Television dramatist Stirling Silliphant famously wrote that “there are eight million stories in the naked city.” Local author Burton Becker is out to prove that our city has a few million stories of its own, even if they are a bit more conservatively dressed. Becker has just published his fourth novel, Same Time Last Year, a detective story that takes place in a fictional city that local residents will find somewhat familiar. Becker has set each of his four published works in the urban milieu he understands best, a working class neighborhood not unlike the industrial district on the city’s south side. But you won’t find any references to existing local businesses, streets, or colorful characters in Becker’s literary world. He is careful to avoid mention of any actual landmarks or living persons. “I want people to recognize to what I am referring,” says Becker, “but I don’t want people in other cities or towns to feel that the story doesn’t apply to their own neighborhood.” Thus Whittingers Park becomes “Whitmann Park,” Mabel Tripp Gardens is transformed to “Fern Falls Arbor,” and the town’s real estate tycoon is “Howard Marlowe” instead of local icon Hugo Chandler.
“It’s a delicate balance,” says Becker. “My editor called me three months ago asking who this new ‘Chandler’ character was on page 229. I had to tell him he was ‘an honest mistake.’”
Becker spends most of his time at the library, or in the public records section of the City Hall Annex. “I think history is very important,” says Becker, “and the history of our city is truly fascinating.”
Thus careful readers will find cleverly veiled references to former mob boss Rory Sheehan, Livery District landmark The Legacy Diner and a criminal’s alibi that crumbles based on his ignorance of The Spaghetti Giant, or as he is known in Becker’s second novel “The Linguini Leviathan.”
“Sometimes I crack myself up,” acknowledges Becker, “and other times I change and re-change names until I find a pseudonym that’s just right.”
Many things have turned out right for the local author since 1999. His first city-based novel, Something to Die For published in 1995, was only a modest success, but his second book, the 1999 mystery novel The Shoe-In that introduced detective Simon ‘Spats’ Dugan, earned him a devoted cult following that helped push his third effort, Off the Beaten Track, to number 11 on the New York Times best-seller list. His current offering opens with ‘Spats’ Dugan buried six feet deep under Woodlawn Park (Elmwood Memorial Cemetery). Fortunately for Burton Becker, the novel itself opens a bit higher – on the best-seller list this week debuting at number 54.
And what’s next on this best-selling author’s plate? “Well, to be accurate, it’s ‘what’s in my mug,’” says Becker. “Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in Belgium Town, drinking beer and soaking up the local atmosphere.” And what has he learned in his time there that he can use? “Oh, you’ll have to read my next book,” he continues, “but clearly there’s something rotten in the state of…Denmark Town.”
– D. Andrews