The Other Mafia

Chances are, you’ve never heard of the ‘Ndrangheta, but that might change soon. The ‘Ndrangheta (the name comes from the Greek  for courage or loyalty) is the Mafia group based in Calabria, the southernmost province on the Italian peninsula, the toe and sole of the boot. It’s not a branch of the familiar Sicilian Mafia, which infiltrated the United States in the early years of the 20th century. It’s a separate and distinct criminal organization with its own long-standing traditions and rackets. And while the Sicilian Mafia has been on a steady decline worldwide for some time now, the ‘Ndrangheta is soaring with gangs operating in northern Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Colombia. They’re involved in many of the traditional organized crime enterprises, but their cash cow is drugs, and they’ve brought advanced global marketing techniques to the illegal drug trade, having developed the ability to spot markets quickly and satisfy demand as soon as it arises. The ‘Ndrangheta controls shipping and ports in many countries and has made key alliances with South American drug producers, mainly for cocaine.

Recently six ‘Ndrangheta members were convicted in Milan for the acid-bath murder of Lea Garofalo, the gang leader’s companion and mother of his daughter. She had cooperated with the police in their investigation of the gang, and in retaliation gang members beat and tortured her, then dumped her in acid. Her daughter–the capo’s adult child–testified against the gang, without a doubt endangering her own life. Tony, sophisticated Milan usually isn’t associated with heavy mob activity, but among other things, the ‘Ndrangheta have their hooks deep into Milan’s fashion industry. A convicted ‘Ndrangheta boss, Paolo Martino, has alleged that many well-known designers were under his thumb, including the house of Versace.

News reports about the ‘Ndrangheta have been scarce in America, though the few articles I’ve found online say that the group has surfaced in Florida and New York (of course). Right now they’re thriving in the shadows, out of the hot glare of the press and law enforcement. Some say the police would rather not shine a light on this beast. If the public understood how big it really is, they’d also understand how ill-equipped law enforcement is to fight it. It’s a good bet these mobsters are already entrenched on U.S. soil. One thing that’s always true about the Mafia–any Mafia–is that wherever there’s money to be made, that’s where they are. It might not be long before the ‘Ndrangheta’s ungainly name becomes a household word.






Remember “Mola Ram,” the villain in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? He was the one who tore a man’s beating heart of out his body. Well, once again real life has trumped fiction, and someone has (allegedly) actually done it. Mixed Martial Arts cage fighter, Jarrod Wyatt, 27, has been charged in Del Norte County, CA, with the murder and torture of his friend and sparring partner, Taylor Powell, 21. The bros were tripping on hallucinogenic mushroom tea when Wyatt came to believe that a catastrophic tidal wave was coming, and he had to battle Satan in a good versus evil smackdown. Unfortunately for Taylor, he became the living embodiment of Satan in Wyatt’s mind, so to vanquish the demon king, Wyatt tore out Taylor’s heart while he was still alive, cut out his tongue, and ripped off portions of his face.

This is a tragedy–no two ways about it–and as outlandish and horrific as this killing is, it’s nothing to make light of. But what I find interesting about this story is the snowballing coverage of the event. When I first learned of it over a year ago, I was sure the Internet loudmouths would have a field day pillorying MMA for sanctioning ultra-violent, blood-thirty mutants who are just dying to do stuff like this. I read a few finger-wagging pieces along those lines, but surprisingly not that many. Equally surprising, almost no one blamed the young men’s drug use. Instead–and this blows my mind–the coverage has turned to zombies. Wyatt’s case has been aggregated with recent crime stories about flesh eaters–most notably a homeless guy in Florida who was caught chewing off his buddy’s face–as clear evidence of the coming Zombie Apocalypse! (Cue: scary music.)

OK, I am now speechless. Zombies? Really? I guess I should just be grateful they’re leaving the martial arts alone.

But I’m wondering how the prosecution will portray Wyatt when his case goes to trial. Will he be called a violent cage fighter? A violent drug user? Both? And will Wyatt’s attorney try to present a zombie defense? I’m assuming even in the far reaches of northern California, a judge won’t let that pass. But who knows? We are talking the Golden State. Stay tuned. Wyatt’s trial is scheduled to begin in September.

