Author Peter Quinn mixes history with mystery in latest novel


Upon the release of "Dry Bones," The Wall Street Journal ran a long review of all three Dunne books, with reviewer Tom Nolan calling "Dry Bones" “another work of intricate structure, suspense and wit.”

Quinn also believes the books capture something vital about Irish America.

“I like to think that one of the subplots of these three books is the New York Irish from 1918 to 1958. It’s one of the most important periods,” says Quinn, when “the real process of Irish assimilation” took place.

It is also a time period of such rapid change that centuries, rather than decades, seem to pass.

Consider a scene from "Hour of the Cat," where Dunne conducts an investigation on the West Side of Manhattan.

These days the West Side is a gleaming wonderland whose cafes and sidewalks are clogged with bustling businessman and European tourists. The wildly popular High Line park is an old elevated train track converted into an exotic walkway bursting with visitors and plant life.

But the West Side Dunne prowls transports us back to a time when the West Side was the heavily Irish and deeply impoverished neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen.

“The cobblestones on Twelfth Avenue were slippery wet. The hum of the highway overhead flowed like an electric current down the iron supports into the street. Behind a frayed corroded wire fence was a huddle of tarpaper shacks; beyond, on the mist shrouded river, the gigantic bulk of a passenger liner glided slowly towards the harbor’s mouth. The sudden, explosive blare of its horn momentarily drowned out the heckle of horns, whistles, bells, the argument of the New York waterfront.”

These scenes of Depression-era Hoovervilles in Hell’s Kitchen – like the entire trilogy – do what all of the best historical fiction does: bring the past back to life while also compelling us to make connections between the past and the present.

As Quinn puts it: “Historical fiction is a pack of lies in pursuit of truth.”

Politics and Religion

Over the course of Quinn’s trilogy, New York transforms from a depression-addled city to a gleaming metropolis undergoing a post-war boom.

“The wars were catalysts for social mixing and assimilation,” notes Quinn, whose Bronx-born father was a U.S. congressman and long-time judge.

“So was Prohibition. This was the first time the upper classes drank with lower classes. And it was the first time women drank with men. . . . The city is very different in the 1930s than it is in the 1950s.”

Quinn’s own life is intimately tied to New York City.  His grandparents were Irish immigrants who settled on the Lower East Side, where his father was born.

Both of Quinn’s parents attended college, quite a rare feat for mid-century Irish Americans.

Catholic schools played a key role in the Quinn family’s achievements.

“My father felt a great debt to the De La Salle Christian brothers . . . they had bigger dreams for him that he didn’t even have for himself.”

Quinn, along with his twin brother, Tom, and two sisters, was raised in the Bronx.

Quinn’s father was elected to the New York State Assembly in the 1930s, and later to a term in Congress, before embarking on a long judicial career. Quinn’s parents, he said, were “big readers,” and the pre-Vatican II Church he grew up in, with its highly ritualized Latin mass, also encouraged a reverence for mystery.

“Everything is a mystery,” notes Quinn, whose readings of Raymond Chandler also inspired the Dunne books. “Marriage is a mystery, death is a mystery . . . it’s all a mystery.”

Quinn attended Manhattan College, but after graduation had trouble settling into a satisfying career. It was while he was working as a messenger on Wall Street that his father took him aside and reminded him of what had served generations of New York Irish Americans so well: civil service.

Quinn’s father strongly suggested he take an upcoming court officer’s test.

“I was not enough of a 1960s rebel to defy my father,” Quinn quipped.

Love of Stories

After a few years as a court officer, Quinn returned to school, completing all of the course requirements (though not the dissertation) for a doctorate in history from Fordham. An article by Quinn about the Irish ended up on New York governor Hugh Carey’s desk, which led to a job as a speechwriter – first for Carey, and then for Mario Cuomo.

After that, he worked as the editorial director for Time Warner. But politics and the corporate world were no match for the printed word.

“I always had a book in the drawer,” Quinn said, adding that he usually woke up in the wee hours of the morning to work on what would become "Banished Children of Eve," before heading off to his day job.

“To love is to persist,” says Quinn, playfully adding that he chased his wife, Kathy, for 14 years before they were married. (They have two children.)