The Map of Crime

A few weeks ago I took a bus from Philadelphia to New York, and as we zipped through the New Jersey Meadowlands and the Manhattan skyline came into view, I realized that I was following my personal map of crime. Crime writing, that is.

The bus had just passed Newark’s Ironbound section, which reminded me of the mob hit man I had once met who had been involved in a beef between the Jersey faction of the Lucchese Family and the Philadelphia Family over Joker Poker video machines. It was a unique story because it wasn’t family against family, but the younger generation against the older. My partners and I pitched it as a documentary, but after some initial interest, no one bit. At the time The Sopranos was eating up the whole Mafia pie.

Newark is near the home base of Joshua Armstrong and the Seekers, a team of bounty hunters guided by their spiritual beliefs. Their success rate is better than the US Marshals’, but they use force only when it’s absolutely necessary. Joshua and I collaborated on the non-fiction book, THE SEEKERS: A BOUNTY HUNTER’S STORY.

9174624-largeThe Pulaski Skyway, a vintage black iron snake that crosses the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers, reminded me of the junkyard in its shadow where cops dug hole after hole looking for Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa’s remains. It’s one of dozens of Hoffa burial sites around the country that didn’t pan out. I once wrote a piece on Hoffa’s disappearance and listed all the locations where tipsters had told investigators they’d find his body. They still haven’t found it and probably won’t. The prevailing theory these days is that he was cremated soon after he was abducted. As the wiseguys say, no body, no crime.

The new World Trade Center tower is taking shape in lower Manhattan, a soaring monolith on the site where the twin towers had stood. After 9/11, I had written an article about the last two people rescued from the wreckage, both courageous Port Authority Police officers, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno.

On Route 3, on the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel, there’s a Motel 8 wedged on a strip of land next to a wall of jagged rust-colored rocks. It used to be the York Motel where mass-murderer Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski had murdered one of his underlings with a cyanide-laced hamburger. When I interviewed Kuklinski in prison in 1992, he explained to me that he had to mix the poison with ketchup to hide the taste. He recommended mixing cyanide in a tasty sauce of some kind, something “gooky,” otherwise the victim might not eat it. This was one of many tips he gave me about the killing trade.

On the winding road to the tunnel, I looked to my left and saw Manhattan spread out on the other side of the Hudson, like a reclining giant about to sit up. I looked toward Greenwich Village where the boss of the Genovese Family, the late Vinny “Chin” Gigante, would amble along the sidewalk in front of his apartment building in his slippers and bathroom, mumbling and talking to the parking meters, maintaining the mental disability act he’d started in the 1960s to avoid prosecution. The Feds eventually proved that it was a ruse and put him away. Gigante was the inspiration for one of my favorite villains, “Sal Immordino,” in my thrillers, BAD LUCK and BAD MOON.

Using the slanted top of the Citigroup Center as my guide, I estimated the location of East 50th Street next to St. Patrick’s Cathedral where a crucial scene in the TV movie adaptation of my novel, BAD APPLE, was filmed. In the scene, the hero, FBI Special Agent “Mike Tozzi” (played by Chris Noth) is kidnapped and thrown into a van with the girl of his dreams (played by Dagmara Dominczyk). I was on the set that day and was tickled pink to see dozens of people working on a film based on an idea that came out of my little bitty head. Sweet.

A few blocks north and west on 57th Street, I met disgraced FBI agent John Connolly who had handled Boston’s two most notorious gangsters, James “Whitey” Bulger and Stevie “the Rifleman” Flemmi. While protecting them as “top echelon informants,” Connolly also ran interference for them as long as they fed him inside information about the Mafia. It was a win-win for everyone involved–Connolly made high-profile mob busts that furthered his career, and Bulger and Flemmi had the best friend a gangster could ever want.  When I met him, Connolly was looking for a co-writer for a proposed book on his mob-busting adventures, but there was something fishy about him. Part of it was his flashy John Gotti style. I followed my instincts and politely declined to be considered for the project, and it turned out that my gut was right. Connolly was later convicted of second-degree murder for providing information that led to a gangland slaying in Miami ordered by Bulger and Flemmi. He’s now serving a 40-year sentence.

Looking uptown, I was reminded of the long weekend I spent with Harlem drug lord, Leroy “Nicky” Barnes, perhaps the most interesting criminal I’ve ever interviewed. He had served his time, gone into witness protection, and was living a life very different from the supercharged high life he had once known. But the leopard hadn’t lost his spots even if they weren’t obvious anymore. I’ve met a lot of convicted felons, several of them murderers, but none had Barnes’s razor-sharp criminal instincts. Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to write his book, but I don’t consider the time I spent with him a waste. It was a graduate-school level education.

lincoln-tunnelMy bus slipped into the shade of the Lincoln Tunnel, and I was quickly mesmerized by the dancing, streaming reflections of red tail lights on the tiled walls. Tail Light River is a book title I’ve been holding onto for decades. I don’t know what the book would be about–I just love the image. But who knows? Maybe one of these days I’ll meet someone whose story will go with the title, and he or she might be another pushpin in my map of crime.