Iceman, the song

Check it out.  “Iceman,” the song!  Keith Cole, the lead singer in Legato Vibe, was kind enough to share this with me.  He wrote it along with band members Keith Davis (drums), John Neilds (guitar), and Jude Elion (bass).  Andy Zimmerman plays keyboards in the band.  It’s a great tune, and I think they really capture the spirit of the Iceman here. Good job, guys!

More Skeletons in the Vatican Closet

The Catholic Church doesn’t have enough closets for all the skeletons they have–literally! This week investigators in Rome opened up the tomb of notorious mobster Enrico DePedis on a tip that they’d find the remains of Emanuela Orlandi, a fifteen-year-old who disappeard in 1983. (Why, one wonders, was a Mafia chieftain buried on Vatican property? He couldn’t have been that devout. Or did he make the Pope an offer he couldn’t refuse?) But investigators found more than a  set of bones in the tomb; they found a dozen boxes of bones. Police are now doing tests to figure out whose bones these might be. Just when you think the scandals with the church can’t get any worse, they do. I write fiction, but, man, you can’t make this stuff up.  Read the whole story here.

Who’s the Ebook Monster?

Speaking of crimes, the US Department of Justice recently filed an anti-trust suit against Apple and five of the Big Six book publishers for allegedly colluding to fix ebook prices. I’m not going to get into the details of the case here; you can Google that. What’s got me scratching my head is the belly-aching from authors, author groups, and book lovers, decrying Amazon and weeping bitter tears for traditional (or legacy, if you prefer) publishers and big-box bricks-and-mortar stores (which is now mainly Barnes and Noble).  The loudest complainer for this group is bestselling author and Authors Guild president, Scott Turow, who sternly warns of the dangers of evil trampling publishers and chain bookstores.

Really? Have these people forgotten the days when Barnes and Noble, not Amazon, was the 800-pound gorilla that called the shots in book publishing? Starting in the mid-1990s, legacy publishers rejected many of my manuscripts and proposals. Why? Some editors confessed that publishers routinely consulted with Barnes and Noble, and if B&N decided they wouldn’t stock a new book by me because my past sales didn’t meet their expectations, then the publisher declined to make an offer. This was generally a sight-unseen rejection–I was judged not on the quality of the work but on past performance. A lot of writers were ghettoized thanks to the big chain stores and unfairly branded “mid-list authors” (a nice way of saying “losers”).

I don’t understand these people who pine for the good ole days of paper books and neighborhood bookstores (the ones killed off by the chains, by the way) and who blame Amazon for stomping over the publishing landscape. Can I assume that this group prefers snail mail to email? Multiplex cinemas to digital downloads? Typewriters to word-processing software? Well, if so, good for them. It’s their right to feel any way they want. But as history has shown, when the times they are a changin’, get on board or get the hell out of the way.

Some readers and writers turn up their noses and say that the proliferation of ebooks, particularly low-priced, self-published ebooks, signals the end of worthwhile culture. These low-down ebooks, they believe, litter the marketplace with badly edited crap. Not that traditional publishers have ever put out badly edited crap. Oh no, never.

Sure, there’s a lot of sub-standard material being offered online these days, but no one’s forcing you to read or buy it. Amazon has spearheaded the self-published ebook movement, which has allowed writers–both old hands and newbies–to bring their work to the marketplace without having to go through the traditional tastemakers. It’s rather democratic of Amazon. Hardly the kind of behavior you’d associate with an evil creature from Seattle.

Which is not to say that Amazon might not someday become an evil monster. But right now, at least from my point of view, it’s a pretty good monster. I make more money per sale with my ebooks than I ever made on my traditionally published books, and at prices much lower than the legacy publishers are willing to offer (hence the anti-trust suit). Also, I have access to sales information that traditional publishers have never willingly shared with authors. If you’ve ever seen a royalty statement, you know what I’m talking about. Masterpieces of obfuscation.

Bestselling authors like Turow are doing just fine, and I don’t begrudge them their success. Just don’t tell the rest of us who are benefiting from what Amazon has done that we’re helping this supposed monster destroy civilization. If anything, Amazon is promoting a freer flow of ideas and increasing the variety of voices on the book scene. Is that such a bad thing?

