Thursday, April 30, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: Howard Hunt's House Dick

As a teenager in the 1960s I devoured crime fiction and thrillers. I bought hardbacks from the book clubs and I purchased a good number of paperbacks books from local bookstores.

I recall a second-hand bookstore where I picked up scores of vintage pulp paperbacks dating back to the 1940s and 1950s. With their lurid covers depicting guns, gore and girls, the novel’s atmosphere was established well before you turned to page one.

So I was pleased to discover that entrepreneur and author Charles Ardai, along with fellow author Max Philips, established Hard Case Crime, which publishes a line of affordable paperback crime novels that hearken back to that golden age of tough guy heroes, femme fatales and brutal bad guys.

Hard Case Crime offers the old classics of crime, from Philadelphia’s own David Goodis to Ed McBain, to modern crime writers like Lawrence Block and the recently deceased Donald E. Westlake. I love the book covers, which feature pulp art from the post-WWII era.

Crime novels were enormously popular from WWII to the 1960s, “but the pulp novels that first captured the public’s imagination weren’t hardcovers,” Hard Case Crime states on its web site “They were paperbacks you could fit in your back pocket, with jaw-dropping cover paintings and bare-knuckled prose that grabbed you by the collar with the first sentence and held you until the last page. No one’s published books like that in years — until now.”

One of the Hard Case Crime novels I read was E. Howard Hunt’s House Dick. Although today Hunt is known primarily as one of the Nixon White House “plumbers” who engineered the botched Watergate Hotel burglary, he was also a prolific writer of crime stories and spy thrillers.

Hunt served in the U.S. Navy and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in WWII, and he later joined the CIA when it was created to replace the wartime OSS. He served in a variety of outposts around the world and he was involved in many of the CIA’s history-making actions.

After he retired from the CIA Hunt went to work for Nixon’s special investigation unit. The unit was tasked with “plugging” the many leaks to the press — hence the name “the White House plumbers.”

Along with G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent, Hunt hired a handful of Cuban-Americans to break into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D. C. and plant listening devices. They were caught in the act and the rest is history. (I recall a Red Foxx joke from the 1970s — “I call my wife Watergate because she bugs me.”)

Hunt served 33 months in federal prison and he died in 2007. His last book was a memoir called American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond.

There has been much speculation about Hunt’s involvement in President Kennedy’s assassination and that conspiracy theory was fueled by none other than Hunt’s old adversary, the KGB.

According to The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archives, the KGB fabricated a letter from Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (yes, Virginia, Oswald did indeed killed Kennedy), to Hunt.

The New York Times authenticated the letter (ha!) and even Oswald’s widow believed it was his handwrtting. But we now know the KGB wrote the letter, as they wanted to foster the conspiracy theory that the CIA was behind the murder of the president, rather than a nitwit who admired Castro and had defected to the Soviet Union for two years.

The Mitrokhin Archives, written by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, is the official history of the Soviet Union’s intelligence agency and secret police, the KGB. Mitrokhin was the KGB’s chief archivist and he smuggled copies of the files out, several sheets at a time wrapped in his socks and other hiding places. He eventually defected to the British, bringing his mother load of KGB files with him.

Hunt didn’t have anything to do with President Kennedy’s murder, as he was too busy writing about murder and high crimes. While serving in the U.S. government Hunt wrote some 50 novels, including his crime novel House Dick in 1961.

Originally published under the name Gordon Davis (like a good spy), Hunt wrote a novel about a Washington D. C. hotel detective named Pete Novak. In the course of his duties in the hotel (no, not the Watergate), Novak encounters a small time hood, his beautiful and tough ex-wife, a rich couple from out of state, and a sham-doctor who pushes herbal tea laced with mind-altering drugs.

When the rich wife reports her jewels stolen from her hotel room, Novak becomes involved in mystery, romance, robbery and murder. He comes to the aid of the hood’s ex-wife when he believes she has been framed for murder.

When she questions whether his actions bend his professional ethics, Novak replies “After what I did for you last night, my ethics show more curves than a pretzel.”

Novak works with, and sometimes ducks, a tough, world-weary homicide detective, who calls the hotel “a mattress factory.”

Hunt is a good crime writer, but he falls short of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. No crime in that, I suppose.

So if you want to read a good, vintage crime novel, along with some soft jazz and hard liquor, check out Howard Hunt’s House Dick, as well as some of the other Hard Case Crime books.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My On Crime & Security Column: Operations Security, OPSEC, For Businesses posted my On Crime & Security column today.

