Crossing over into True Crime: Three Years in a Place called Life
July 1991. The manuscript for my first mystery novel, Requiem for a Postman, was on its way to the typesetter, and I was well into writing the sequel. Requiem - inspired by my fondness for my newly adopted neighborhood - was the story of a missing person from the Willows section of Salem, Massachusetts, whose concealed body was found several days later. Blunt trauma to the head. Main suspect was a neighbor, also from the Willows. Blood stains were found in an odd spot. A parked car gave away the killer. Mozart and dogs wandered through the book, as well as July 4th picnics, military records, and detectives in small planes.
July 12, 1991. Meanwhile, a real life saga began to unfold in my town:
A missing person from the Willows, concealed body found several days later. As many New Englanders may remember, Martha Brailsford, a beautiful, compassionate young artist, disappeared from her Salem Willows home that day, last seen aboard a friend’s sailboat, the Counterpoint. Six days later, a Marblehead lobsterman found her nude, skeletonized body weighted down by a diving belt and anchor and entangled in one of his traps.
Bruises on the head. Main suspect a neighbor, also from the Willows. The Willows man implicated in her disappearance, Thomas J. Maimoni, was a senior engineer just laid off from Parker Brothers Games in Salem. He had been luring women onto his boat by pretending to be a lonely widower.
Blood stains were found in an odd spot. A parked car gave away the killer. Blood stains were found on the sail of his boat. After the body was found, Maimoni fled to Maine, where he was later captured a few miles from the Canadian border. His parked car had attracted the attention of the authorities.
Mozart and dogs wandered about, as well as July 4th picnics, military records, and detectives in small planes. Maimoni loved Mozart. The lead detective in the case, Det. Sgt. Conrad Prosniewski - a licensed pilot - took to the air twice in the course of the investigation.
To this day, I still have to explain to people that Requiem was not based on the Maimoni incident. This is more a case of Life (or rather Death) imitating Art. But these minor similarities were nothing compared to the bizarre coincidences found throughout the true story:
Although solid police work was a key ingredient, luck played a substantial role in the investigation, most notably with the one in a million chance that Martha’s body, dumped at sea, should land on top of a lobster trap.
Tom Maimoni regaled police and friends with story after story explaining what transpired that afternoon aboard his boat. A series of lucky breaks enabled Sergeant Prosniewski to quickly discount each one. For example, a member of the police dive squad looking for Martha’s body happened to mention that he was at the pier during the time Maimoni claimed he was at the dock dropping Martha off. He also mentioned that another boater received a citation for overtime docking around the same time - and the boater turned out to be Martha’s dentist.
Then there were the unlucky ones: the blood on the sail was typed, but Martha and Tom had the same type blood. Further analysis was impossible due to the stains’ prolonged exposure to salt. Tom, by the way, claimed to suffer from chronic bloody noses. Hmmm.
Needless to say, I was intrigued by this case unfolding in my own back yard. Tom Maimoni lived in a cluster of town houses five doors west of me. Prosniewski happened to be one of the guys I talk to regularly as I attempt to build the fictional world of my series character Det. Sgt. Gabriel Dunn. I had already build up a level of trust with the Salem police detectives. My day job manager was generous with flex-time. It was a convenient opportunity for an education I might never come across again. So for a year and a half I followed the investigation, the courtroom developments - pretrial hearings, continuances, motions, and finally the two-week-long trial. All this time I felt the bizarre aspects of the case didn’t make it specifically workable as fiction, where coincidence and luck are cheap tricks if overused. In real life stories we are entitled to be amused and mystified by the fates.