The Iceman Speaks

These videos contain audio clips from an interview I did with mass-murderer Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski in 1992 at Trenton State Prison in New Jersey. In the first he gives his philosophy of life. In the second he discusses mobster Roy DeMeo of the Gambino family who used him as a hitman. In the third he talks about one of his favorite weapons, the Derringer. We were locked into the “lawyer’s room,” just the two of us, no barrier between us, no guards in sight. The tapping you hear is him drumming his fingers on the table. The banging is the sound of doors slamming out in the hallway. We were together for five and a half hours without a break. Initially he was jovial, but throughout he was cautious and often evasive. There were several intense moments when I asked him about things he didn’t want to discuss, which elicited what investigators called his “shark look.” His face froze, and his eyes rolled back in his head the way a shark’s does before it bites. It lasted only a moment, but it was terrifying. These clips will give you a taste of what it was like to be with a man who claimed to have killed over 100 people and felt no remorse whatsoever.

So What’s the Deal with Florida?

I follow several crime news sites, including CNN Justice, which I visit several times a week.  No matter what the headline stories are, my eye is always drawn to the section that reports local crime stories on the East Coast. Why? Because I have to see what happened in Florida. The Sunshine State never disappoints when it comes to outlandish criminal activity. Don’t get me wrong–bad stuff happens all around the country, and there are some wonderful areas in that state.  But let’s face it–Florida seems to be the epicenter of the weird, heinous, and tragic.

I’m not just talking about the recent murder of Travon Martin and brouhaha surrounding it.  Think about it. The tragic slayings of little Caylee Anthony and Jessica Lunsford happened in Florida. Supposed female serial killer Aileen Wuornos committed her crimes in Florida. The insanely convoluted home-invasion murders of Byrd and Melanie Billings happened in Pensacola. Serial murderer David Alan Gore, who hunted, raped, and killed women with his older cousin, was just executed at Florida State Prison. Infamous coed-killer Ted Bundy migrated all the way from the Pacific Northwest to northern Florida for his final rampage. And these represent just a very small piece of the putrid Key Lime pie.  It seems that every single day someone is shooting, stabbing, strangling, beating, burning, dismembering, poisoning, drowning, Crazy Gluing, or burying alive someone else down there. No wonder so many mystery novels are set in that state.

You think I’m exaggerating? Take the Pepsi challenge and follow the Florida police blotter for a week and see if I’m wrong.

I have no idea why Florida excels at this kind of craziness. Who knows? Maybe there’s something in the water down there.

Casey’s Second Act

I hate to open this toxic can of worms again, but Casey Anthony is back in the news (as if we haven’t had enough of her). She’s planning to get baptized soon  “to ensure her own salvation so that she’ll see her daughter again someday,” Naturally the snarkies have their knives out, still tarring her with the guilty verdict they think the jury of her peers should have given her. Those who had her pegged as a murdering mom from day one seem unwilling to believe that her current desire for redemption is sincere. Now I’m not at all a religious person, but come on, shouldn’t Casey be allowed to make herself right with God? Maybe she deserves the benefit of the doubt on this one. I mean, when it comes to an individual’s relationship with the Lord she believes in, who are we to judge? I know I’m gonna get some brickbats hurled at me for this one, but I’m just saying.


Zombies, Vampires, Nazis & Wiseguys

I don’t get zombies. Vampires, I get, but zombies, no. Maybe it’s a generational thing. People under 35 seem to appreciate the undead in a way that I can’t. Maybe it has something to do with growing up under the shadow of AIDS, pandemic flu scares, and diseases caused by environmental abuse. The children of the boomers seem to like their monsters faceless and relentless, like cancer cells. I guess I’m old school. I want my monsters to have personalities.  Sure, Dracula is old hat, but he does have his charms.

And Drac has rules. There are certain things vampires can and cannot do. Certain things kill them–or at least piss them off–like sunlight, crosses, garlic, mirrors, and not getting an invitation. Watching them operate around these impediments is a big part of the fun of a vampire story. It levels the playing field for the humans. Zombies, on the other hand, aren’t as much fun. Unlike vampires, they have pretty miserable existences so they don’t have much to lose. They’re not cunning or diabolical because they don’t think. Basically they just shuffle around and try to eat the brains of the living. If you bash in their brains, they die.  And that’s pretty much it. A zombie doesn’t relish eating your brain; he doesn’t feast on it with orgiastic release the way a vampire drinks blood. And when you kill them, they get upset, but not the same way a vampire does. They don’t roar, curse at the heavens, and burn until they’re nothing but ashes. They just die. And they leave a gooey mess behind.

