True-crime writer pens first murder mystery

After six true-crime books explaining “Who done it?” Nevada City author Joe Harrington challenges readers to match wits with him in his first published murder mystery “Erin: The Bizarre Murder Case That Created Her Terrible Secret.”

Released earlier this month, “Erin’s Terrible Secret” is written in the style of classic noir fiction, but the set and setting are as contemporary as Donald Trump and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Set in present-day San Francisco, “Erin” is a deep and darkly humorous dive into the barroom culture of cops and priests. It’s a mystery with more twists and turns than SF’s famous Lombard Street.

Harrington tells most of the story from the point of view of Erin, a tough-talking homicide detective investigating the murder of a young boy and a monk who may or may not be dead. Five priests and her own brother are suspects.

All named characters in this intriguing novel are only known by their first or last names. “Trying to do the opposite of a Russian novel,” Harrington joked.

The plot further thickens by the seemingly unrelated death of a teenage boy killed by an escaped tiger at the San Francisco Zoo.

Doing something legendary mystery writer Agatha Christie said was impossible, Harrington also takes us into the present-tense mind of the murderer Erin is chasing – without giving away the identity of the killer.

What gives this entertaining novel a particularly sharp edge is Harrington’s unveiled contempt for President Donald Trump. A lifelong “moderate conservative,” Harrington uses his character Friar Tuck to draw current political cartoons skewering Trump – which is a neat trick for a monk who’s supposed to be dead.

WRITING WHAT HE KNOWS

Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense, Harrington believes. Therefore, in all of his previous true-crime books, he has used a fictional character to create a narrative thread that makes sense of the senseless acts of extreme violence he has written about.

Harrington clearly loves and knows all his characters, but none more so than Erin, named after his daughter.

As a fictional character, Erin came to life more than a decade ago when she was the catalyst for Harrington’s yet-to-be-published first novel “Crueler than the Sea.”

Although that novel is still searching for a publisher, many of Harrington’s friends and critics consider “Crueler than the Sea” to be his finest work. Erin only appears in the prologue of the meticulously researched and authentic story set in World War I Ireland, but her Irish ancestry is a seminal aspect of her personality in “Erin’s Terrible Secret.”

Harrington’s new book is a textbook example of writing what you know. He grew up in an Irish Catholic family. He was tending bar before he could legally drink in one of San Francisco’s signature saloons: Harrington’s Bar & Grill.

As owner and bartender, he recalled that when he wasn’t breaking up fights between construction workers, he entertained customers who became long-time friends from the top echelons of the SF criminal justice system.

These included former SF Police Chief and Mayor Frank Jordan; former District Attorney “K.O.” Hallinan; former deputy police chiefs Diarmund “Derry” Philpott and Kevin Mullen.

“These guys are men I’ve known for 50 years,” he said.

Harrington credits his friendship with these law enforcement luminaries – and others – for granting him access to inside information that informed his previous six true-crime books on high-profile murders.

He is particularly proud of “Profiles in Murder,” which he wrote in partnership with Russ Vorpagel, the FBI’s legendary forensic expert on serial murderers.

Although he sold his interest in Harrington’s Pub to his younger brother and moved to Nevada City to become a full-time writer in 1989, Harrington stays in touch with friends from his free-wheeling younger days.

Longtime pal and fellow writer Matt Regan, a former resident of Nevada City, designed the cover art and other photo artwork within the book.

Closer to home, Harrington commissioned ’s editorial cartoonist R.L. Crabb to provide the plot-critical illustrations ridiculing the president.

“Joe has a twisted sense of humor, but he’s Irish, so that’s to be expected,” Crabb remarked.

Part of that sense of humor comes from Harrington’s own experience. In “Erin,” the backstory of character Max, God’s Own Bookie, involves getting kicked out of a monastery for creating a betting pool on who would replace Pope Pius XII in 1958. Which is exactly what happened to Harrington – “The dean of discipline thought I was taking too much of a cut,” he laughed.

COAST TO COAST KUDOS

Stephen Flaherty, a multiple Tony Award-winner, who wrote, “In his wildly entertaining new novel, ‘Erin’s Terrible Secret,’ Joe Harrington gives us a fast-paced murder mystery for our times. … Harrington takes us on a wild ride through San Francisco, a city he knows, loves and celebrates. I loved it!”

Former Nevada City mayor and drinking buddy Steve Cottrell wrote in th St. Augustine Record. (Florida), “If you’re looking for a novel that takes an occasional jab at Donald Trump while offering a baffling murder mystery that has you turning pages into the wee hours, I recommend Joe Harrington’s latest book, ‘Erin: The Bizarre Murder Case that Created Her Terrible Secret.’”

This book, unlike a Russian novel, is light summer entertainment. Although it is more than 300 pages long, short chapters and lively writing make it an easy read in one sitting, also unlike a Russian novel.

“Erin’s Terrible Secret” is for sale online as an e-book or paperback through Amazon.com and is also available at The Book Seller in Grass Valley.

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer, editor and photographer in Nevada County. Durkin was an editorial consultant during the early development of “Erin’s Terrible Secret.”

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