By J. Anthony Lukas
GQ, Dec 1984
Anonymous in their green Ford Fairmont, the plainclothesmen pull to the casino door and beckon three men into the backseat. Nosing into midday traffic, they head for the Italian community along North Georgia Avenue.
“That’s where he lives,” says one of the cops a few minutes later, pointing to a three-story row house with an American flag flying in the backyard. “Nicky still boards with this mother, you know.”
“He’s got no brains,” says his partner. “The only reason he’s where he is today, all the others got killed.”
“Here’s one of his gofers,” says the first cop. “Hey!” He shouts out the window. The gofer, natty in a black-and-white-checked sport coat, nods back as the sedan cruises by.
The detectives and their guests are casing the territory of Nicodemus “Little Nicky” Scarfo, reputed don of organized crime in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, who has returned to the seaside resort after serving seventeen months in a Texas prison for a firearms violation. Scarfo is said to hang out at Angeloni’s II restaurant, just up the street from his home. The cops have suggested that this might be a good place for lunch, but when they get there, the restaurant is closed.
They settle instead for the Irish Pub near the Boardwalk, a turn-of-the-century saloon that serves stout and Harp lager in big schooners. Selecting a corner table, Captain Jim Barber of the Atlantic County Major Crimes Squad and his colleague, Billy McIntyre, both order Budweiser. Elmore “Dutch” Leonard asks for a ginger ale.
The author of LaBrava, Stick and half dozen other crime novels, Dutch has come to Atlantic City to research his current book, already titled Glitz. He is accompanied by his researcher, Gregg Sutter, and a reporter who listens in on the lunchtime conversation.
Like many other Americans hitherto unaware of Leonard’s work, I was converted into a passionate devotee by LaBrava.
An understated man of 59 with a graying beard and owlish glasses, Dutch beings by telling the detectives something of his work-in-progress: “There’s this Miami Beach detective Vincent Mora, who goes to Puerto Rico to recuperate from a gunshot wound and meets this 20-year-old hooker named Iris. Iris is desperate to get to the States. She finds her way to Atlantic City, where she promptly dies. Vincent arrives to arrange for her burial, but soon he has reason to believe that she’s been murdered. So to flesh this out I need to look into all sorts of illegal activities going on here.”
“We get ’em all,” says Jim. “This past winter knocked our balls off.”
“Well,” Dutch asks tentatively, “let’s say that Iris takes a header out of a condominium up on Ventnor. But maybe the cause of death wasn’t the fall. Maybe she was dead already. How soon would you find that out?”
“We’d send pieces of organs and blood to the state medical examiner in Newark. He’d make the final determination.”
Between puffs on his True cigarette, Dutch takes it all down in his green spiral notebook.
“Suppose the apartment where Iris was killed belongs to some guy up in New York. You’re not sure who was there that night. The one person who must know is the security guard downstairs, but he won’t talk. What would you do?”
“He would see a whole lot of us until he got tired of seeing us.” says Jim.
“We might take him for a walk on the beach,” Adds Billy. “We’d ask him some questions. Do you know how to swim?”
“If you told all this to Vincent Mora,” says Dutch, “He might want to question the guard in his own way.” A little smile. “Which might you prefer?”
“Yeah,” says Jim.
Billy nods. “Oh yeah!”
Dutch wants to know what kind of weapon the major-crimes squad uses.
“We’re required to carry a Smith and Wesson 9 mm semiautomatic.”
“Do you carry it on your hip?”
“Yeah, sometimes in an ankle holster. They’re big around here. Nobody looks down at your feet. You can wear bell-bottom trousers to cover it up. In summertime, they’re great, because you don’t have to wear a jacket.”
The conversation turns to another murder Leonard has planned for the book. An old lady from New York, down in Atlantic City on a day trip, is feeding quarters into the slots at the Bally Casino when she’s abducted by the bad guy, Teddy Magyk, who proceeds to rob, rape and kill her.
“Where would Teddy take her?” Leonard wants to know.
“Well,” Jim muses, “there’s a place down under the Boardwalk where the bums go to drink. We found a body down there a few months ago.”