 

 

 

 

Ring-a-Ding-Ding Dong School

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I’ve finally figured it out. Characters in TV shows are always going back to their pasts for revelatory clues about themselves, trying to find out why they are the way they are. So after watching an episode of Girls the other night (which by the way features the most self-analytical characters ever) my wife and I somehow got on the topic of our favorite songs from childhood. I recalled liking Burl Ives singing “I Know an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly” and, of course, Fess Parker’s “Ballad of Davey Crockett.” We reminisced about the toddler idol, Raffi, whom our daughter adored in the 1980s. (Sooooo many car trips with the Baby Beluga album on the tape player. “Baby Beluga… Baby Beluga… Baby Beluga.” Raffi’s oh-so-mellow and soporific voice over and over again when what I really wanted was just a few minutes of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band or the Mahavishnu Orchetra or really anybody but Raffi.)

So I got to thinking about other favorite songs when I was a tyke. The Nestle’s chocolate song sung by Farfel, the puppet dog, was a definite fave. I loved it when he clapped his jaws shut at the end–who didn’t? And I remember my Aunt Kat playing Elvis 45s downstairs in my grandparents’ apartment and really liking “Hound Dog.” (“You ain’t nothing but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time…”) But the two songs that stand out in my mind are “Love and Marriage” and “High Hopes,” both sung by Frank Sinatra. While most kids my age were heavily into whatever they were hearing on Ding Dong School, I was grooving to Old Blue Eyes. Just imagine him singing those catchy ditties in the studio–sharp suit, tie loosened, fedora tipped back, cigarette going, glass of Jack Daniels in his hand, one take and out. Not exactly squeaky-clean Raffi.

Now you have to understand that in Italian-American households back then, there were usually three portraits hanging in a cluster in every kitchen: Jesus, JFK, and Frankie. Jesus for obvious reasons, though sometimes a picture of the sitting Pope served as a stand-in. John F. Kennedy because he was the first (and only) Roman Catholic President of the United States. And Sinatra because there’s no other like him, a Manichean embodiment of soaring talent and bad-boy swagger. In my world you weren’t allowed to merely prefer Sinatra, you had to like Sinatra. His picture looked at me whenever I sat at my grandparents’ kitchen table, staring through the rising steam of Grandma’s gravy pot. He got into my pores and seeped into my consciousness. The guy with the golden pipes, the phrasing that spoke to you and only you, the man who hung out with mob bosses and chased down the Manchurian Candidate, the lucky fella who seemed to have every luscious Hollywood piece of tail he wanted without even trying. Screw Ding Dong School. I was into ring-a-ding-ding.

So, duh. Is it any wonder I ended up writing about mobsters, cops, and detectives for a living? It wasn’t a direct one-for-one cause and effect, but I guess when the voice you grow up with is so decidedly adult, you tend to seek out what’s in the shadows. Well, so be it. I’m not a “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah” kind of guy, and frankly I’m glad I’m not. As Frank used to say, “That’s life

Eric and Me

eric-clapton_crash2I’ve been writing books for a long time, and you’d think I’d have it down pat by now. Ha! There are some things I still stubbornly resist even though I should know better. Like writing description. For me it’s like having someone tell you to eat your peas (even though, for the record, I like peas). I just don’t like doing it. I get so involved with unspooling the plot, I don’t want to stop and smell the roses. I’m more interested in what my characters are doing than what they’re wearing, seeing, hearing, smelling, and tasting. I have to force myself to write that stuff because those paragraphs feel like road blocks, downed trees and live wires. On first reading they seem clunky and obvious. I want to be on the motorcycle riding it, not telling you what color it is, how big the engine is, how it sounds, and what the exhaust smells like.

Funny thing is, I don’t feel that way when I’m reading someone else’s work. I enjoy well-written descriptions that let me experience what the characters are experiencing. But when I write that stuff, it doesn’t feel right. It feels awkward and, in a way, too easy.

But that’s the odd thing about creative endeavors. Very often the easiest things get the best audience response. Think of a guitar god who wails away at top volume and gets wild cheers when all he’s playing is the same note over and over. Sometimes craft gets in the way. Most audiences tend to like it simple, raw, and from the gut: three chords and a driving beat. Sometimes the more intricate the song, the fewer fans. If people really wanted a steady diet of complex, challenging, and experimental music, we’d have dozens of top 40 jazz and classical radio stations on the dial.

