Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Man Who Beat the Code

As a zealous and sincere young assistant D.A. in the Manhattan homicide bureau, Bill Keating challenged the idea that prosecuting waterfront murders was hopeless (witnesses were either mute or otherwise uncooperative, leading to mistrials). Keating quickly found that “The orderly, efficient dossier from which the storybook detective gets so much information is practically unknown in real life,” so he began to “compile facts about the enemy” for himself. In January 1947, when a hiring boss named Andy Hintz was shot on his West Village stairwell as he left for work, Keating got his chance to try a waterfront murder case. Instead of depending on the unlikely bravery of witnesses, the break came when the victim survived his attack long enough to be convinced to give a deathbed testimony against the racketeer Johnny “Cockeye” Dunn and his accomplices. After Hintz died and Keating won a dramatic jury conviction against Dunn for murder, he expected such waterfront prosecutions to become more routine. But caution returned to the D.A.’s office, forcing Keating to leak details about dock crimes to the Sun’s Mike Johnson, who was soon off and running with a 24-part series that scandalized the country in 1948. As Johnson says in his foreword to Keating’s book, “Without boat rockers the world would be a very different place and a terrible one.”

Keating's book is mainly a first-rate account of the education of a young boat rocker and the story of his triumphant dispatching of Dunn and company to Sing Sing’s death row. Keating ultimately left the D.A.’s office to work for a private organization, the New York Anti-Crime Committee. When his group exposed a secret police raid on an illegal wiretap ring, Keating went to jail rather than reveal his source. Written with the horseracing author Richard Carter, his is by far the best contemporary account of the criminal waterfront, in or out of print. “I find it far more exciting than any fictional detective thriller I have read,” wrote Mike Johnson, who had read a fair number, “because it deals in reality.”

The Man Who Rocked the Boat became the source for the film Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, which features a pretty fair reenactment of the Andy Hintz killing and of the trial of a racketeer played by a malevolent young Walter Matthau.

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