Shortly after my second book, The Odds, was published in March of 2001, I decided that my next project needed to be about something other than sports. My favorite books have always been gripping, non-fiction narratives that did two things: 1) Shed light on a previously unknown event that impacted American history, and 2) Profiled people who became so consumed with a goal they’d risk everything for the sake of achievement. One summer, after reading A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr, I spent days walking around Manhattan talking about the book with my wife, astonished at the sacrifices the lead character, Jan Schlichtmann, had made. I wanted to write about someone like that, someone who, over the course of intensive commitment, slowly re-evaluates their entire belief system.
For a year I surfed the Net, poked around libraries and read any book about history I could get my hands on, hoping to uncover a gem. Then, in March of 2002, after several false starts that took me as far as London to research dead end book ideas, I came across one of those on-this-date-in-history websites. I typed in 1900 and scrolled through the highlights for all 365 days. I found nothing. Then I did the same thing for 1901 and 1902 and 1903. Still nothing. I spent most of the afternoon squinting at the screen, hoping just one of the clipped, two-sentence descriptions would catch me. Then, midway through the year 1916, I came across this for July 30th: “German saboteurs blew up New York Harbor. Much of downtown Manhattan was destroyed.”
This was six months after 9/11. Other than a few newspaper columns, no one had written a thing about this attack as it related to terrorism. I realized I had finally found my next book.
Unlike my other books, or any magazine article I had ever written, everyone who had anything to do with the cases I write about in The Detonators has died. To be honest, when I began work on this book, I was relieved. Getting primary subjects to open up about the most intimate details of their lives—the ones that make a book worth writing and reading—is stressful. But relatives are often happy to dish.
I was lucky that the children, nieces and nephews of some of the main characters in The Detonators were so willing to share their stories with me. I also stood on the shoulders of dozens of authors who have written about John McCloy, German-American relations and the attack on Black Tom Island.
But most valuable were the writings of the primary characters, not just with regards to the cases, but their lives. The National Archives in College Park, Maryland had every brief written by lawyers for both sides, as well as memos, personal letters and newspaper articles relating to the attacks. The Archives’ files also included thousands of pages of transcripts from the oral arguments, which read so colorfully it felt as if I was in the room as the lawyers argued.