“My guy is essentially the same in every book—middle-aged, usually divorced, an outsider, someone who could go either way—but I vary the details, the background, I don’t think I could do the same character over and over, a private eye like Travis Magee or Lew Archer. I’d be bored.”
After lunch we get back into the green Ford for a quick tour of downtown. At Ocean Avenue, we leave the car for a close inspection of the bums’ hangout under the boardwalk.
“In the old days you couldn’t go up on the Boardwalk without a shirt, so they had these walkways from the beach to the street,” Jim explains. “But they were used for other purposes, too. We used to have an ordinance—I think it’s still under here and looks up through the slats in the Boardwalk, trying to see under women’s dresses.”
In the latticed light beneath the Boardwalk, detectives and writers poke through heaps of trash and bottles. In one corner, Jim shows us a wooden pen, now secured with a police padlock. “That’s where we found the body,” he explains. “Two bums had an argument over a bottle of wine, and one of them hit the other with a two-by-four. Splattered his brains all over the place.”
As they part outside the casino, Dutch gives each cop a paperback copy of Stick, which has been made into a motion picture starring Burt Reynolds. They’ve already read City Primeval and Split Images—ice-breakers Gregg Sutter had given them the month before—and are impressed by Leonard’s knowledge of their game. “Normally I don’t read this kind of story,” says Jim. “When you deal with this stuff all day long, you usually want something else at night. But you’re different. I can tell you’ve talked to a lot of police officers.”
Until the summer of 1978, Leonard had never talked with a police officer. A sometime advertising man (Chevrolet cars and trucks), author of westerns (Hombre, 3:10 to Yuma) and screenwriter (Mr. Majestyk, Joe Kidd), he’d just begun to try his hand at urban crime novels, but he wasn’t accustomed to on-the-scene research (most of the ambience for his westerns had been drawn from the pages of Arizona Highways). When The Detroit News Magazine asked him to spend time with the city’s homicide squad, it seemed like a good opportunity to learn something firsthand about the town in which most of his crime fiction was set. After one day, he thought, “Oh my God, this is too good!” So he stuck with the cops for three full months, quickly becoming an aficionado of police lore.
Leonard’s books have benefited from his immersion in this material. City Primeval (1980), Cat Chaser (1982), Stick (1983) and Labrava (1983) reflect his new familiarity with Detroit’s squad rooms and criminal courts, as well as the sleazy motels and nightclubs of Florida’s east coast.
Like many other Americans hitherto unaware of Leonard’s work, I was converted into a passionate devotee by LaBrava. My wife gave me a copy last Christmas, and one evening, after a particularly dismal cocktail party, I settled into my favorite chair to try it out. Before long I was utterly enthralled by the evocative tale of a former Secret Service agent who encounters an aging but still beautiful movie star, once the sex symbol of his youth. As Joe LaBrava is gradually drawn into Jean Shaw’s gambit—and into Dutch’s world of crumbling art deco hotels and stucco boardinghouses in Miami’s South Beach.
Like so much of Leonard’s work, Glitz had its origin in a movie project. Walter Mirisch, the producer who had just bought the film rights to LaBrava, talked with Leonard about writing a sequel to In the Heat of the Night.
The Mystery Writers of America has recently awarded LaBrava its Edgar as the best mystery of the year, preferring it to John le Carré’s Little Drummer Girl and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. But it was LaBrava that carried Dutch’s work across the invisible line separating the mystery genre from novels with a general readership.
He has finally begun to recap the financial rewards of his new status. The paperback rights to LaBrava brought him $363,000; the film rights, $400,000; and the film rights to Stick, $350,000. With miscellaneous income (he also wrote the screenplay for Stick), he earned nearly $1 million during the past year.
His tastes remain modest, though. He and his second wife, Joan, live comfortably, but not extravagantly, in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham. Dutch wears tweed jackets, solid shirts and corduroy pants or Levi’s. He owns only one suit. A rare sartorial indulgence is a set of fifteen Kangol caps—in camel, beige and blue—made in England. “My wife buys gold and diamonds,” he says. “I don’t quite understand that. if you like gold and diamonds, you can always go to a store and look at them. My wife owns a Mercedes and loves it. I have a Saab, because I noticed that’s what the cops in Aspen drive.”
