Karen Z. Duffy


If you don’t want somebody to burn down your house, then watch out whose house you buy. Maybe it belongs to a criminal. An organized criminal. Maybe it’s loaded with evidence, and when they come looking for it, they won’t ring your doorbell. This is what happened to Karen Duffy when her house and almost everything in it was destroyed.  It’s an “almost” everything because the evidence in question, ironically, was not destroyed.  It was confiscated. The County Prosecutor took it, matched it to who and why and what he was looking for, and then—nothing happened. Karen went back to work wearing donated clothes. This is what happens around her parts—certain people do whatever they want.

When you are dealing with the chaos of trauma and crisis, facts and truth and memory become murky and even elusive.  The same is true when you are dealing with organized crime on the scale that defines Atlantic City, now and throughout its history. This is the story of how a normal family unwittingly became ensnared in the net of Atlantic City, and how when they searched for answers and truth to explain the past and move forward, facts became ephemeral.

Karen Duffy and her family live two miles from Atlantic City High School where she has been a teacher for 28 years. She’s taught all kinds of kids, including the Leonettis, Gambinos, and Scarfos. She goes to school, another politician goes to jail, and a street is named after him. She goes to the beach, another dead person votes. It goes on around her, but doesn’t involve her. That’s what she thought. She thought gangsters only settled scores with each other, but if you live here, that score might involve you. You might even be the score, or at least part of the game.

Part true crime and part memoir, Karen researched the archives and collected every bit of material about the fire and the characters involved. She collected criminal records, read about the science behind fires, how we succumb to smoke, much like drowning, and the forensics of arson investigation. She interviewed fire officials, police officials, and reporters who covered the story. She studied the unusual history of Atlantic City, including the 500 Club, where her husband worked in the ‘60s parking cars for owner Skinny D’Amato, who lived three houses away.

About the author: In 2010, an excerpt from this manuscript won a Fellowship at the Norman Mailer Colony in Provincetown, Mass., and First Place in a Writer’s Digest competition for Memoir in 2009. Karen has won two Fellowships in Poetry from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and the Ragdale Colony, among others. In 2007, her  chapbook, “Giving In to the Smoke,” received the Starting Gate Award from Finishing Line Press. Also in 2007, Karen was featured on The News Hour With Jim Lehrer reading her poem, “World Series, Game 5.” She works as a Dodge Poet for the Geraldine R Dodge Foundation and teaches English at Atlantic City High School.

Proposal in development.

Rights: Union Literary