In August 1930, New York Supreme Court Justice Joe Crater, a stalwart of the corrupt New York City political machine, got into a taxi cab in Manhattan and disappeared. Was he killed by his political associates or did he escape the urban grind? The novelist Peter Quinn explores Judge Crater and his mythology is his lush novel “The Man Who Never Returned”(Overlook, $25),
The novel is set in 1955, where the private detective and war hero Fintan Dunne is called out of retirement to find out what happened to Crater, the ultimate cold case. Amid the shallow postwar consumerism, Dunne digs into the dirty secrets of New York City’s rampant Roaring Twenties political corruption and sexual exploitation, followed by the Depression that destroyed its financial excesses. Was it an angry showgirl who did in the lecherous Crater or was it the Mob? In Quinn’s taut literary thriller, Dunne starts to unravel what may have happened to Crater, knowledge that may end in his own violent death.
Quinn, 63, is the acclaimed author of two previous novels, “Banished Children of Eve” and “Hour of the Cat,” and spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a bar in midtown Manhattan.
Q. What was the situation in New York and America in 1930?
A. The stock market crashed in October 1929. There was a feeling that something had happened, but people didn’t know it was a Depression yet. One of the reasons that Crater’s memory lasted so long was that the summer of 1930 was when the lights really went out, and people realized that this was not just a panic that was going to pass.
Q. What is your family’s association with Judge Crater?
A. My father got out of college in 1926. He worked on building the New York subways and went to Fordham Law School at night. Carter lectured there and my father had heard Crater speak. At the end of my father’s life, I was a court officer and he was a judge in Manhattan. I was up in his chambers. My father had lung cancer at the time, but didn’t know it, and could be quite melancholy. He said to me, “I hear these were once Judge Crater’s chambers.” As a kid, it was a standard joke, “Judge Crater, call your office.”
Q. How did Judge Crater become part of American mythology?
A. Crater’s story is both threatening and liberating at the same time. Was he murdered in New York or did he get over the Hudson River and keep going? Crater was sighted around the country and seen in hobo camps. There were two million men on the road in 1930, 1932, and thousands of those were formally prosperous men, in suits and shirts with frayed collars. It’s a great American myth that Crater had had it with the uptight judge’s life and he’s this happy hobo now.
(Have you seen this man?)
Q. In your novel, you take liberties with history and you frame the Crater case as a thriller. Why?
A. I had originally thought that I wanted to write a history (of Judge Crater’s disappearance), but it was the same thing with my first novel, that I gave up with history because I realized that you can only go so far. We are never going to come to a definitive answer of what happened to Judge Crater, unless a corpse is turned up. Crater is one of the great cold cases.
It took me 10 years to finish my first novel. For relief, I read Raymond Chandler. I realized that he wasn’t writing detective fiction. Chandler was writing American literature. I am more in thrall of my detective Fintan Dunne than in thriller writing. The story is partially about Fintan coming to terms with his own mortality. Fintan is actually a detective whose final conclusion is that not everything has to be known.