Michael Cannell: My Account of New York’s Longest, Costliest Manhunt

Michael Cannell, author of historical thriller Incendiary, reflects on his inspirations behind writing the book. 

Five years ago I heard the former Washington Post feature writer Paul Hendrickson speak at a writer’s conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. I’m not the writer’s conference type; I believe in writing, not talking. But I happened to be in Sun Valley that day. My father and I both admired Hendrickson’s book, Hemingway’s Boat, so we bought tickets and took our places in an amphitheater beneath the great Idaho sky.

I don’t remember much of Hendrickson’s talk, except for this: authors can’t find book subjects, he said, book subjects must find authors. At the time it struck me as the kind of cryptic adage that earns writers a reputation for pretension.

I was then finishing The Limit, a narrative non-fiction book about two men, friends and rivals, on the Ferrari race teams of the late 1950s. I was just beginning to think about a next book. Before I could seriously consider the possibilities, I would have to finish writing The Limit. The final stages of research brought me to a microfilm room in a backwater of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue to read an Argentine newspaper’s account of a January 1957 race held in Buenos Aires — an event so hot that pit crews threw buckets of water on passing drivers. As I read about the race, I noticed another article, entirely unrelated, with a headline announcing that the NYPD was closing in on the “Mad Bomber of New York. ”

The story jumped out at me. Strange as it may sound, I felt a surge of conviction that the mystery bomber, whoever he might be, would be the subject of my next book.

Friends occasionally urge me to write books about such-and-such. Why not a book about gangsters? Or the space program? Or innovators? They don’t fully appreciate that books require more than a subject of broad interest. They demand a specific architecture — a narrative arc — populated by characters that hold a reader’s interest. If readers truly understand what a character wants they will keep turning the pages.

My follow-up reading confirmed my hunch that the bomber story had a promising structure and a cast of vivid personalities. For sixteen years the police had searched for a serial bomber who  had planted more than two dozen homemade explosives in the city’s most crowded public spaces—theaters, train terminals, subway stations, a bus depot, and a library— injuring fifteen.

In desperation the police showed the evidence to Dr. James Brussel, a psychiatrist with a particular interest in the working of the criminal mind. The detectives could not have held out much hope when they unloaded two satchels of photocopied letters and bomb parts on the Dr. Brussel’s desk. He far exceeded their expectations. He showed for the first time that a vivid portrait of a serial offender could be assembled from physical evidence. By combining Freudian theory, deductive reasoning and simple intuition he grasped the mind of a madman.

The story had a promising structure. It also had an auspicious setting. The bombings took place in New York of the 1950s, an era poised to slip from personal memory. Most of us don’t remember the decade, but our parents or grandparents do. So it feels within reach. I believe that midcentury events have a charged quality, an electricity, because they fall in the interstitial space between memory and history.

My account of New York’s longest, costliest manhunt is published later this month under the long-winded title Incendiary: the Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling. With its completion I find myself once again in a writer’s limbo. I’m tempted to riffle through magazines and open books to random pages in search of a new topic. Much as dislike the prospect, I know I’ll have to wait for the next subject to come to me.