Reno: Little City, Big Character Part 1

Reno: Little City, Big Character Part 1
Pioneer Center

In any novel, the main location hopefully functions as both atmosphere and character. When I set out to write the Tinman Series, I wondered where I should place my gang of crooks. I’ve lived in many places, including nine cities, and had enough in-depth knowledge of these locales to place my series in any one of them. I spent a long time imagining Tinman and the Posse in such places as New York City, San Diego, Cincinnati, Dallas, Washington, D.C., and others. But, alas, they never felt at home. Which was no surprise.

Nevada Museum of Art in Reno
Nevada Museum of Art

The characters in the Tinman Series were specifically designed to exist outside the norm, living in an alternative but parallel universe to the world of straight and narrows. Makes sense. Where else would one expect a gang comprised of a burglar, pool hustler, conman, pickpocket, poker player, and computer hacker to be?

Suffice it to say, I needed a primary location where such a motley crew could live, and not stick out so much as to draw unwanted attention. Equally important, they needed to feel comfortable in their surroundings. It wasn’t just a matter of staying under the radar so they could go about their illicit business. They needed a place they could call home. A cozy den of thieves, where they felt as much a part of the landscape as the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker.

Carved Hands in front of Lear Theater

 

Abby's Hwy 40 Cocktail Lounge
Abby’s Hwy 40 Cocktail Lounge

The problem I was finding, is so many cities in the States have become homogenized—the color and character of the town decided by City Councils, and voted on in ballot measures. Rich and vibrant history is painted over in lackluster hues and called new and better. I needed a town that had not been scrubbed clean of its past.

As my search continued, I spent countless hours at the library of the University of Nevada Reno, researching the criminal mind, lifestyles of thieves, and famous historical heists. Every day, on my way to the library, I would drive through a city which I’d called home for nearly five years, never once seeing what was around me.

Until, suddenly, I did. It was one of those moments that make you feel stupid for having not seen it before, while simultaneously happy that you’d finally found what you were looking for. With camera in hand, I began to take long detours into the guts of Reno. And the place unfolded before me. It  was only a matter of scratching the surface to uncover the history, the story of the place, and how it came to be what it is today.

Downtown Reno
Cal Neva

I shifted my studies from UNR to the research library at the Historical Society. And that’s when things really started to come together. Weeks of poring through microfilm of old newspapers, with articles dating back decades, revealed a city like no other. It was, and is, a place for pioneers. People who don’t think of limits, sometimes to a fault. It’s past is filled with colorful characters, those who considered the law to small a thing to keep them from what they desired. As I read through the old newspapers, I stumbled into notorious thefts that had gone unsolved. One of these was the basis of the plot for Posse of Thieves. Another one, laid the foundation for Shady Deal. And there are still others that are in reserve for future books.

Reno City Plaza

 

Throughout all of my research, one thing held true. Reno is an accepting place. Old accounts tell of the high and mighty rubbing shoulders with cowboys and miners as they placed their bets at the faro tables. Pillars of the community did not rise from the wealthy class but instead were more likely to come from humble beginnings. Witness George Wingfield who started out as a gambler, and faro dealer for the miners in Tonopah, and within a few years rose to become one of the wealthiest men in Nevada, and a leader of Reno. In recent years, the Burners have become a prominent fixture, with the residents happily accepting them—and all the monies their Burning Man festival generates for the city. (Hey, if nothing else, Renoites are opportunistic.)

Reno City Plaza Whale Sculpture

 

Another thread running through the history of Reno is that it’s a town based on the boom or bust mentality. And to this day, no one seems to think this is untoward, or foolish thinking. Indeed, Renoites are proud citizens and fiercely protect the traditions and history of their hometown.

Several months passed before I really got a grasp of what I had. And it was everything I needed in a location for my series. I knew this because the place was difficult to describe in all its complexities. Every city has its own tempo, a kind of underlying force that moves it along, and Reno’s is unique. For those who have no place here, it can be elusive, and that’s fine. It’s a place for those who stumble into it, and for some unknown reason, feel instantly at home, and safe. Perhaps it is an over generalization, but Reno tends to pull in people who don’t play safe all the time. Artists, writers, performers, gamblers, entrepreneurs.

 

 

 

 

 

A 1938 travel article printed in the now defunct  American Magazine put it more eloquently than I could ever do. My favorite paragraph reads like this:

“Reno has a character and a state of mind definitely its own, with a history that could be simulated only if a wild West show, a swanky New York night club, the Salvation Army, and a spendthrift Indian maharajah on a spree in Paris were all stirred together in one pot.  It is pious and wicked, beautiful and ugly, rich and poor, exciting and dull, cultured and vulgar.  Depending upon your point of view, it is a boil that’s giving America a pain in the neck, or the last stand of individualism and right thinking.”

With the Tinman Series now in full swing, I’ve come to see just how lucky I was to settle on Reno as the primary location. It has become a full member  of the Posse, and it would be impossible to separate it from the stories. After all, where else would the character, Bones, a master pickpocket with arthritis, want to spend his golden years but in a city that once boasted a minimum of four whiz mobs (pickpocket gangs) working the streets at any given time.

And what of Catfish, the elite conman who as a young man made a fortune in Chicago playing the Big Con? Reno would be a natural place for him to gravitate. During the heyday of conmen, the town was considered a hot location with many mobs using “big rooms” to fleece wealthy marks looking for an easy score. Indeed, in the 1930’s two of Reno’s major casino owners, Bill Graham and Jim McKay were indicted for running cons involving mail fraud (and, oh, by the way, using George Wingfield’s bank to launder the ill-gotten monies).

Circus Circus Neon Clown

For Peach, the burglar and safecracker of the Posse, well, he’d probably fit in anywhere. He’s just that kind of gregarious guy who can make any place his home. But as fate would have it, in the first book of the series, Posse of Thieves, he is drawn back to Reno to be by the side of his twin brother, Tinman, the pool hustler suffering from a midlife crisis. Tinman, having spent most of his life on the road, decides there is no haven left but Reno. He remembers the days when the town boasted more than a dozen pool halls. It’s where he first learned to shoot stick. And though he misses some of the seediness from the old days, it will always be home.

Clearly, Reno is the driving force in the Tinman Series. It provides all the atmosphere a writer could wish, and is a main character that influences the plots and defines the characters. How lucky can a guy get. I believe it works so well, because it’s a little rough around the edges, wild, woolly, and free-wheeling. Yet somehow it manages to maintain its grace and allure, like an iconic cowgirl, sweaty and dusty from the trail, smelling a bit like the cows she’s corralling, but with a wink and a dimple she can bring a cowboy to his knees.

It has only been a few years since the inception of the Tinman Series, and already change is afoot within the Biggest Little City in the World. Large corporations such as Tesla, Apple, Panasonic and others have moved in, creating upheaval and metamorphosis. I am unafraid, however, for Reno has worn many faces over its 150 year history. And though it be small, it’s personality is big, its people tenacious, and anyone who thinks they can rip out its heart and soul…well, them’s fightin’ words.

(In Part 2 of Reno: Little City, Big Character, I will be showing photos of specific locations and business that I used in the Tinman Series, and describing why I chose them. Tune in soon!)