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Writing Suitcase Charlie — Writing is An Incremental Art

When you’re a writer, there are bad days and good days. Some days, you sit and write, and the words feel like they’re in someone else’s head; and some days, you write and the writing is fast and right, and you think that each word is a gift from some muse that really and completely loves and cares for you and what you have to say.

That’s the way it is for all of us, I think, but one of the things that I’ve come to feel about writing on bad days as well as good ones is that the progress, the movement forward, the work, is all important. It doesn’t matter finally if the writing I’m doing is going bad or going good, just so long as I keep writing. Putting one word after another, the bad days will give way to good days because writing is an incremental art. One word after another, and another word after that.

This word-by-word idea came to me from listening to the painter Chuck Close do an interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” a couple years ago. I was just starting to write my first novel Suitcase Charlie then; I had finished the first chapter, and I was looking at the tall hill of the second chapter, and the long row of hills and mountains beyond that. Finishing that novel seemed impossible. I had been writing poems for the last thirty-five years and was comfortable working with poems. Unlike novels, they live in little spaces, valleys and small plots of earth. I hadn’t written fiction of any kind since I was in college 35 years ago, and I was sure I couldn’t move beyond that first chapter.

Then I heard that Chuck Close interview.

I love his portraits, his giant canvases, 15 and 20 feet high and almost as wide. They’re a human marvel. Terry asked him how he manages to create those mountains of paintings, and he said something that stopped me. He said that painting was an incremental art, one dot of paint and then another.

I had seen his paintings close up years ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and I knew just what he meant. If you look at those giant canvases what you see is that each one is made up of thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of little dabs of paint, each dab almost a perfect moment of painting in itself. A little Jackson Pollock dab of painting — one right next to another and another and another.

And I started thinking of my novel that way, each word, each line, each paragraph. One dab of words after another.

I knew I could write a word–it wasn’t daunting to do that. And I knew I could write a line. And I figured I could keep going and going, one word after another after another.

And I did.

I finished my first novel and it came to 98,643 words, and all of them are on a literary agent’s desk right now, and then I finished the second novel.

And while I’m revising it, I’m starting work on my third . I’m on word 236 and climbing.

Like the poet Rilke says, “Patience is everything.”


My novel Suitcase Charlie is available at Amazon as a Kindle or a paperback.  Just click HERE.

You can hear a podcast of Terry Gross’s interview with Chuck Close: podcast.

Here’s a link to Chuck Close’s website: click.

The copyrighted painting of Close is from a site about his various self-portraits.


Suitcase Charlie Serialized in a Polish Magazine


I just heard that my hard-boiled detective novel Suitcase Charlie will be serialized in Polish in the Polish magazine Slask!

The novel deals with a serial killer operating in Humboldt Park, a Chicago neighborhood of Polish refugees and survivors after World War II.

The book is available as a Kindle and as a paperback at Amazon.  Just click here.

Another Satisfied Reader of Suitcase Charlie

Author Sandra Kolankiewicz gasps at my novel Suitcase Charlie!

You can gasp along with her!  Suitcase Charlie is available at Amazon as a Kindle or a paperback.  A sample chapter is also available at Amazon.

Sandra’s latest book of poems is The Way You Will Go.  Also available at Amazon.

Here’s the title poem from that book:

The Way You Will Go


It will not begin with your heart

though your fingers may go numb.


One day you’ll know it’s time to trade

that philosophical surf board for benefits.


You’ll reluctantly roll your dreams

into your pocket, where you can keep


your hand on them all week long, especially

when you need courage.  Soon you’ll begin


to meet other persons like you, forever

exchanging their right with their left, wearily


shifting one foot to the other in the grocery

store, the dentist’s waiting room, getting their


tires changed, similar strangers whose insides,

or the insides of their loved ones, have acquired


some strange price tag attached to a history

of autoimmune dysfunction, apoplectic


collapsing, perhaps facial tics accompanied by

obsessive nail picking.  From now on, experience


is reduced to the actuarial projection

of the genetic proclivities of thin skin


and fragile bone, like a Curt Explanation

of the obvious outcome of a clogged artery,


a Frank Dismissal of the vagaries of night

sweats and coated tongues, a Direct


Warning about the consequences of

diabetes just in the moment before the Extreme


Cancer Tale is recounted—the details of which

only the few ever appreciate or understand!—


as if sickness were a language one learns

only in its country of origin!—


all uninsurable, unlike the vase my dear auntie

mailed me right before she unexpectedly


gave way, an extra $1.40, the green and white

label she and the man in the uniform signed


together in some modest post office in the

Adirondacks, a cricket chirping in the corner.