I just finished reading Max Brooks’s World War Z, a novel that presents the unexpected consequences of a worldwide infestation of the undead. The war is over, but the social and geopolitical ramifications are pretty startling. It’s a smart, entertaining what-if tale, and I really enjoyed it. I also enjoyed Danny Boyle’s stylish zombie film, 28 Days Later. Moaning flesh munchers don’t keep me from appreciating a good story well told, but I’m still not totally on board with this zombie thing.  Yeah, they’re scary and dangerous and all, but they’re just not great villains. They’re dumb and single-minded and they leak. Yuck.

Now Nazis are good villains. They do horribly inhuman things, BUT they’re human beings, which makes them that much scarier. The “virus” that created them is a warped ideology. They’ve been the bad guys in countless novels and films, and for decades they’ve work well as villains. Every season seems to have at least one movie that deals with some aspect of the Nazi atrocities leading up to and during World War II. This year it’s Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness about Polish Jews who hid in sewers to escape Hitler’s army.

Mafiosi used to be good villains, but the public seems to have grown weary of them. Wiseguys were the staple of many classic novels, films, and TV shows, most notably, The Godfather and The Sopranos. But the real mob has lost its teeth for the most part, and the public doesn’t fear them anymore. When they show up in works of entertainment, they’re usually more comic than deadly. The decline of the mob makes me a little sad because I used to write about wiseguys a lot. All the villains in my BAD series (Bad Guys, Bad Blood, Bad Luck, Bad Business, Bad Moon, and Bad Apple) were members of La Cosa Nostra. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t admire them.  In real life these guys are crumb-bums, but I have to admit I miss the fictional ones–Don Corleone, Tony Soprano, any of the trigger-happy men of honor played by Joe Pesci or Robert DeNiro.  To be honest, I’m hoping  for a comeback.

Every so often someone gets the bright idea to make a hybrid villain. Horror author Robert McCammon created Nazi zombies in The Night Boat.   Director John Landis gave us a crew of vampire wiseguys in Innocent Blood. The McCammon’s Nazi undead reanimated from a sunken submarine, and they were pretty scary as I remember (it’s been a while since I read it), but Count Vinnie and Nicky Nosferatu didn’t cut it.  Landis’s The Blues Brothers seems to be on TV every night of the week, but Innocent Blood? Fuhgeddaboutit. You’ve probably never even heard of it.  In my opinion mixing villain types is usually not a great idea.

Which brings me back to zombies. (You can see I’m stuck on this topic.) Popular villains reflect the fears and preoccupations of the times we live in. Fear of incurable disease and rampant overpopulation has given us zombies. Fear of extreme bigotry and totalitarian regimes has kept the Nazis in front of the cameras.  Fear of crime (as well as a titillating desire to watch guys get away with it) opened the door for the Mafia.  And let’s be honest, the fear of vampires–with all their sucking–is really a double-edged fear/fascination with sex.

The next big thing in villains will no doubt showcase our latest dread.  Here’s my prediction: regardless of political affiliation, we all fear that government insanity, on one side or the other, will do us in. So make way for the bloodthirsty politicians.  I mean just look at the crew trying to run for president and tell me they don’t rival the rogues’ gallery in the old Dick Tracy cartoons.  Flattop? Big Boy? Pruneface? The Brow? Seriously. Think about it.



The cameras are rolling on the film version of my book, THE ICEMAN, and everyone is asking me how I feel about it.  “Are the filmmakers being faithful to the book?” they all ask.  This reminds me of a story I once heard about Ernest Hemingway and his attitude toward Hollywood. A young East Coast novelist who was being courted by a film producer asked for Papa’s advice. Hemingway supposedly told the newbie to drive up to the Nevada-California state line, heave his manuscript over the border, have the producer heave a bag of money back, then get in the car, drive East, and start working on a new book. Hemingway then amended his statement, counseling the writer to get the money first before relinquishing the book. Such is the level of distrust that existed and still exists between the literary and film worlds, which came to a shrill crescendo a few years back when Anne Rice raised holy hell after Tom Cruise was cast in the film version of her Interview with a Vampire. Tom was not how she envisioned her character.

