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Writer took the long road in turning out mysterious WWII tale

October 14, 2006|Larry McShane | Associated Press

NEW YORK — After spending a decade writing his first novel, author Peter Quinn hoped to speed up the process on its follow-up.

And he did. Eight years later, the 1995 American Book Award winner completed "The Hour of the Cat," a critically hailed thriller set in pre-World War II New York City. There's a good reason for the lengthy process: He actually wrote the book.

In longhand.

On yellow legal pads.

Page after page of penmanship, honed through years of Catholic education.

"If you failed Latin, you took typing," Quinn explained of his academic career. "So I was really good at Latin, and I never learned to type. Fifty different times I've tried to make the jump, and I just can't do it."

Quinn's first book, "Banished Children of Eve," was set in Civil War-era New York, detailing the ethnic and racial tensions surrounding the city's "draft riots." For its follow-up, he set private eye Fintan Dunne to investigating a homicide -- and subsequently the Nazis -- in 1930s New York.

"That's what I love to do," said the Bronx native, sipping a pint of Guinness over lunch at a Midtown Manhattan restaurant. "Anything I do is about New York, because that's where my imagination is."

"Hour of the Cat" is almost two novels: a detective tale with Dunne running between Brooklyn and the Bronx, and a parallel piece played out in Hitler's Berlin. No surprise there, as Quinn majored in history at Manhattan College, received his master's in history at Fordham University and along the way became a devoted student of New York's past.

The son of a Bronx judge sports a salt-and-pepper mustache beneath a balding pate. His enthusiasm for the city's history is evident in his voice; it was evident to Martin Scorsese too, who used him as an advisor on the film "Gangs of New York."

After writing about 19th century New York in "Banished Children of Eve," Quinn fast-forwarded a century for his next book. New York in the 1930s held great appeal.

"New York was about to become the global capital," Quinn said of that era. "The city in '38, at the tail end of the Depression, was about to become something else. So I wanted to look at that scene."

Until his recent retirement, Quinn spent more than two decades as corporate editorial director for Time Warner -- a job that followed a stint as speechwriter for New York governors Hugh Carey and Mario M. Cuomo.

Quinn, while writing his two novels, rose weekdays at 5:30 a.m. and worked for two hours before heading into his Manhattan day job. It was hard, but "living with the fact of not having written was harder," he said.

What wasn't a problem, Quinn said, was moving between speechwriting and fiction during his twin careers.

"Don't forget," he said, "I was a speechwriter for politicians."

Quinn's next book is due out next year: "Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America," a mix of older and unpublished pieces.

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