The Schuessler-Peterson Murders

My novel Suitcase Charlie begins with a Prologue, a statement from an Associated Press wire report from October 18, 1955.

The bodies of three boys were found nude and dumped in a ditch near Chicago today at 12:15 p.m.  They were Robert Peterson, 14, John Schuessler, 13, and brother Anton Schuessler, 11.

They had been beaten and their eyes taped shut.  The boys were last seen walking home from a downtown movie theater where they had gone to see “The African Lion.”

As I wrote in my recent essay “Suitcase Charlie and Me,” the murder of the Schuessler brothers and Bobby Peterson is at the heart of my novel Suitcase Charlie.  It’s what terrified me as a kid and haunted a lot of the other kids I grew up with.  Until we got older and went to high school and learned that fearing something isn’t cool, we feared stuff, and one of the fears we most felt was the fear of the person who killed John, Anton, and Bobby.

There’s not a lot actually about their murders in Suitcase Charlie. The first murder in the novel is discovered about seven months after the Schuessler-Peterson murders.  So the detectives in my novel worry that it may be the same killer.  They talk about how the investigation of the Suitcase Charlie murders is or isn’t like the earlier investigation.  Also, people in the neighborhood of the killings wonder about a connection.  Like I said, there’s not a lot about the earlier murders in my novel.  My novel isn’t about them.

But I know some readers are interested in the Schuessler-Peterson case.  They’ve asked me about the novel’s Prologue, so I’m going to talk a little about the case that inspired my novel.

The day the boys disappeared, Sunday, October 16, 1955, they were seen in a number of places: some buildings downtown in the Loop and some bowling alleys near their home on Montrose Avenue.  The cops figured that after seeing the movie The African Lion the boys hung out downtown until about 6 pm, wandering around, seeing stuff, probably doing the kind of goofing around I talk about in my “Suitcase Charlie and Me” essay.  They were spotted on Montrose at a bowling alley around 7:45 pm.  One of the men working there said some older guy was talking to them, some guy who seemed friendly.  The boys left a little while later and started walking and hitching down Montrose Avenue toward home.

They were last seen alive about 3 miles away, getting into a car near the intersection of Lawrence and Milwaukee.  That was at 9:05 that night.

Two days later, on Tuesday, October 18, their bodies were discovered outside the Chicago city limits, in a ditch in the Robinson Woods Forest Preserve, near the Des Plaines River.

A liquor salesman was taking his lunch in a parking lot there that day.  When he looked up from his sandwich, he saw what he thought was a manikin.  It turned out to be the body of a young boy, naked with his eyes and mouth taped shut with adhesive tape.  Near him were two other naked bodies with eyes and mouths taped.  All three boys had died the same way, asphyxiation.

What followed was one of the most extensive investigations in the history of the Chicago Police Department.  Between the date the boys’ bodies were found and 1960 when the Chicago Tribune ran an article updating this cold case, more than 44,000 people with some kind of information about the murders were interviewed.  More than 3,500 suspects were questioned.

None of it led to the discovery of the killer of the 3 boys.

However, what did follow were some additional murders, ones that seemed to share similarities with the Schuessler-Peterson case.

December 28, 1956, a little over a year after the Schuessler-Peterson murders, two young sisters, Barbara, 15, and Patricia 13, went to the Brighton Theater on Archer Avenue to see an Elvis Presley movie, Love me Tender. Four weeks later, on January 22, 1957, their naked bodies were found behind a guard rail on a country road in an unincorporated west of Chicago.  Their bodies like those of the Schuessler-Peterson boys had apparently been thrown out of a car.  Unlike the boys, the girls had not died of asphyxiation.  Their deaths were thought to have been caused by secondary shock due to exposure.   The investigation into the cause of their deaths led nowhere.

