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No Experience Needed: by Warren Bull
Luckily crime writing is not like method acting. Direct experience is not required. That does not mean all writers have been angels for their entire lifetimes.
While working as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, Jack Boyle became an opium addict. He fell into crime including kiting checks and robbery. Boyle was serving a term in San Quentin prison when he created the character of Boston Blackie. First published in 1914, for his first stories Boyle used the pen name of “No.6066.”
When Boston Blackie began to find success on the silver screen, Boyle edited the stories into a book, Boston Blackie (1919) by revising and rearranging the order of the stories to create a cohesive narrative—a common practice at the time known in publishing as a fixup, that I have used too. This was the only time the character of Boston Blackie was presented in a book format. But Boyle continued to write short stories about him.
The earliest Boston Blackie film adaptations were silent movies dating from 1918 to 1927. Columbia Pictures picked up the character in 1941 with Meet Boston Blackie. Chester Morris starred and Robert Florey directed the 58-minute-long B movie that was well received and started a series.
In the action/comedy features, Boston Blackie is played as a reformed jewel thief who is always suspected when a daring crime is committed. In order to clear himself, he investigates personally and brings the actual culprit to justice, sometimes using disguises. Blackie could be charming or dangerous depending on the situation. There was an ensemble cast of veteran actors and up-and-coming new stars including Dorothy Malone, Nina Foch, Forest Tucker, and Lloyd Bridges. New directors got a chance to show their talents. The series continued until 1949.
Edward Bunker, actor and author can be seen in quite a few films including (The Longest Yard, Tango & Cash, Animal Factory, and Reservoir Dogs to name a few.) His criminal record is even more impressive than his acting. He destroyed his neighbor’s generator with a hammer when he was three before burning the same neighbor’s garage down at age four. By age 17, he was locked up in Los Angeles County Jail. There he stabbed a guard and escaped. Recaptured, he was sent to San Quentin prison becoming the youngest inmate they’d ever had. A record he apparently still holds.
Placed in solitary confinement near the cell of a notorious killer and rapist named Caryl Chessman, who was, himself, already a published writer of some repute, Bunker became fascinated by the idea of telling stories and decided to try writing himself. After 18 years of crime both in and out of jail Bunker ended up in Folsom prison, still working on his writing. After 12 rejections, he finally managed to publish his novel, No Beast So Fierce, while still incarcerated. His novel was adapted into the 1978 movie Straight Time, with Dustin Hoffman playing a character who is a loose version of the author. Bunker was given a small role in the film you can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94vZQO1rc2s&ab_channel=rudeboynoah
Bunker went on to write several best sellers, wrote and produced a few movies, and acted in a number of film roles. Director, Quentin Tarantino apparently saw Straight Time back when he still worked in a video store.
Jimmy Boyle, a gangster from Glasgow, while hiding out in London with the protection of the notorious Kray twins, was arrested in 1967 for the murder of a fellow gangster named Babs Roonewhile. Boyle protested that he was innocent of Babs Roonewhile’s murder but he was duty-bound not to snitch on the real killer. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
At Barlinnie Prison in Scotland prisoners were allowed a voice in how the prison was run. They were encouraged to express themselves artistically. In 1977, Boyle wrote his first book, a thinly disguised autobiographical novel called Sense of Freedom. The book described Boyle’s harsh upbringing on the streets of Glasgow, his first forays into crimes, and his eventual redemption after discovering art and literature in jail. The Sun later called him “Scotland’s Most Notorious Murderer.”
Three years after the novel’s release, Boyle married a psychiatrist who’d arranged to meet him after reading it. He received parole in 1982 and hasn’t been back in prison since. Boyle is now a successful novelist and sculptor whose work, in 1999, sold for about £10,000.
For more details and to find out about other criminals who became authors check out the links below:
You’ve found some very colorful backstories, Warren.
Very interesting, Warren.
Wow – now that’s research carried a bit too far! I remember listening to Tales of Boston Blackie on my transistor radio when I was a child. I don’t think the show was in production anymore, but they were a staple of late-night radio in the New York City area.
Fascinating. I've known a few convicted felons who established impressive, sometimes creative, lives, but no authors.
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