Murder, He Wrote

Headline from the Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1986

Matthew McGough wanted to write about art theft, not homicide. That’s why he drove down to Los Angeles police headquarters one afternoon three years ago and met with two detectives, one of them a woman with the memorable name Stephanie Lazarus. McGough spent more than an hour questioning the detectives about their work investigating art crimes, chatted a bit with them about sports, collected their business cards, and left.

More than a year later, McGough was working his day job as a writer for the television show Law & Order, work that had taught him a good bit about crime and also about telling a story by assembling the pieces of a puzzle. In a morning meeting to brainstorm episodes for what would prove to be the show’s last season, one of the other writers mentioned hearing a radio report that day that a detective had been arrested for a cold-case murder. “People grumbled or nodded or whatever,” McGough told me. “And then he said, ‘And she worked in art fraud, or something.’”

McGough was stunned: In retrospect, his conversation with Lazarus was remarkable only for how unremarkable it was. He’d had not the slightest glimmer that she might have been carrying a terrible secret. “I’ve been on it since that morning,” he said, “because I just wanted to know—what was the story?”

The story is “The Lazarus File,” which begins on page 78. It is a gripping account of a hot-and-cold investigation into the brutal killing of a nurse that, after 23 years and at least as many improbable developments as led McGough himself to the story, finally ensnared Detective Lazarus. It’s a piece that McGough seems almost destined to have written, and not merely because of his Law & Order experience. The son of a lawyer and grandson of a Brooklyn homicide prosecutor, he graduated from law school himself, and clerked for a federal judge in New York. “When I was staring a New York law-firm job in the face,” he recalled, “I finally got the courage to start writing.” He wrote a memoir, Bat Boy, about his high-school years working for the Yankees. That book led to a short-lived television show, prompted his move to Los Angeles, and yielded an introduction to a woman, now his wife, with whom he went on vacation to Norway. They took their trip shortly after two paintings by Edvard Munch, The Scream and Madonna, had been stolen from the Munch Museum, in Oslo. That’s when he got the idea to do a book on art theft.

Maybe McGough will still get around to the subject, one of these days. As for Detective Lazarus, she is scheduled to go on trial for murder on August 22—seven years to the day after the two Munch paintings were stolen.

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