I don’t feel that way. In fact, I feel just the opposite. I love Hollywood. So what if the film version isn’t exactly like the book? If films slavishly followed the books they were based on, they would probably be crappy movies. Books and movies are two different animals. Yes, they both tell stories, but the way they do it is completely different. Changes have to be made to the original material for a variety of reasons, and I’m cool with that.

For me there’s nothing better than walking onto a movie set and seeing my book come to life. Writing is a solitary endeavor. I work alone in my office every day.  Just me and the blank page on the laptop screen. As my old friend, painter Pete Rogers, says of the creative life, “Every day you gotta pull it out of your butt.” And that pulling takes place without co-workers, consultants, supervisors, or hand-holders. That’s why my trip to THE ICEMAN movie set in Shreveport, Louisiana, last week was such a treat.  The characters that ran around in my head for two years while I wrote the book are now living, breathing people with actors playing them. And it’s not just the actors that excite me. It’s the director, the cinematographer, the producers, and the numerous technical and set specialists.  It’s the hair and makeup people, the wardrobe mistress, the prop master, the still photographer, and the extras.  It’s the people who serve the meals and bring the snacks. Dozens and dozens of people have come together to make a movie based on a story that started in my little head. Astounding!

THE ICEMAN is my second book to be adapted for the screen. (The first was the 2004 TV movie, BAD APPLE, based on my novel of the same name.) The thrill is just as big this time around.  The only difference is that THE ICEMAN is non-fiction, which means I met and interviewed most of the real people being portrayed in the film.  In fact, I was the only person on the set who actually met the real Iceman–mass murderer, lethal scam artist and family man, Richard Kuklinski.

Michael Shannon has the title role, and while he doesn’t physically duplicate Kuklinski’s hulking demeanor, he captures all the terrifying intensity of the man. Watching Shannon took me back to the unforgettable day in 1992 when I interviewed the Iceman in prison, just the two of us locked in a room with no barriers between us and no guards in sight. We talked for five straight hours without a break. He described murders in great detail but always with a mundane, often condescending attitude. The people he killed deserved to die, he said, for getting involved with him. He also told me jokes and lied to me, taking credit for high-profile murders he couldn’t have possibly committed. All told, it was a private glimpse into a killer’s dark soul.  Believe me, Shannon’s performance will give audiences a good idea of what the real Iceman was like and, more importantly, what made him tick.

Winona Ryder plays the Iceman’s wife.  From the scenes I saw, Ryder nails the everyday torments of a woman married to a man struggling to survive in two worlds–on the street where he was valued for his ice-cold killing skills and at home where he fought his worst instincts in order to be a picture-perfect husband and father.

Kuklinski’s cohort in killing, “Mr. Freezie” (Mr. Softee in the book) is played by Chris Evans.  If you know Evans from his star turn as “Captain America” this past summer, this performance will be a shocker. He’s anything but a clean-shaven, all-American boy here and totally believable as a wildman who experimented with exotic forms of murder, including Kuklinski’s signature method, cyanide poisoning.

The real Iceman did contract killings for Gambino Family soldier, Roy DeMeo, who’s played by Ray Liotta. Don’t let the baby blues and the charming smile fool you. Liotta seethes with the same manic-depressive menace that made DeMeo the most feared wiseguy of his time.

One of DeMeo’s greaseball underlings is played by David Schwimmer.  Fans of Friends might not recognize their beloved “Ross”–Schwimmer is that convincing.

James Franco, who was originally going to play “Mr. Freezie,” appears in a cameo that will delight and horrify his hardcore fans.

And keep an eye out for Jay Gianonne as real-life undercover ATF agent Dominick Polifrone. The young actor does a great job playing the tough-as-nails lawman who eventually got the goods on the Iceman.

It’s been 19 years since the book was first published and four years since I was approached by director/producer Ariel Vromen to make a screen version. Pardon the cliche, but it has indeed been a long journey.  But from my point of view, well worth it. Unlike many writers who pout or raise a ruckus when Hollywood “ruins” their work, I welcome the transformation. The end product might not exactly be my vision, but that’s OK. The filmmakers are capturing the spirit of the book in an entertaining way, and that’s what’s important.

I want to thank everyone on the set who made this author feel welcome, particularly Ariel and producer Ehud Bleiberg without whom this film would never have happened.  And a special shoutout to my handler on the set, Jon Vender, who took me behind the scenes and treated me right.

Thanks, guys.