What compelled me most about this case, however, was the central enigma of Thomas Maimoni, who was a pathological liar, according to defense experts. Almost everyone who followed the story was absolutely convinced of his guilt as soon as they heard about the anchor and weight belt. But by the end of the trial I came to realize that Tom, a sociopath incapable of compassion, would have disposed of the body in exactly the same way, even if she had died accidentally aboard his boat. He had so much to lose - his current wife (very much alive) who had ordered him never to sail alone with women again. His competence as “captain” would be questioned. His standing in the community. His life of lies, his house of cards, would have all tumbled down. We all like to think in his shoes we would have brought the body home. But it is a fascinating question to consider. Can we possibly imagine a high-stakes scenario where we might have been tempted to run from a body? I’ve seen three cases in the news recently revolving around this same moral dilemma. In one: a man and woman are having a secret affair. The man has a heart-attack in her arms. The woman panics, drives the body to his home, dumps it on his front lawn, and drives off. Her marriage is saved. Human motivation. Our most valuable commodity as writers.
Then there’s the paradox of the liar, who can’t tell the truth even to save his own life. Even the prosecutor was stymied, and privately told me: “Normally, a guy lies to police, lies on the stand - you’ve got consciousness of guilt, right? What about when the guy lies all the time? As a way of life? Then what do you got?”
These are the questions that hooked - and continue to hook me in this story.
In the meantime I had met up with fellow writer Joan Pinkham, who was following the case hoping to get a screen play out of it. Three months after the trial she suggested we join forces on a book - the true crime version. With the support and cooperation of Conrad Prosniewski, and the firm conviction that this was a story worth telling, I decided to try and find the particular guts and stamina that true crime writers seem to possess. Now, three years later, Counterpoint: A Murder in Massachusetts Bay is about to show up in local bookstores. How on earth did I get here? And do I now need an unlisted number?
My first step was to purchase and study How to Write and Sell True Crime by the late Gary Provost (who is sorely missed in this community.) His book is not only packed with sound advise, I went back to it again and again when I felt any resurgence of fear and doubt. Next I lined up about ten appointments with Conrad Prosniewski to go over the case files with him. From the files, from the witness list, from newspaper clippings, and from chance encounters around town, I got the names of about fifty more people I ended up talking to. The prosecutor was happy to speak to me. Maimoni himself let me interview him on a half dozen occasions and wrote copiously to me, despite his lawyer’s attempts to get him to shut up. I had passed the Provost “Will You Get Cooperation?” test.
My first lesson in True Crime School, to my surprise, was that by and large, people are willing to talk. In many cases, through talking they find the closure they failed to find on the witness stand. Lesson two: don’t let the small number who hang up on you get you down. That’s what therapy is for. My third lesson, taken right from Provost’s book, was that I had to learn to talk - or more importantly, to listen - to people who are in a lot of pain.
Lesson Four was the hardest for me: I uncovered numerous compelling facts and poignant details which could enhance my story but which could cause discomfort to certain people, particularly those who had trusted me along the way. Learning to deal with this equation was the single greatest challenge in my excursion into this genre - balancing obligations to my interview subjects with obligations to my readers. Each writer will resolve it differently, in whatever way he or she can best live with. In fiction this equation is simple. In true crime it is not.
Lesson Five: When the trial transcripts are out (up to a year later), beg, borrow, or steal a copy. Or plan to hole up in the court house for a few weeks to go over them. Everything in them is public record, and public domain. They also provide a great jump-start during your interviews: “The defense kept insisting you had the date wrong. How could you be so sure which day it was?” I asked a prosecution witness. Answer: “Because my girlfriend recorded it in her diver’s logbook. Go talk to her.” At which point, I did. And as a byproduct, I netted the real explanation for a mysterious X the police found on Maimoni’s shipboard map - right on the spot where the body was later found. Provost was right - researching true crime allows you to play out your own fantasies of being a detective.
What else was different about writing nonfiction? Well, there were all those people. Life is just chock full of people:
“I hear you’re writing a book about Martha,” an acquaintance, Susan, said to me about a year ago. Her tone was accusatory. I was still getting used to the reactions of my friends in town. News of my latest endeavor was never met with neutrality. Whenever I tell people I’m a mystery writer, I am always greeted with warm surprise and immediate connection. People love mystery writers - we’re quaint, and as cute as gerbils. When I announce I’m trying my hand at a true crime, the response is more often one of shock, as though I were proclaiming a new career in grave robbing.
