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Joseph Harrington, the bartender who became a writer

The fifth hardcover book by Nevada County true crime writer Joe Harrington,, “An Execution’s Odyssey: Dissecting the Death Penalty,” was released in August.
Photo by Tom Durkin |

Ask an Irishman a question, and he’ll tell you a story.

I asked local author Joseph Harrington how he went from being co-owner of the world-famous Harrington’s Irish Bar and Grill in San Francisco to being a published, true-crime writer in Nevada County.

“Did I ever tell you I was a monk?” he answered, launching into a story about how he was defrocked in 1958 for running a betting pool on who would replace the deceased Pope Pius XII.



Harrington eventually did answer my question over a series of in-person and email interviews.

Why ask the question?




Mainly, I asked it because Harrington’s fifth hardcover book, “An Execution’s Odyssey: Dissecting the Death Penalty” (Pegasus Books), just “dropped” in August. The book is available at Amazon.com.

“This is my first social discussion book,” said the bartender-turned-writer who lives in a cozy home overlooking Scotts Flat Lake.

Harrington has lived here since the early 1980s (except for the winters he spends with his wife Lorraine in Puerto Vallarta).

In all these years, nobody’s written about him — until now.

CHRONICLING HORROR

In 1993, Harrington’s first book was published. “Eye of Evil” from St. Martin’s True Crime Library, written with co-author Robert Burger, recounted the horrific crimes of serial rapists and murderers Leonard Lake and Charles Ng.

“My mother was so proud she was busting her buttons,” Harrington grinned.

Harrington and Burger followed up on Charles Ng with “Justice Denied” in 1999 from Basic Books. They related how Charles Ng exploited the system to avoid the death penalty. He remains on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison.

“The book I had the most fun with was “Profiles in Murder” [Perseus Books, 1998], Harrington said. He wrote about legendary FBI undercover agent Russ Vorpagel, who was known for his uncanny expertise in profiling serial killers.

“We were going to write a series of “Profiles” books,” Harrington said fondly of his friend and true-crime mentor, but Vorpagel died before they could do another book.

The terror attack of 9/11 profoundly affected Harrington, and he ceased researching and writing about true crime. He continued his weekly movie column “Joe’s Movie Madness,” however, and he wrote several novels that didn’t sell. “You’ve got to learn to learn your trade,” he shrugged.

Harrington said he is proudest of his latest book “An Execution’s Odyssey,” which is technically a social issue book, not a true crime tome.

In this new book, Harrington recounts the true story of Robert Alton Harris, the first person to be executed in California after the Feds lifted the ban on executions, as seen through the eyes of a fictional reporter.

In truth, however, Harrington says the book is a financial analysis of the exorbitant cost of capital punishment.

When asked about California Proposition 62, which would abolish the death penalty, he responded, “My opinion on the upcoming election regarding the death penalty is stated as forcefully as I can in my book.”

Then he added, “Short version: to continue [the death penalty] is fiscal lunacy!”

THE WRITING LIFE

Harrington is full of stories about his colorful life — far more than can be detailed here.

Suffice it to say that Harrington “loved the bar business!” But there came a time when he decided, “This ain’t fun anymore.”

It took most of the ‘80s, commuting between the frenetic activity of running a bar in The City and building a home in the bucolic solitude of the Sierra Nevada Foothills, before he sold out to one of his brothers in 1988 and made the permanent move to Nevada County to be a full-time writer.

“We had a big party!” he reported.

Now, even at 75, Joe Harrington still gets up at 4 a.m. most days and researches or writes until about noon. He said he rarely uses his desk, preferring to sketch out his books on legal pads on his back patio or sitting on his couch with his laptop while watching old movies.

Not all of his hardcover books are still in print, but several can still be bought as paperbacks or e-books on Amazon, he said.

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer, editor and photographer in Nevada County. Contact: tdurkin@vfr.net or http://www.tomdurkin-writer.net. Durkin was an advance reader of “An Execution’s Odyssey” and is given special acknowledgement in the book, along with former Nevada City mayor Steve Cottrell. All photos, including the cover photo, are by Durkin.


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