Over the years, a number of other murders in the area have been linked to the Schuessler-Peterson killings.  John Wayne Gacy, the notorious “Killer Clown” guilty of murdering at least 33 young boys, was suspected by Detective John Sarnowski, one of the detectives working the Schuessler-Peterson cold case, of possibly being involved with the murders of John, Anton, and Bobby.  Brach Candy Heir, Helen Brach was also linked with the Schuessler brothers and Bobby Peterson.  She disappeared in February 1977 and was declared legally dead in 1984.  One of the suspects in this case was a racketeer and stable owner Silas Jayne, a man also for a while a suspect in the deaths of the Grimes Sisters.

So who killed the Schuessler boys and their friend Bobby Peterson?

The best guess is Kenneth Hansen.

His name came up during a Federal investigation in the early 1990s of arson in horse racing stables around Chicago.  A number of the people being investigated told the Federal authorities that Hansen had repeatedly over the years spoken about his involvement with the killing of John, Anton, and Bobby.  Prosecutors at the trial proved that Hansen picked up the boys while they were hitching, abused two of them, and then killed all three when they threatened to tell their parents.  He was sentenced to 200-300 years for his crimes and died in prison in September 14, 2007.

Here’s his photo.

For those people who like to re-work old crimes, there are a number of interesting facts here that should get them going:

  1. Hansen worked at Idle Hour Stables.  That’s where the killing of the three boys took place.
  2. Silas Jayne, who I mentioned earlier, was the owner of the Idle Hour Stables at the time.
  3. Later he was a suspect in the Grimes Sisters’ murder.
  4. Hansen was also a suspect in the Helen Brach disappearance.
  5. Recently, a former head of the Cook County Sheriff’s Police has offered the theory that Hansen might have been involved in the disappearance or death of the Grimes Sisters.

If you’re interested in finding out more about these murders, doing your own preliminary detective work, a good place to start is the Chicago Tribune’s extensive online archives.  They are free and easy to use and will keep your eyes going for a long time.  Just Google and put in your search phrase.

Here are some of the archival articles I found especially important.  Just click on the titles.

The Trial of Kenneth Hansen.


The novel Suitcase Charlie is available from Amazon as a kindle and a paperback.  Just click here.


The first photo is by Vivian Maier, the great urban photographer.  The other photos are archival.

Suitcase Charlie — How I Came to Write My Novel

Suitcase Charlie and Me

I started writing my novel Suitcase Charlie about sixty years ago when I was 7 years old, just a kid.

At that time, I was living in a working-class neighborhood on the near northwest side of Chicago, an area sometimes called Humboldt Park, sometimes called the Polish Triangle.  A lot of my neighbors were Holocaust survivors, World War II refugees, and Displaced Persons.  There were hardware-store clerks with Auschwitz tattoos on their wrists, Polish cavalry officers who still mourned for their dead comrades, and women who had walked from Siberia to Iran to escape the Russian Gulag. They were our moms and dads.  Some of us kids had been born here in the States, but most of us had come over to America in the late 40s and early 50s on US troop ships when the US started letting us refugees in.

As kids, we knew a lot about fear.  We heard about it from our parents.  They had seen their mothers and fathers shot, their brothers and sisters put on trains and sent to concentration camps, their childhood friends left behind crying on the side of a road.  Most of our parents didn’t tell us about this stuff directly.  How could they?

But we felt their fear anyway.

We overheard their stories late at night when they thought we were watching TV in a far off room or sleeping in bed, and that’s when they’d gather around the kitchen table and start remembering the past and all the things that made them fearful.  My mom would tell about what happened to her mom and her sister and her sister’s baby when the German’s came to her house in the woods, the rapes and murders.

You could hear the fear in my mom’s voice.  She feared everything, the sky in the morning, a drink of water, a sparrow singing in a dream, me whistling some stupid little Mickey Mouse Club tune I picked up on TV.  Sometimes when I was a kid, if I started to whistle, she would ask me to stop because she was afraid that that kind of simple act of joy would bring the devil into the house.  Really.

My dad was the same way.  If he walked into a room where my sister and I were watching some TV show about World War II – even something as innocuous as the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes – and there were some German soldiers on the screen, his hands would clench up into fists, his face would redden in anger, and he would tell us to turn the show off, immediately.  Normally the sweetest guy in the world, his fear would turn him toward anger, and he would start telling us about the terrible things the Germans did, the women he saw bayoneted, the friends he saw castrated and beaten to death, the men he saw frozen to death during a simple roll call.

