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Split by the Missouri-Kansas state line, the Kansas City metro area has been home to political bosses, jazz clubs, barbecue joints and tough characters, all of which find their way into author Joel Goldman crime thrillers.
Nine years ago, when Goldman was working as an attorney, he was diagnosed with a movement disorder that makes him shake and stutter at times. So he quit his practice and eventually gave his medical condition to one of his main characters, Kansas City FBI agent Jack Davis.
'Brought To His Knees' In A Hardscrabble Neighborhood
From the days of mob boss Tom Pendergast to bodies found floating in the mighty Missouri River, there's plenty of true crime to write about in Kansas City. Goldman's first Jack Davis novel, Shakedown, opens in the Quindaro neighborhood on the Kansas side of the river, where local TV news crews recently reported on a real-life, gruesome discovery. Neighbors reported smelling a bad odor for some time, but they didn't know where it was coming from until some utility workers discovered a decomposing body in the woods.
Just off Quindaro Boulevard, some of the century-old brick homes are well kept, but others are struggling to survive.
"It's a very old area," Goldman says. "In fact, the Quindaro Township goes back into the Underground Railroad days. But today this would be kind of a hardscrabble neighborhood."
This area plays a pivotal role in Shakedown. It's the site of the novel's opening crime scene, and where Jack Davis' coworkers first learn about his medical condition, a movement disorder that at times makes him shake uncontrollably. Goldman recalls what happens outside a bloody crime scene, 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, discover Jack has a health problem.
"He doubles over with spasms," Goldman says. "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'd worked so hard to hide, has now been exposed in the most public and vulnerable fashion."
Goldman wrote that scene to work through what happened in his life when he was diagnosed with a tic disorder. It's 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.
"It was a gift to be able to write about that," he says, "to create a character to have that experience and express through his eyes and through his heart what was happening and what that was like."
Jack comes to terms with the disorder while chasing bad guys. When he 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, Kan.
At St. Mary's Catholic Church, on the corner of Fifth Street and Ann Avenue, some of the stained glass windows are broken or boarded up. The church is a landmark here, and the site of a key confrontation in the first Jack Davis thriller.
"He's in pursuit of one of the bad guys," Goldman says, "and he follows him to a playground outside this church. ... He confronts him in the darkness and is unable to shoot because he's shaking."
A Killer's Underground Hideout
Many of the details in Goldman's books are embellished from true crimes. He says this thriving Midwestern city — crisscrossed by rail lines, rivers and diverse neighborhoods — provides plenty of gristle for his plots. He also has five counties to work with.
"It is a place where there are so many stories," Goldman says. "There's such a fascinating history everywhere that you turn that I just wanted to make that come alive in my books."
One unusual place Goldman stumbled upon is a series of underground caves created over a century ago through limestone mining. He describes one such cave in Shakedown, when a killer, Latrell Kelly, realizes that his underground hideout has been discovered:
"The ceiling was twenty 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."
Goldman looks for the entrance to the real cave in Matney Park, a big, overgrown and ragged field. He has never actually been here before, and at first he doesn't see the utility building he describes in the book. But just over a small hill, the building appears. A steel door at the entrance is scarred by some deep scratches, perhaps from others who've tried to enter.
"And on the other side of that door, I'm pretty sure, is the opening to the shaft that leads down into the cave," Goldman says.
There's no handle, just a key hole for the deadbolt. He jokes that he didn't bring his lock-picking tools to get in.
A Journey For Both The Writer And His Protagonist
This has been a good day for Goldman — he's only had a few spasms. He exercises regularly and gets acupuncture treatments to help combat the effects of what he refers to as 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 and his character Jack Davis just deal with it.
"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 [leave] me? That's been my journey over the last nine years since this disorder manifested itself," he says. "And that's Jack's struggle."
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 that Jack Davis is his favorite character. He's planning another mystery for the FBI agent next year.