I suspect you’re wondering why I would title a blog post The Dead Man in the Pearl Gray Hat. Or what if anything it has to do with my series of posts about my historical mystery, The Big Dive. Let me explain.
The title is the name of my first short story ever to be published, this month in Mystery Weekly (here and here). Yeah, I’m pretty excited.
My protagonist is a freelance crime photographer named Weegee. Sound familiar? He was a real person, New York City’s most famous crime photographer from the mid-1930s to mid-1940s.
A stogie-chomping, unattractive man, he stalked the city at night photographing thousands of auto accidents, suicides, fires, murder victims (the heydays of the mob wars), and every other conceivable form of mayhem he could document with his 4x5 Speed Graphic.
He sold his often grizzly photos to the city’s numerous tabloids, a routine that inspired the plot in my short story.
How Did Weegee Get his Strange Name?
There is a tenuous connection in all this to my Joe Stryker novels. Weegee inspired one of the characters in the books, a Denver crime reporter—both ally and nuisance to Joe. He always carries a Speed Graphic because staff photographers are never around when he needs them.
Like the real Weegee, my reporter arrives at crimes scenes almost before the police do. Which is how Weegee came by his unusual name (I’ll explain in a second). Another habit I riff on in my short story.
Weegee was born Usher Fellig in what is now Ukraine, part of a Jewish family who immigrated to America in 1910 (where Usher became Arthur). He stumbled his way into crime photography. He became so good, and got to crime scenes and fires so fast, he adopted the nickname Weegee, a human Ouija board.
It became the only name he would answer to. He stamped the back of his 8x10 black and white prints with Weegee the Famous.
It was a hardscrabble living, with late hours and low pay. But Weegee became famous. If it’s possible to raise crime photography to an art, he did. And he excelled in social-commentary photographs as well, though he would never call them that.
While his photos were splashed across front pages of throw-away newspapers, his best work hangs or has been exhibited in well-known museums around the world.
His most famous collection of photographs was published under the title Naked City. It inspired a movie by that name, and later a TV series. His persona also inspired movies, in particular Joe Pesci in The Public Eye.
As a hobbyist photographer, I’ve long been collecting research and brainstorming plot ideas for a novel with Weegee as an amateur detective. Maybe someday I’ll finish it. In the meantime, short stories will do.
While waiting for my future Weegee mystery, if you find him as fascinating as I have, read the excellent biography Flash: The Making of Weegee The Famous, by Christopher Bonanos (here).
My next post returns to a more sobering look at the day-in-the-life of the Japanese Americans imprisoned in Camp Amache and the other relocation camps.
Bruce Most is an award-winning mystery novelist and short-story writer. His latest novel, The Big Dive, is the sequel to the award-winning Murder on the Tracks, which features a street cop seeking redemption while investigating a string of murders in 1949 Denver. His award-winning Rope Burn involves cattle rustling and murder in contemporary Wyoming ranch country. Bonded for Murder and Missing Bonds features feisty Denver bail bondswoman, Ruby Dark.