Scott Von Doviak has lived in Austin since 1996. Which practically makes him a native — at least by the standards of an era in which more and more folks flow into town every year about a month or so after South by Southwest makes them say, “Wow, Austin rocks!”
But his excellent new crime novel, “Charlesgate Confidential,” out this month, is set in Boston, where the Maine native went to college.
“My dream is to write a series set in Austin,” Von Doviak says, “with a protagonist who would carry through a series of five or six books that would reflect the changing city.”
From “Slacker” to the MoPac toll road, perhaps.
“Charlesgate Confidential” proves that Von Doviak can give you the flavor of a city in all sorts of eras (mild plot reveals to follow).
In 1946, a couple of thieves plan to rob the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. In 1986, an Emerson College student named Tommy Donnelly becomes interested in the case while living in Emerson’s Charlesgate student residence hall, a former hotel with a wild past (prostitutes! Sketchy poker games!) and a connection to the robbery. In 2014, with the Charlesgate now luxury condos, Donnelly’s friends plan a class reunion that prompts even more investigation into the past.
This would be fine on its own, but Von Doviak makes the whole thing even more compulsively page-turning by setting the chapters alternately in 1946, 1986 and 2014, then back to ’46. It’s a blast from era to era.
And, yes, the 1986 chapters are semi-autobiographical.
Von Doviak was born in Maine and grew up near Acadia National Park. “Long winters, short summers,” he says. “Beautiful, but not a lot going on.”
He headed off to Boston to go to Emerson in 1985 and was assigned to the Charlesgate. “We learned very quickly of the strange history of this building,” Von Doviak says.
“It was a luxury hotel in the 1890s,” he says, “then it fell on hard times, then it was a women’s dorm for Boston University for a bit, then in the 1970s it was this hellish flophouse for artists and dope fiends and cultists.”
Emerson purchased it in the 1970s, cleaned it up a little bit and made it a dorm.
What is it now? “It’s luxury condos now,” Von Doviak says. Of course it is.
Von Doviak hung around Boston for a bit after graduating in ’89, then headed to Los Angeles to give the film business a try. Of those years, Von Doviak says, “It’s not fun to live in LA if things are not going well for you.”
After seeing some friends move to Austin, he followed in 1996 and has been writing as a freelancer here ever since. Von Doviak has contributed film reviews to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for years and currently writes about television for the Onion’s A.V. Club. He co-wrote a screenplay for an indie film called “What I Like About You” that screened at South by Southwest and Slamdance in 2000.
“It’s impossible to find now,” he says, “but it’s an IMDB credit.”
For “Charlesgate,” Von Doviak’s first piece of published fiction, the author knew he wanted to use his former dorm and its weird history. So he had the mob take over the hotel in the 1940s (“may or may not have happened”), he had the 1980s that he lived through, and he had the 2014 condo era. But he needed a big Boston crime to tie it all together. He couldn’t use Fenway Park getting robbed because they did that in (the weirdly overrated movie) “The Town.”
But then there’s the Gardner heist. In 1990, 13 works of art were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The art was worth about half a billion (yes, billion) dollars. Folks posing as cops gained access to the museum, tied up the guards and took a whole mess of paintings, including valuable works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas and Manet.
No arrests were ever made. No works were ever recovered.
Von Doviak was living in Boston when the Gardner heist went down, and he remembers it well. “I just moved the heist from 1990 to 1946,” he says of his book’s plot. “Use what I could and embellished from there.”
Like many writers of crime fiction in general and Boston-based crime fiction in particular, Von Doviak freely admits he was influenced by the still amazing “Friends of Eddie Coyle,” published in 1970 by George Higgins and turned into a movie in 1973.
“It’s still the ultimate Boston crime novel and movie,” he says. “Just the way he unfolded the plot through dialogue was hugely influential.” Dennis Lehane and Elmore Leonard are also big influences.
Von Doviak does something in “Charlesgate” that shouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it does: While the 1946 and 2014 chapters are written in third-person, the 1986 chapters are in first.
“Since I identified with that character so much, it came naturally to write it in the first person,” Von Doviak says. “And there’s a way you can look at the novel and think he is the one writing the other two sections, since he is the guy who starts researching the Charlesgate in the first place. There’s a whole sequence where the characters get fake IDs. I’m not saying that’s drawn from life, but I’m not NOT saying it.”
Von Doviak had published books before (see also “Stephen King Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the King of Horror on Film,” “Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Redneck Cinema” and “If You Like The Terminator… Here Are Over 200 Movies, TV Shows, and Other Oddities That You Will Love”). But he had trouble getting traction with his first piece of fiction.
Enter the magnificent Hard Case Crime imprint, the coolest noir publisher of its era. Started in 2004 by Charles Ardai and Max Phillips, Hard Case publishes brand-new novels from contemporary authors and underknown or lost novels from writers gone by.
Von Doviak emailed Ardai with the pitch, Ardai said to send it along, and instead of nothing coming of it, Ardai wrote back saying he flipped for it.
While Von Doviak would love to find a publisher for a series about Austin, the question remains: Will he come back to the Charlesgate? “I have entertained the idea of coming back to the building,” Von Doviak says. “Maybe in the style of ‘Fargo’ the TV show, with all-new characters and different eras.”
STATESMAN SELECTS AT BOOKPEOPLE
Scott Von Doviak will speak and sign copies of his new book, “Charlesgate Confidential” (Hard Case Crime, $22.99), at 6 p.m. Sept. 22 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Only books purchased at BookPeople will be signed. Find out more at bookpeople.com.