blog tour, books, reviews

Blog Tour: The Velvet Badge – Bob Mantel

Forty years in the making, Bob Mantel’s thrilling debut novel challenges today’s social standards with compelling characters while infusing the Big Apple’s unmistakable presence.

In The Velvet Badge: A New York Noir a tasteless nightclub run by a failed JFK assassination co-conspirator brings out the worst in 1970s New York. Songbird Sadasia Trayne runs into a disco-era buzz saw of wine, women, and murder when she hooks up with the Brooklyn-based creator of a notorious TV sitcom. Her frantic SOS to a long-lost love, the Big Apple’s closeted lesbian Chief of Police Detectives, drives this tale of memory and regret, compromise and topiary, politics and a corrupt press, Kris Kringle and twisted acts of love. Will the headline-grabbing sex crime she sets out to solve max out the Chief’s investigative skills or deep-six her career?

The Velvet Badge combines edge-of-your-seat storytelling with stone-cold hilarity and just a touch of holiday ho-ho-ho. A fast-paced novel embedded with elements of suspense and dark humor, The Velvet Badge is perfect for readers who enjoyed Meatpacking by Michael Heslin, The Burn by Kathleen Kent, or Cold Evidence by Robin James.

Mantel creates a world of mystery while infusing dark comedy in a fresh way. “The novel’s New York episodes were inspired by the 1970s city I lived in during my Columbia College days…I was a classic hick, struggling with classes and discovering the highs and lows of the city. Many of these stories found their way into The Velvet Badge,” he said.

Authentically reflecting the sights and sounds of the city he loves, Mantel’s talent for bringing the diversity of New York to life on the page may seem effortless, but it wasn’t always easy. “Like many other writers, I knew what I wanted to accomplish in my first book but didn’t know how to pull it off,” he said. “I worked on The Velvet Badge, off and on for many years, and even completed several drafts, but never to my satisfaction. I took it up again after I retired in 2017 and, this time, all the missing pieces seemed to fall into place–including an ending that I’d previously been unable to conjure.”

Bob Mantel was educated at Columbia College, where he won the Cornell Woolrich Award for Fiction, and the University of Chicago. He lives in New York and enjoys visiting cities that have ballparks and concert halls. The Velvet Badge is his first novel. Learn more at and follow him on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Bob Mantel Blogger Q&A

How long did it take you to complete The Velvet Badge?

An embarrassingly long time–more than 40 years–although I didn’t work on it steadily and often left it untouched for years. One of my problems was taking Ulysses too much to heart and spending nearly a decade badly imitating Joyce’s prose. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, which is why I call that magnificent book “the great crippler of young adults.” Long story short: you may know what you want to write but have no idea how to bring it off. I completed any number of drafts until I finally figured out a decent ending for the book. After that, everything else finally fell into place.

Have you ever experienced writer’s/creator’s block? How do you get out of it?

Writer’s block for me turns out being a function of not having thought through my material to the point where it’s ready to work on. Whenever one crops up, I make a backup copy of the chapter I’m working on, save it as Chapter X-GARBAGE, then write away as well as I can, not expecting to keep much of what I’m producing. If I keep at it, I eventually understand how I need to shape my material and I can get back to my original draft, revise as needed and move forward.

How much of your work is autobiographical?

All of it, just like every first novel is autobiography. I’ve been inspired and stimulated by the places I’ve lived and the people I’ve known and loved. But I’m not out to draw their portraits “from life.” Instead, I’m interested in drawing on the autobiography of the emotions I felt about them to create unique places and characters that I’m free to work with as I choose.

You use a lot of what used to be called “hard jokes” in your fiction. Are you concerned about offending your readers?

No. The Velvet Badge is a hard-edge black comedy/murder mystery set largely in the 1970s. Much of the book’s humor derives from its describing characters in two ways: first, as they’d be seen in the 1970s and then authorially commenting from the present day. There’s shock value in the first and, hopefully, laughter and healing balm in the second. If any of my readers are looking for hate speech, they should track down the TV channels and websites offering plenty of that these days.

The Velvet Badge seems to contain quite a few references to operas and old movies. Could you mention just a few?

Name-dropping like that isn’t surprising when you consider what was going on in New York back when I first knew it. Take the book’s Oscar Wilde/Richard Strauss “Salome” reference. Back in the day, standing room at the Met was three bucks–and didn’t come with subtitles! More importantly, you could get into any number of revival movie house double features up and down Broadway for only $2.50. There’s a big scene in “Badge” that riffs on “The Pride of The Yankees,” after the book previously sang the praises of the talented, ever-lovely Teresa Wright. Of course, a major plot point in “The Velvet Badge” is a direct homage to Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” And the book closes with a bit of dialogue straight-up stolen from Alida Valli in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man.”

What’s your favorite book-movie adaptation?

I’d have to say it’s a three-way tie between Raymond Chandler and Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” Thomas Pynchon and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” and Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show.” By the way, if anybody wants to buy “The Velvet Badge” movies rights, please give me a call. I’m in the book.