Writers who labor over clever phrasing, precious word choice, and nuanced construction might get high praise from the critics but snores from readers. A minimalist writer will forgo descriptions, judging them conventional and passé. But if that’s what readers want, why should the writer deny them? (Unless, of course, you believe that reading a novel shouldn’t be entertainment first and foremost. But that’s another kettle of fish we won’t get into here.)

The way I see it, just because I don’t like writing descriptions, I shouldn’t shortchange my readers. Look, if Eric Clapton can hang on a single note and repeat it until it cries and his fans roar, and then do it again night after night, I can certainly describe clothes and rooms and meals and landscapes and facial expressions even though it feels like I’ve done it a hundred times before. After all, if you want to keep working, you have to please the fans. Right?

Read Bad Books

448px-Houdini_performing_Water_Torture_CellNo, seriously. Read bad books. If you want your writing to improve, pick up a few. They’ll teach you a lot. Great books will teach you little or nothing about the craft. They’re so good they’re mesmerizing. It’s like trying to learn how to be a magician by watching Houdini. He was so adept people never saw what he was doing. His tricks were smooth and seamless. Audiences never suspected the mechanisms behind the curtain, the devices he used to pull off his amazing stunts. But a lot can be learned from a bad magician whose slow card handling, clumsy distractions , and less-than-perfect apparatus shows you how it’s done and more importantly how it fails. Reading a wonderful book is like watching Houdini. But reading a bad book is like watching the Infrequently Amazing Shlumpy. In a bad book, the curtain is falling down and you can see what goes wrong and why. Hopefully you’ll learn not to repeat those kinds of mistakes.

I’m not alone in this opinion. This fall I was on a panel at Noircon in Philadelphia with mystery giant Lawrence Block who said he had learned a lot about writing as a young man evaluating manuscripts for a paperback publisher. He saw what worked and what didn’t in unpublished manuscripts and thus learned what not to do. I had a similar experience working for two small book publishers in New York in the 1980s. I read a lot of manuscripts from the slush pile as well as manuscripts submitted by literary agents. I saw many common mistakes and came to understand why they were mistakes.

Writing a novel is a matter of choices. Will your hero be like this or like that? Will you write in the first person or third? How fast or slow will you dole out information to keep the reader engaged? How much description will you include? Will your writing be spare and punchy or florid and expansive? How will you handle dialogue? Will you be able to strike the right balance between realistic speech and uploading information needed to further the plot? A poor choice can wreck a novel. It will ripple through the entire work, getting bigger and more problematic as it goes along.

So this is why I say, if you want to write a good book, do yourself a favor and read a couple of bad books. You might learn a few tricks.

 

On Not Writing

I have a compulsion. I have to write. No, I have to write. If I don’t write at least five double-spaced pages a day, I feel as if I’ve failed. Fallen behind. Wasted the day. It’s the curse of the scribe. If I don’t put words on paper (okay, on the screen), then I’m not working. And if I’m not working, I have no reason for being. I’m just taking up space. I write therefore I am.

But this, I know, is a bad attitude. But knowing the problem doesn’t always help the situation.  I have to force myself to sit still and not write. Why, you ask? There are many benefits to not writing. I’m not talking about doing nothing, just not writing. Reading, researching, making notes, collecting my thoughts, figuring out what to write, accumulating substance–that’s what I’m talking about. A lot of writers are long on style but short on substance. The author doesn’t have a whole lot to say, but he or she strains to say it beautifully. The result: empty reading calories. I know very well how this happens, and I’ve been guilty of it myself. But the compulsion takes over. Gotta make the daily quota whether I have something to say or not. The assembly line keeps chugging along, and I have to keep up. I have to make those damn widgets!

I’ve started working on a new book, a historical novel, and right now I’m at the hardest and, I’d say, most important stage, the Not-Writing Stage. I’m reading, surfing the web, gathering books and articles, taking notes–and it’s killing me. I want to dive right in, get the show on the road, put the pedal to the metal, and kick out my five pages a day so that I’ll feel that I’m really doing something. But I must plug my ears to this siren song and not open up a new file and type out “Chapter 1.” Not yet.  I have to stockpile my ammo first. There’s nothing worse than getting to the middle of the manuscript and having nothing else to say. Style will fill only so many pages.

My Long Haul

It has been a LONG haul.  Twenty years to be exact. I started researching and writing THE ICEMAN, the story of killer Richard Kuklinski, back in 1992. It was published in hardcover and paperback in the US, then in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan. Like most books, its popularity petered out after a few years, but I did my best to keep it in print, even offering it to a publisher for free once (they said yes, then changed their minds–their loss). One way or another I managed to keep it alive. Thank God. Director Ariel Vromen discovered it online a few years back, and to make a long story short, it’s now a major motion picture, starring Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, James Franco, and David Schwimmer. The film will be released sometime in 2013, but the trailer is available now. Take a look.

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.