RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Time for another installment of Crime in the City, our summer series investigating crime novelists and the cities they write about. This morning, we're off to Kansas City which grew up along the banks of the Missouri River.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The city's been home to political bosses, a rich jazz scene, barbecue joints, and tough characters who sometimes find their way into author Joel Goldman's books. Goldman was an attorney when he was diagnosed with a movement disorder.
MONTAGNE: He quit his law practice and eventually gave his medical condition to one of his main characters, an FBI agent who solves crimes in this Midwestern city.
NPR's Kathy Lohr explores how both the author and the character are learning to deal with the condition, sometimes at the most inopportune moments.
KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: From the days of political boss, Tom Pendergast, to bodies found floating in the mighty Missouri River, there's plenty of true crime to write about in Kansas City. One of Joel Goldman's novels, "Shakedown," opens in Quindaro, on the Kansas side of the river. Recently, local TV news crews reported on a real-life gruesome discovery in this community.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Neighbors told us that they could smell a bad odor for some time. But they had absolutely no idea where it was coming from until today, when some utility workers discovered a decomposed body back here in these woods.
LOHR: Goldman says this area plays a pivotal role in his novel "Shakedown." It's the site of the opening crime scene and where we learn about our main character.
JOEL GOLDMAN: We're just off of Quindaro Boulevard in Kansas City, Kansas. It's a very old area. In fact, the Quindaro Township goes back into the Underground Railroad days. But today this would be kind of a hard-scrabble neighborhood.
LOHR: On this block, some of the century-old brick homes are well kept. Others are struggling to survive. In "Shakedown," our hero, Jack Davis, discovers he has a movement disorder that makes him shake uncontrollably at times. Goldman recalls what happens when Jack is outside a bloody crime scene at a drug house, where gang members have been massacred.
A police helicopter hovers overhead, its glaring search light illuminating the night. That's when everyone including police and fellow FBI agents find out that Jack has a health problem.
GOLDMAN: He doubles over with spasms. He is brought to his knees, brought to the ground by his spasms. And so now, his secret that he'd worked so hard to hide, his condition that he worked so hard to hide, has now been exposed in the most public and vulnerable fashion.
LOHR: Goldman wrote that scene to work through what happened in his life when he was diagnosed with a tic disorder. It's a similar to Tourette syndrome, characterized by involuntary shaking, grunts and jerks. Generally, the episodes don't last very long but Goldman says they come without warning.
GOLDMAN: It was a gift to be able to write about that; to create a character to have that experience, and express through his eyes and though his heart what was happening and what that was like.
LOHR: Jack Davis comes to terms with the disorder while chasing bad guys. When Jack catches up with one of the suspects he's been tracking, we see the shakes take over again, this time in Strawberry Hill, a historic Croatian settlement in Kansas City, Kansas.
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LOHR: Some of the stained glass windows are broken or boarded-up at St. Mary's Catholic Church on the corner of 5th and Ann. The church is a landmark here and the site of a key confrontation in the first Jack Davis thriller.
GOLDMAN: He's in pursuit of one of the bad guys and he follows him to a playground outside this church, which the playground is fictionalized. And he confronts him in the darkness and is unable to shoot because he's shaking.
LOHR: Goldman bases many details in his books on true crimes, embellishing the stories. He says this thriving Midwestern city - crisscrossed by rail lines, rivers and diverse neighborhoods - provides plenty of gristle for his plots. He has five counties to work with and the state line between Kansas and Missouri splits the metro area.
GOLDMAN: It is a place where there are so many stories. There's such a fascinating history everywhere that you turn, that I just wanted to make that come alive in my books.
LOHR: One unusual place Goldman stumbled upon is a series of underground caves created when limestone was mined over a century ago. He describes one such cave in "Shakedown," when a killer, Latrell, finds out that his underground hideout has been discovered.
GOLDMAN: (Reading) The ceiling was 20 feet above the floor. The walls sloping outward to the edges of a wide basin with jagged alcoves cut into the limestone face. An underground lake lapped at a rock beach, its far shore beyond the reach of Latrell's flashlight. He stood on the outer edge cutting through the darkness with his flashlight.
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LOHR: We look for the entrance to this real cave in Matney Park, a big overgrown and ragged field. Goldman has never actually been here before, and we don't see the utility building he describes in the book right away. But just over a small hill a building appears.
It's our cave.
GOLDMAN: That's our cave. It's Latrell's cave.
LOHR: A steel door at the entrance is scarred by some deep scratches, perhaps from others who've tried to enter.
GOLDMAN: And on the other side of that door, I'm pretty sure is the opening to the shaft that leads down into the cave.
LOHR: Can we try the door?
GOLDMAN: You can but there's no handle. There's a key lock and you can see the bolt. There's a deadbolt. I don't have a key and I didn't bring my lock-picking tools.
LOHR: This has been a good day for Goldman, only a few spasms have interrupted our tour. He exercises regularly and gets acupuncture treatments to help combat the effects of what he says is faulty wiring in his nervous system. Goldman says medications that are normally prescribed to help with the symptoms don't work for him. So he says he and his character Jack Davis just deal with it.
GOLDMAN: Am I going to allow my disorder to define me? Or am I going to live my life not withstanding my disorder. And where does that take me? And that's been my journey over the last nine years since this disorder manifested itself. And that's Jack's struggle.
LOHR: Goldman says the illness is not life-threatening just what he calls life-annoying. Still, he's a prolific writer with two other series featuring a tough trial attorney, Lou Mason, and public defender Alex Stone. Goldman reluctantly admits Jack Davis is his favorite character. He's planning another mystery for the FBI agent next year.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News
MONTAGNE: And you can learn about some of the other crime novelists and cities featured in our series, by going to npr.org/crimeinthecity.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
GREENE: And I'm David Greene.
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