The column covered Operations Security, or OPSEC:

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: John Walker's Life As A Notorious Navy Spy

John Walker may very well be the most damaging of all the Cold War spies.

The retired Navy warrant officer was arrested in 1985, the year known as “The Year of the Spy,” because of the number of spy arrests that year.

Walker was arrested for selling classified information to the Soviet Union for 18 years. Walker was known in the trade as a “walk-in,” as he began his life as a spy by entering the Soviet embassy in Washington D.C. and offering his services. He later recruited his best friend, his brother and his son to join in his spy ring.

Walker gave away the keys to the kingdom of naval communications: key cards used for enciphering messages and encryption devices. The U.S. Navy estimates that more than one million classified military and intelligence agency messages were compromised by Walker. The Soviets were able to read vital American communications during a time of war. Had the U.S. gone to nuclear war with the Soviet Union, Walker’s security breech would have had been catastrophic.

I have a particular interest in the Walker spy case, as I served as a young seaman in the radio communications division aboard the USS Kitty Hawk when the aircraft carrier conducted combat operations off the coast of Vietnam in 1970-1971.

The Kitty Hawk served as the flag ship for Task Force 77, so we handled highly classified war traffic for the 7th Fleet, the in-country military commands, the CIA, and other alphabet intelligence agencies. Little did we know that much of what we took great pains to protect was already blown by Walker.

It is my view — a view shared by many others who served in the military — that Walker’s espionage led to the death of many American sailors, soldiers, airman and marines during the Vietnam War.

Despite personal animosity, I was curious to read Walker's autobiography, My Life as a Spy: One of America's Most Notorious Spies Finally Tells His Story.

The book is of interest primarily as a case study of a spy, best read in conjunction with other books on Walker. In his book Walker cites his reasons for spying as (a) to bring about an improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations with a view towards reducing the prospect of war, (b) his disgust with U.S. government deception, the Cold War fraud and covert misadventures, (c) adventure and (d) the psychological pressure of a failed marriage.

He fails to mention greed or his enormous ego, the two prime motives for espionage that are, it seems to me, much closer to the truth. Now serving a life sentence in federal prison, Walker has written a self-serving book, a book that is pure spin.

We had another name for it when I was in the Navy.

Walker recounts his life like it’s an adventure story rather than a tragedy. He damaged national security, destroyed his family, and in my view, he caused the deaths of American servicemen in Vietnam.

Walker was a well-rated sailor who rose quickly up the enlisted ranks to become a warrant officer. He claims his dismal marriage to an alcoholic wife and a mistrust of the U.S. government led him to steal secrets and sell them to the Soviets. He later drew his son, brother and best friend into a life of espionage and betrayal.

In 1985, “The Year of the Spy,” his ex-wife reported him to the FBI and he was arrested in a Maryland motel after making a “dead-drop” of classified documents at a nearby roadside.

Walker made a deal with the government in which he testified against his friend, Navy Chief Petty Officer Jerry Whitworth (whom he recruited to spy for him) and he agreed to reveal what he gave to the Soviets in exchange for a lesser sentence for his son (who he recruited to spy for him).

On November 6, 1986, John Walker was sentenced to two life terms plus ten years to be served concurrently. His son was sentenced to 25 years.

The book is interesting in a perverse way, but one should keep in mind that Walker is a habitual liar. He is also proud of his criminal deeds. At one point in the book, he grins to himself and thinks “If they only knew.”

Walker states that he didn’t like the James Bond movies, finding them to be Hollywood fantasies, but then he states he thought of Bond when he was with a blond only hours after a secret meeting with the KGB. But be serious, Walker was hardly James Bond.

He claims to have written the book for his children, but in the book he often brags of female conquests. He says he was concerned for his children and tried to protect them from his abusive wife, but he talked his son into committing espionage, and talked him right into federal prison. He also attempted to draw his daughter into the spy ring.

Walker sees himself as a glamorous spy, but he was in fact merely an unattractive and weaselly sneak thief. He stole classified documents and sold them to the Soviets in order to live a more prosperous lifestyle.

The book will interest students of espionage and history, but it ought to be read after one reads other books on Walker, such as former FBI Special Agent Robert Hunter's Spy Hunter: Inside the Walker Espionage Case, and journalist Pete Earley's Family of Spies: Inside the John Walker Spy Ring.

Note:  The above column originally appeared at

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

My On Crime & Security Column: Be On Guard While Online

In my new On Crime & Security column for Businessknowhow, I note that the Defense Department reported that in the last six months they have spent more than $100 million responding to cyber attacks and repairing the damage caused by intrusions to the military's networks.