I confirmed Susan’s rumor. After a long pause she warned ominously: “Well, it had better be good. She was a friend of mine.”
Susan wasn’t the only one policing me. “This part drags just a little,” said my editor at Addicus Books, as he cut out literally 55% of my manuscript.
“I didn’t know ‘true crime’ meant you’d be using real names. Is that legal?” asked an interviewee.
“Could you mention that I was willing to testify, that I had an outfit all picked out, but they never called. I just want it in there for the record,” a witness requested.
“Could you include my sister’s name, as a personal favor?” asked another.
“I have a whole slew of lawsuits already in the works,” wrote Maimoni recently from his prison cell. “I will be adding your name to the list. All our correspondence has been forwarded to my team of attorneys.”
“I’ll make sure this project never sees the light of day,” wrote another party.
Meanwhile, I was discovering through therapy that I have a problem with conflict, that I avoid confrontation, and want everyone to like me.
But the unexpected gifts along the way made up for it all, a thousand-fold. Real people are full of delicious surprises:
The incongruously cheerful Norfolk prison guard who bellowed out, after I’d sat for an hour in a crowded waiting room for my turn to get inside: “Norfolk shoppers! Now serving numbers 81, 82 and 83!” Despite the atmosphere of despair, and the grimness of the searches we endured, numbers 81 to 83 all managed brief smiles.
One of the many women Tom Maimoni had been seeing behind his wife’s back, who said to me: “I’ve never told anyone this, but the day I was to go out dancing with Tom I went out and bought a dress.” Then Tom stood her up. A week later he was a wanted man. Admitting to herself or to others that she had had any expectations, that she had been fooled that easily, was far more painful than the canceled date. If we allow men to hurt us, apparently we deserve even more hurt in the form of self-punishment. Ultimately she allowed me to include the dress in the book. Her closure, her self-forgiveness, her trust in me, were marvelous gifts indeed.
The “jailhouse snitch” - one of Maimoni’s cellmates, who turned out to be a sweet guy who disapproved of Maimoni’s treatment of women in general. Too bad the kid’s serving ten-to-twelve for armed robbery.
The lobsterman, hero in the courtroom, who wrote a ballad for Martha. The Official Witch of Salem. The compassionate court officer. The medical examiner who, at the opera, keeps wanting to dissuade Madame Butterfly from her plans. “Death’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” he tries to explain.
The early police career of Conrad Prosniewski, who at the age of five donned a couple of popcorn boxes, stepped out into busy Derby Street in downtown Salem, and proceeded to direct traffic with his cardboard gloves.
The young drug addict, whose testimony was ruled too prejudicial for the defense and thus disallowed. Having just lost her mother to cancer, the girl’s life had bottomed out at the time she met Tom Maimoni. A few months later she landed in jail for an ill-planned attempt at robbing a liquor store alone, and unarmed. She described for me her first night in a cell, how she sat in the dark hugging the arms of her cashmere sweater, feeling its softness and missing her mother. “My older brother bought it for me that same day. It was so beautiful, with muted fall colors.” God is in the details, they say. I can see and feel that sweater, and the ache of homesickness in the pit of her stomach.
Learning to Let Go
Writing fiction is done largely alone at my computer. It is a wonderful, quiet escape into make-believe, where I work out life issues through my characters, letting them lead me down unexpected paths, but always knowing I can rein them in when I need to. For me, writing fiction is about control.
Writing Counterpoint: A Murder in Massachusetts Bay has involved more hours in courthouses, cars, libraries, jails, morgues, restaurants, boatyards, kitchens, and police stations than at home in front of my computer. The writing itself took three times as long as writing my novels did. But most of all, writing true crime means your “characters” do all the leading and reining. All you can do is follow. Along the way you hear their songs, meet their kids, their dogs, their secrets, their conquests, their humanity. Along the way you meet life - in all its funny, sad, shocking glory. The unexpected paths here have humbled me as a writer. For me, writing true crime has been about surrender.