Extract from The Velvet Badge

Faced with life’s deep dish pie of pain, Donny Damon always ordered his slices á la mode. It was a habit he’d acquired from his old man Harry, who’d been born in a land where the streets were paved with gold, days before the Blizzard of ’88 paralyzed the East Coast, and who did little to hang his hat on until 1923, when Harding’s sudden death out west landed brine-faced Coolidge in the Oval Office.

Silent Cal’s pronouncement that “the chief business of the American people is business” was a turning point for Harry Damon, inspiring the colorless street pug to scrape together whatever cash he could, marry the first woman he could fast-talk in front of an altar and make a go of “Damon Truss & Convalescent Supply” on New York’s Lower East Side. The driving force behind this enterprise’s success was the 35-year-old’s decision to have his child bride strut her fine, precocious stuff behind the shop’s plate-glass window, wearing little beyond a leg cast, neck brace and strategically placed Ace bandages. Since such a display was an insult to community standards, it drew the smutty-minded, bogus lame and halt to his establishment from a twelve-block radius and kept its cash register ringing for as long as Olivia Damon continued her risqué showcase.

Harry’s missus gave the act the hook during FDR’s first administration and would eventually divorce her husband claiming alienation of affection. But by then the small business owner hardly even remembered being married and had gone all in on racketeering practices that expanded Damon Truss ten-fold during the Great Depression. By the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was piloting a regional wheelchair powerhouse while also heading a body bag monopoly in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Damon’s stranglehold on these markets, however, couldn’t and didn’t last. America’s entry into World War II gave Feds the excuse they’d been waiting for to nationalize his enterprises rather than let Harry spend the next several years dodging profiteering charges. 

Being put out to early pasture may have caught the wheelchair king off guard, but it couldn’t keep him and his enormous wad of buyout cash down for long. Within a few months, Mr. Damon was steering his Studebaker President north along the mighty Hudson to a sleepy river town founded by the Dutch and re-christened by the Brits to honor the neatly trimmed juniper bushes surrounding its village green. Or so the story went. 

The actual name change to “Carvéd Hedge” dated only from the 1920s, when those eponymous hedges were first planted. Back then, local politicians and the chamber of commerce decided that a little fudged history would attract new business, along with a better class of people, and make the dusty old place a village to be proud of instead of the shoulder-shrug whistlestop it had been sliding into for decades. This effort hadn’t made much of a difference. But every once in a while, a resident would surprise the neighbors, show some talent or initiative and put the community’s general mediocrity to shame.

Sharpie Bev Boslegovich, for example, parleyed her ability to recognize a born patsy when she saw one into a thriving local real-estate business. So when Harry Damon turned his big sedan onto Main Street in 1942, he couldn’t even put the damn thing in park before “Hiya, handsome! Lookin’ to settle down?” came winging his way from under a mop of Shirley Temple curls. 

Since sparkplug Bev believed in telling people what they wanted to hear, she gave a twist to her town’s Jazz Age creation myth that a mark like Damon would be powerless to resist. Namely (“Turn left at this corner!”) that an eyesore property, sitting idle on her books for months, had once been the home of a profligate Tory (“You know, before the Revolution.”) who spent the bulk of his fortune developing a topiary wonderland of trees, bushes and shrubs that a small army of gardeners had stripped, clipped, bent, and chiseled into a stunning array of geometric and animal-shaped confections.

Not a word of this was true, of course, but Bev understood Damon had journeyed to her little piece of heaven on earth because he was in the market for prestige as much as a home. To hear her tell it, the property she was hawking was the true inspiration behind the name of the village that tripped so lightly off her tongue. “Why else would they call it Carvéd Hedge?” Bev demanded as much as wondered.

Moved by the realtor’s aggressive eloquence, Damon’s gullibility made him believe wholeheartedly that the unruly mess he was looking at was precisely the spot where a vital, breathing, European artform had jumped species and taken root in Colonial America. This despite the fact that the “estate,” as Bev called it, was nothing more than a derelict saltbox with a sagging catslide roof, centered on a half-acre lot and thick with oversized, misfit verdure that, if you wanted to believe in it hard enough, at one time might conceivably have served some decorative function. Boslegovich sealed the deal when she told him, “There are some things you just can’t put a price on.” Damon barely flinched when she quoted a ridiculously high ask and bought the place for cash. “None of that buying-on-time crap for me,” he crowed. It was the maraschino cherry topping a forced retirement that had already started to melt. 

My thoughts: this was a crazy, black humoured book taking in JFK’s assassination, a nightclub decorated in homage (?) to that event, a singer who might be amazing but who would ever know when she gets involved in the horrific murder of a lesbian TV producer, and turns to her ex – the Velvet Badge of the title – female chief of detectives, Ellia, who grew up in a house with Christmas obsessed parents and is still scarred by her younger brother’s death.

The murder seems fairly straightforward – the laundry delivery man fits the detective’s motive and suspicions very well, maybe a little too well. But as long as there’s no murder similar to this, he’ll do. There are other bodies, but if you can’t find them, are they there?

A local “businessman” has an interesting story to tell, tying up a few loose ends, but the damage is done and various people (like the mayor) just want this all to go away. A wandering, freewheeling format, slowly connecting the characters together is a bit confusing at first but then brings it all together at The Umbrella Man.

*I was kindly gifted a copy of this book in exchange for taking part in the blog tour but all opinions remain my own.

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