To read more about cyber threats to the Defense Department, and how the average computer user can protect themselves from cyber criminals go to: 

Monday, April 6, 2009

My American Crime Column: Murdered By Mumia, Widow of Slain Philadelphia Policeman Fights On posted my column on Maureen Faulkner's book, Murdered by Mumia: A Life Sentence of Loss, Pain and Injustice (Lyons Press), today.

You can read the column via the below link:

Maureen Faulkner is the widow of Philadelphia police officer Danny Faulkner, who was murdered by Mumia Abu Jamal in 1981.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: In the Shadow of the Master, Classic Edgar Allan Poe Tales and Essays From Today's Leading Crime Writers

I’ve been a student of crime since I was a 12-year-old aspiring writer growing up in South Philadelphia in the 1960s.

I devoured crime fiction and thrillers. I read, and reread, Ian Fleming, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ed McBain, and of course, Edgar Allen Poe.

Poe’s bicentennial celebration was this past January — he was born on January 19, 1809 — and to honor the inventor of the detective story and the master of mystery and the macabre, the Mystery Writers of America put together an anthology of Poe’s classic work intermingled with essays written by today’s leading crime and mystery writers.

Since their inception in 1945 the Mystery Writers of America, an organization for mystery writers and other professionals dedicated to the field of crime writing, have held Poe up to be their symbol of excellence. Their annual award for the best mystery and crime novel, TV program, film and other categories, is a bust of Poe called the Edgar.

Edited by Michael Connelly, In the Shadow of the Master (William Morrow) contains some of my favorite Poe stories, including The Tell-Tale Heart and The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

The book also offers essays by Stephen King, Nelson DeMille, Laura Lippman, Lisa Scottoline, and others.

“Gathered here with his most notable works are the long and short thoughts of those who followed Poe — the writers who directly or not so directly have taken inspiration from him,” Connelly wrote in the introduction.

“The idea is simple. This is a birthday party,” Connelly explained. “The twenty guests invited here by the Mystery Writers of America have come to honor Edgar Allen Poe on his two hundredth birthday. We celebrate his work, and we celebrate all that his work has wrought.”

Poe was the mad genius who started it all in the genre of mystery fiction, Connelly tells us, and he goes on to state that Poe’s influence in other genres and fields of entertainment –- from poetry to music to film –- is incalculable.

Connelly notes that the bestseller lists, movie charts, and TV ratings are today dominated by the mystery genre and its many offshoots.

Connelly’s essay in the book recounts how he was spooked by what he initially believed was a gun shot and scream outside his hotel room as he was reading Poe’s morose and haunting work. He came to realize the noise was only the slamming of another hotel room door, and that he had come under the spell of Poe.

Connelly recreated the scene in his crime novel The Poet. The novel is a grisly homage to Poe, as the serial killer character leaves phrases from Poe’s poetry and prose at the murder scenes.

The Poet is a good thriller and Connelly will soon release a continuation novel called The Scarecrow. I look forward to reading it, and writing about it here in a future column.

In horror master Stephen King’s essay he tells us that he is often asked what scares him, and he replies that almost everything scares him, from express elevators to very tall buildings to the idea of a zealot loose in one of the great cities of the world. But when asked what works of fiction scared him, he replies William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.

“Most people know that Poe invented the modern detective story (Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is in many ways the same detective as Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin), but few are aware that he also created the first work of criminal sociopathy in The Tell-Tale Heart, a story originally published in 1843,” King wrote.

“Many great writers of the twentieth century, from Jim Thompson and John D. McDonald to Thomas Harris (who in Hannibal Lecter may have created the greatest sociopath of them all), are the children of Poe.”

Nelson DeMille recalls the B-movies based on Poe’s stories that our generation grew up on, Lisa Scottoline confesses that she only read Poe after winning an Edgar, and then found the stories to be compelling, especially William Wilson, and Joseph Wambaugh offers a clever parody of Poe’s poem The Raven, called Rantin' and Ravin'.

T. Jefferson Parker recalls reading Poe as a child and how some of the stories unsettled him.

“What they taught me was this: there is darkness in the hearts of men; there are consequences of that darkness; those consequences will crash down upon us here in this life,” Parker wrote.

“They taught me that words can be beautiful and mysterious and full of truth.”

I enjoyed reading the essays and rereading Poe, although I fear that, like Michael Connelly, I’ll hear a gunshot and scream outside my bedroom door tonight.

My gun will be under my pillow.