It’s been about a month since I finished editing my latest Ethan Benson manuscript, Full Live Rehearsal, and with all the time I have on my hands—thank you, Covid-19—I am already itching to begin writing my next Ethan Benson thriller. For those of you who know me, this won’t come as a big surprise. As a neurotic seventy year old, I am driven, industrious, and obsessed with writing, a maniac who can’t relax unless I’m working on a book. But what most of you don’t know is that my novels are all based on my life as a television journalist, and on the stories I investigated and sometimes produced. Live to Air is about a man wrongly accused. Live to Tape is about a serial killer with a secret. Live to the Network is about human trafficking and sexual exploitation. And my latest manuscript is about a female serial killer with a twist at the end that is downright shocking.
So what should I write about next? And what life experience will it mirror?
Well, as a producer at the ABC Newsmagazine 2020, I worked on a sidebar story linked to the 1984 Summer Olympics. At the time, my boss was a brilliant executive producer named Av Westin who had learned, probably from one of his west coast bureau chiefs, that the Crips and the Bloods, two notorious gangs in South Central LA, had put aside their turf war and banded together to rip off wealthy tourists who were expected to attend the games. I was summoned to Av’s office on the management floor of ABC News, where I was assigned to the story and then dispatched to Los Angeles to begin on sight research. I was thirty-four at the time and still trying to make a name for myself in television news, so I threw myself head over heels into learning as much as I could about the world of inner city gangs. I found a former gang member named Treetop who worked for a community watchdog group trying to keep the peace between the gangs, and spent several evenings driving around South Central getting a feel for the neighborhood and learning about the drugs and violence that were endemic to life in the ghetto.
Then I had an experience that has haunted me ever since.
On the second or third night, Treetop got a call on his CB radio from his command center and was dispatched to diffuse a group of Crip shooters who were getting ready to hit a rival Blood soldier to retaliate for a drive-by shooting the day before that had killed one of their own gang members. I remember the adrenalin coursing through my body as Treetop floored the gas, and we raced around the neighborhood, pulled down a dark side street lined with dilapidated single family homes, and then pulled into the driveway of a boarded up two story house with a broken down, white picket fence. The house, itself, was foreboding—the paint peeling, the windows boarded up with plywood, the yard overgrown. I remember Treetop, who was at least six five and two hundred fifty pounds and downright intimidating, climbing out of the car and nodding for me to follow as he walked around the back of the house and pounded on a kitchen door that was half-dangling off its hinges. I remember standing there behind him, not saying a word, as abject fear coursed through my body. After a long moment, the door suddenly swung open and a kid no more than twelve or thirteen and wearing a blue bandana—the color of the Crips—motioned us into the house. We followed him silently through a filthy kitchen, along a garbage-strewn central hallway, and then down rickety staircase into the basement.
And there sitting in a circle smoking grass, hip hop music blasting out of a speaker, were a dozen other children all stoned out of their minds and glaring at me malevolently. There were guns everywhere—handguns, shotguns, machine guns, and semi-automatic pistols—an arsenal of firearms sitting on the floor and on the tables and on the laps of these hard-assed teenage gangsters all itching for a fight.
Damn, I had never been more scared in my life.
I remember feeling absolutely paralyzed as Treetop calmly talked these kids down off the ledge—diffusing their anger, silencing their screaming—as only a former gang member, a former giant gang member, could possibly do. It took about an hour, a very long hour, but one-by-one each of the kid shooters grabbed his weapon, belligerently trudged up the basement steps, and disappeared into the night. Needless to say, with a wife and an infant son, I decided that producing this story was way too dangerous for me, and after getting back to New York, I sat down with my boss and begged off the project.
Now, over three decade later, it’s time to tell this story. My experience in the ghetto of South Central LA and the way it made feel as I lived through it will probably be the inspiration for my next Ethan Benson thriller. Do I know what I’m going to write? Do I have a story with characters and plotlines mapped out in my head? Hell no. Not yet. At the moment, it’s just the twinkle of an idea—one that I’m researching, one that is taking shape the more I learn about life today in the ghetto and the inner city gangs and the drugs and violence that permeates their reality.
So stay tuned, and I’ll keep you posted as my new book begins to take shape.