Hesh Kestin is an honors graduate of the Brooklyn streets, where he grew up across from the former headquarters of Murder Inc., Hesh reported on war, crime and terrorism in the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
Perhaps because I was once a working journalist [according to my wife an oxymoron] I have a thing for getting my facts right.
Of course, when I was stationed in London as European correspondent for Forbes this was seen by my British colleagues as something of a handicap –their stories were always so much better. But I was working for US media, which attempt [though don’t always succeed] to enforce the distinction between fact and fiction.
So setting out to write a novel set in 1963 New York, I fact-checked like crazy. When the manuscript was done I had corrected well over a hundred factoids, statements that I had been sure were true but –even though I had, as Shoeshine Cats might say, “personally” lived in New York in 1963—were on comparison to the historical record thoroughly baloney.
So proud was I of my own thoroughness I included this inane challenge in the novel’s preface:
So far as the author knows, the details of a vanished era in this book are all correct –but one. Find it if you can. And let me know via email@example.com.
Hubris they name turns out to be Hesh Kestin. For a novel Stephen King described as “just may be the best book you never read,” a lot of Americans did actually read it, a good many of them writing to me either suggesting a solution to the puzzle or demanding it. The suggested answers were not terribly good –and for good reason.
I’d expected my core readership to be New Yorkers or retired-to-Florida ex-New Yorkers who themselves “personally” had witnessed the city’s subtle interplay between cops and crooks –author’s note: the cops were the ones in the blue uniforms. I suspected these readers had themselves lived through the sexual revolution that had altered the horizontal life of a generation of Americans and Brits [the French just carried on as usual]. At readings there was always a tough old geezer standing up to ask: “Was Shoeshine Cats a made-up name for One-Ball Margolis? He also lived in a hotel on the Upper East Side and had a red Cadillac convertible.” Or: “My brother Irving was one of the crookedest cops around –is he in your book?”
Oddly these people did not throng to buy The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats. Instead twenty-somethings in places like Seattle and Dallas picked it up, not least because my novel, after all, was about a relatively innocent twenty-year old who happens to inherit a thriving criminal enterprise. For the nice kids this was, as one wrote to me, “great historical fiction.” How could such striplings find my intentional error? They couldn’t possibly know enough of the battle to control the Fulton Fish Market, the rise of black and Chinese racketeers, the proud-making infamy of the Jewish mobsters who had built Murder Inc. and, almost as an afterthought, Las Vegas. Sure, they may have heard of these things, but they hadn’t lived through them.
Consequently the errors they suggested weren’t errors at all, just suppositions drawn from too many hours viewing The Godfather films on late-night television.
Imagine my surprise then, in the first days of my novel’s UK launch, receiving this email:
My wife, [name redacted] thrust one of the first UK copies of The Iron Will into my hands last night. I just finished. Thank you.
[She] is far too modest to admit that she knows the answer to the $64,000 question you ask at the start of the book - I'm not. She suspects that Camelot wasn't on Broadway in November 1963. I think she's right.
What a wonderful, wonderful book.
Hmmm. Hadn’t I checked that one? I remember noting that Camelot, starring Richard Burton had played on Broadway in 1963. Alas, further checking now reveals that the show closed, after a two-year run, in January of that year. My book is set eleven months later.
So is that the intended error? Nope, because clearly it hadn’t been intended. Happily, our name-redacted but perspicacious English couple do get the prize for first real error caught [and in record time], but no cigar for catching the big fish.
In the interest then of Anglo-American solidarity, perhaps it’s time for a hint. Here it is: I could have fixed the error, but had I done so I would have had to delete or alter a character I really liked --readers tell me they like her as well. What, you want the page number, the line, the name of the character?
Oh, and of course to win this modest contest [the winner’s unredacted name to be announced on this very website] you’ve got to buy the book. Or, as Shoeshine Cats might suggest, “You could steal it. Personally.” Good luck.
Read SHOTS's review here