This was what it was like at home for most of my friends and me.  To escape our parents’ fear, however, we didn’t have to do much.  We just had to go outside and be around other kids. We could forget the war and our parents’ fear with them.  We’d laugh, play tag and hide-and-go-seek, climb on fences, play softball in the nearby park, go to the corner story for an ice cream cone or a chocolate soda.  You name it.  This was in the mid 50s at the height of the baby boom, and there were millions of us kids outside living large and – as my dad liked to say – running around like wild goats!

(photo by Vivian Maier)

In the streets with our friends, we didn’t know a thing about fear, didn’t have to think about it.

That is until Suitcase Charlie showed up one day.

It happened in the fall of 1955, October, a Sunday afternoon.

Three young Chicago boys, 13-year old John Schuessler, his 11-year old brother Anton, and their 14-year old friend Bobby Peterson, went to Downtown Chicago, the area called the Loop, to see a matinee of a Disney nature documentary called The African Lion.  Today, the parents of the boys probably would take them to the Loop, but back then it was a different story.  Their parents knew where they were going, and the mother of the Schuessler boys in fact had picked out the film they would see and given the brothers the money to pay for the tickets.  At the time, it wasn’t that unusual for kids to be doing this kind of roaming around on their own.  We were “free-range” kids before the term was even invented.  Every one of my friends was a latch key kid.  Our parents figured that we could pretty much stay out of trouble no matter where we went.  We’d take buses to museums, beaches, movies, swimming pools, amusement parks without any kind of parental guidance.  There were times we’d even just walk a mile to a movie to save the 10 cents on the bus ride.  We’d seldom do this alone, however.  Kids had brother and sisters and pals, so we’d do what the Schuessler brothers and their friend Bobby Peterson did.

We’d get on a bus, go downtown, see a movie and hangout down there afterward.  There was plenty to do, and most of it didn’t cost a penny: there were free museums, enormous department stories filled with toy departments where you could play for hours with all the toys your parents could never afford to buy you, libraries filled with books and civil war artifacts (real ones), a Greyhound bus depot packed with arcade-style games, a dazzling lake front full of yachts and sailboats, comic book stores, dime stores where barkers would try to sell you impossible non-stick pans and sponges that would clean anything, and skyscrapers like the Prudential Building where you could ride non-stop, lickety-split elevators from the first floor to the 41st floor for free.  And if you got tired of all that, you could always stop and look at the wild people in the streets!  It was easy for a bunch of parent-free kids to spend an afternoon down in the Loop just goofing off and checking stuff out.

Just like the Schuessler Brothers and their friend Bobby Peterson did.

But the brothers and Bobby never made it home from the Loop that Sunday in October of 1955.

Two days later, their dead bodies were found in a shallow ditch just east of the Des Plaines River.  The boys were bound up and naked.  Their eyes were closed shut with adhesive tape.  Bobby Peterson had been beaten, and the bodies of all three had been thrown out of a vehicle.  The coroner pronounced the cause of death to be “asphyxiation by suffocation.”

The city was thrown into a panic.

For the first time, we kids felt the kind of fear outside the house we had seen inside the house.  It shook us up.  Where before we hung out on the street corners and played games till late in the evening, now we came home when the first street lights came on.  We also started spending more time at home or at the homes of our friends, and we stopped doing as many things on our own out on the street: fewer trips to the supermarket or the corner store or the two local movie theaters, The Crystal and The Vision.   The street wasn’t the safe place it once had been.  Everything changed.

And now we were conscious of threat, of danger, of the type of terrible thing that could happen almost immediately to shake us and our world up.

We started watching for the killer of the Schuessler Brothers and Bobby Peterson.  We didn’t know his name or what he looked like, nobody did, but we gave him a name and we had a sense of what he might look like.  We called him Charlie, and we were sure he hauled around a suitcase, one that he carried dead children in.  Just about every evening, as it started getting dark, some kid would look down the street toward the shadows at the end of the block, toward where the park was, and see something in those shadows.  The kid would point then and ask in a whisper, “Suitcase Charlie?”

We’d follow his gaze and a minute later we’d be heading for home.

Fast as we could.


The novel is available as a Kindle or paperback from Amazon.  Just click here:  CLICK.