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When Robert Dugoni opened up a scrapbook of his wife's attorney grandfather, it sent him into researching one of his cases and using it as a basis for his latest book, A Killing On The Hill. Set when The Depression and Prohibition overlap, the book follows a reporter covering the murder of an ex boxer where a speakeasy club owner ends up on trial for. Mr. Dugoni took a few questions about the book and setting.

SCOTT MONTGOMERY: You've said this story came out of a case for which your wife's grandfather was the defense attorney. What did you see in it that would make a good novel?

ROBERT DUGONI: Everything. A gangster killing at an illegal night club during the Great Depression. But what first caught my eye was Murder at the Pom Pom Nightclub on Profanity Hill. It just screamed story. The news clippings were not just about the killing, but about the dichotomy between thousands starving in Hooverville’s and the wealthy sneaking out late at night in their furs and diamonds and tuxedoes to eat lavish meals, drink forbidden alcohol, and toss dice on craps tables while orchestras played and singers sang. This story exposed this underbelly of Seattle, which both fascinated and disgusted the majority of its citizens.  

S.M.: What made you decide a young reporter both new to the job and Seattle was a good lead and guide to take the reader through everything?


R.D.: William Schumacher chose me more than I chose him. He came to me from the news clippings. I knew I needed someone on the outside, not part of the police, or the court system to tell the story objectively. I wanted someone unfamiliar with this world to paint it for the masses to read and learn about. At the same time, I wanted someone who was in a difficult position, who needed the job because the Great Depression had put him and his family in an incredibly precarious position. That tension is what pulls the reader through the story. 

S.M.: One thing I loved about the book was the focus you put on the actual writing of the newspaper stories, and we see many of the articles. Can you tell us how you approached those?

R.D.: Honestly, I just thought it would be really cool for readers to read what I was reading, the way that news articles were written back then. With multiple newspapers, the reporters were not just competing with one another to get the next story, they were competing to tell it in a compelling way that would attract readers to their articles instead of the competition’s. Without televisions, their jobs were much like novelists, to paint a picture for the reader to experience the trial as if they were sitting in the courtroom. 


S.M.: You worked as a reporter.  What were some of the main differences in journalism of that time?


R.D.: I wrote both fact-based articles and feature articles.  The feature articles I wrote could be more creative, more descriptive or, literary, if you will. Based on the dozens of articles I read from 1933, news reporting was closer in style to the feature pieces I wrote in the 1980s. Reporters really were painting pictures for the readers, who didn’t have television to watch the proceedings or see what the people looked like, what they wore, or to hear their manner of speech. Reporters from the 1930s had the dubious job of telling the facts, but doing so while giving the reader what Howard Phishbaum at the Seattle Daily Star called, “pizzazz.” 

S.M.: It seems like every city has their own prohibition era personality. How would you describe Seattle's?


R.D.: From the articles and books I read from that era, Seattle was a city divided. On one side you had people who wanted to ban all forms of vice from the downtown Seattle area. They were led by a powerful Presbyterian minister and his church. On the other side you had those who wanted Seattle open to vice and believed it provided the city with much needed revenue. The police were caught between the two worlds. They were sworn to uphold the law, but the law was fluid. What was a crime one day wasn’t a crime the next. So the police, who also struggled during the depression, took kickbacks and second jobs working for the underworld as bouncers and private security. They were chummy. It was said of Roy Olmstead, a former police lieutenant who became Seattle’s most successful and best-known bootlegger, that he commanded more police as a bootlegger than he ever had as a lieutenant.

S.M. You mentioned other cases you discovered in that scrapbook. Do you think there are any other stories for Shoe?

R.D.: I’d love to write more ‘Shoe’ stories, and as Howard Phishbaum tells him, “The news stops for no man. There’s always another story.” It was a fascinating time in Seattle, one marked by a lot of firsts. I hope I get to explore those moments, but I also have an obligation to get out books in my two on-going series, the Tracy Crosswhite police series and the Keera Duggan legal thriller series. Readers are waiting to read the next novels.


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