and require a galaxy of visual and voice-activated computer assistance in order to continue as an author. I’ve had an assistant living in California, more than 700 miles from my home in New Mexico, and we communicate by Skype. Research for the book and completion of the final draft, slow in coming, and the final edit required three and a half years. In order to describe the inner workings of the mob at that time accurately required intensive research, especially with how the Lucky Luciano family operated in northern New Jersey. Richie “the Boot” Boiardo, the Italian mafia boss in Newark, was constantly fighting to keep control of the city out of the hands of Stefano Badami, the Mafia kingpin in much of New Jersey. Despite a rash of murders, Badami was never able to orchestrate a takeover.
The story contains quite some twists and turns. Did you plan it all out before you started writing, or did some of it just "happen" along the way?
This is an easy one. A good portion of the research that I’ve just described was also necessary for “Father Divine’s Bikes,” the first book of my Passaic River Trilogy. So I had the luxury to have on hand files of research that only had to be modified and expanded to fit into the Payback narrative. Not bad, wouldn’t you say?
What are you writing right now?
It’s the third book of my trilogy, which I hope will give readers a different slant on how, what I can only describe as muscular feminism, was given wings immediately after WWII. Like the first two books of the series, it is an historical noir crime thriller. Readers will see through the eyes of my character how the pre-war world had changed forever, that women who had done very well in mens' jobs, were not about to go back to a subservient, male-dominated world. Launch date expected in 2021.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?