What connects “The Burning of the Piping Rock,” my historical mystery novel, set in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Locust Valley, Long Island, with Asheville?
Among many things, money.
Specifically, the Vanderbilt fortune.
In the mid-1800s, Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt built his fortune between Manhattan and Saratoga Springs, then considered the nation’s summer capital.
The Commodore and succeeding Vanderbilt generations used that fortune to build fabulous mansions in Manhattan, along North Shore Long Island’s wealth-drenched Gold Coast and in Asheville, where the Commodore’s grandson, George Washington Vanderbilt II, created the Biltmore Estate.
“The Burning of the Piping Rock” is a historical mystery novel set at the end of Saratoga’s infamous gambling era, which stretched from the 1920s to the early 1950s, when America’s wealthy and the mob “played together” at Saratoga’s racetrack and in its many illegal gambling casinos, including Piping Rock.
Piping Rock Casino was owned by Meyer Lansky and other Mafia members, who fronted for the social elite of Long Island’s Gold Coast, where the name Piping Rock originated.
Lansky actually thought he would become a member of that high society and is quoted as saying, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. Look at the Astors and the Vanderbilts, all those big society people. They were the worst thieves — and now look at them. It’s just a matter of time.”
Asheville readers will feel at home in my novel’s historic mid-20th-century Saratoga Springs, with its beautiful Appalachian chain mountains, its healing spas and even its tuberculosis sanitaria.
Like Asheville, Saratoga Springs was a national summer playground for the rich and famous, as well as America’s favorite actors, musicians and authors — even occasional Western North Carolina resident F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald came up from his Gold Coast home with friend and author Ring Lardner to play the ponies at Saratoga Racetrack.
“The Burning of the Piping Rock” is based on the unsolved arson of Meyer Lansky’s Piping Rock Casino. At the book’s heart is a death confession taped by a small-town pharmacist, revealing how he had been blackmailed by arsonist Harry the Torch into helping burn the casino.
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Transcribed by his son years later, the tapes are a horrifying confession of deception, blackmail and death implicating the mob, Saratoga’s political machine and America’s social elite.
In a race against death, the dying man confesses the events of Aug. 16, 1954, when he and the arsonist raced to burn Piping Rock Casino in a night that ends in arson and murder.
Urgent questions arise and secrets are unraveled as he talks. How is this seemingly innocuous man tied in with the mob, illegal gambling, race fixing, drugs and more? Why is an arsonist blackmailing him to help burn a defunct, uninsured casino, shut down in 1950 by the U.S. Senate’s war on organized crime?
How are Saratoga, the mob and America’s social elite tied together by this arsonist?
I call my novel “a film noir in a book,” and it explores how the narrator and the arsonist came from very different social and economic backgrounds and how they were shaped and misshaped by the Great Depression, World War II and Saratoga Springs.
It is a novel of America’s “greatest generation” run amok. Adding to its poignancy is that the novel’s dying narrator was, in real life, my late father.
And although I’m a native of Saratoga Springs, I have family around Asheville and Black Mountain. My book is available at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., in Asheville.
To learn more about the book, visit http://pipingrock.wordpress.com.