When he’s writing, Dutch puts in a long, solitary day at his century-old desk, but he gets some assistance on the research. Bill Marshall, a private investigator in Coral Gables with whom he attended the University of Detroit, helps on his Florida locales. Dale Johnston, a weapons expert, advises him on the exotic handguns that crop up so often in his writing. And since 1981, Gregg Sutter—who was drawn to Dutch by their common interest in film noir—has taken time off from his job with a Detroit-based creative-marketing firm to help on more complicated research.
Like so much of Leonard’s work, Glitz had its origin in a movie project. Walter Mirisch, the producer who had just bought the film rights to LaBrava, talked with Leonard about writing a sequel to In the Heat of the Night, the 1967 drama about a black detective from Philadelphia (Sidney Poitier) who collides with a white Mississippi sheriff (Rod Steiger). Perhaps the sheriff in the sequel would come up to Philadelphia to work on a case. At Leonard’s request, Gregg began gathering material on Philadelphia’s underworld.
He turned up a report by the Pennsylvania Crime Commission on efforts by the South Philly mob to infiltrate Atlantic City’s gaming industry. Dutch was fascinated. When the movie project fell through, the author forged ahead on his own—an unusual example of a movie giving rise to a book. Last January he began to write, and only then did he dispatch Gregg to Atlantic City.
In a week of legwork, Gregg intuitively felt his way into the book, seeking out locales he knew would interest Dutch. He compiled an elaborate briefing book filed with 180 color photographs of potential sites for Leonard’s action: “The World Famous white House Sub Shop at Mississippi and Arctic. You can smell the onions from the street”; “Autopsy table—Shores Memorial hospital”; “What’s Left of Atlantic City’s last movie theater. Burned a year ago”; “Live nude shows, private booths, Ohio and Atlantic”; “Street toughs hang out on Euclid Avenue”; “The Costa Vidiere Apartments”; “The bar at the Hotel Holmhurst.”
It’s to the bar of the Holmhurst—an old-fashioned, family-style hotel out of Atlantic City’s past—that Dutch and Gregg adjourn at five that afternoon to meet Carl, a croupier who’s going to tell them about the casino system. When he hasn’t shown up by five forty-five, Gregg goes to call. Soon he’s back with a curious story: “I reached this strange guy at his apartment who said, ‘Carl’s crashed.’ That’s all he’d say, but everybody’s been telling me the croupiers are under such pressure, they’re all strung out on coke. I guess we got ourselves a cokehead.”
Gregg has to catch a plane for Detroit—his job is done. On the way out, Dutch takes a last, appreciative look at the white-clapboard Holmhurst, with its wide front porch. “This is where Vincent ought to stay,” he says.
“It would be fun to be almost any excellent performer. I’d like to be Dr. J. for forty-eight hours. I’d like to be a rock star for forty-eight hours, or a late-inning relief pitcher with a great big slow curve.”
It’s a short stroll back to the Resorts International casino Hotel, where Dutch and I are both staying. It couldn’t be more different from the Holmhurst—a sixteen-story tower, all red plush and chrome inside. Resorts calls itself “The Show Place Like No Place.”We drift in to the Rendezvous Lounge, where a group called Michaelina is performing—two guys on electric guitars, one on drums, one on vibraphone, and a blond singer. “Drink up,” says the guy at the mike. “The more you drink, the better we sound.”
The blond gives a passable rendition of “Embraceable You,” and Dutch says, “It would be fun to be a musician, wouldn’t it? It would be fun to be almost any excellent performer. I’d like to be Dr. J. for forty-eight hours. I’d like to be a rock star for forty-eight hours, or a late-inning relief pitcher with a great big slow curve.”
The baseball reference isn’t accidental. A lifelong ball fan, Leonard inherited his moniker from the Washington Senators’ pitcher of the same name. When Leonard was recently named one of ten “Michiganians of the Year” (along with Chrysler chairman lee Iacocca and astronaut Brewster Shaw Jr.), the emcee at the awards ceremony said, “Like his namesake, Dutch throws high hard ones in the literary game.” Dutch had to remind him that the Senator got by throwing knuckleballs and “other junk.”
Indeed, his novels have been compared to knuckleballs. “They come dancing at you like a snowflake on a breeze,” wrote one critic, “and you have no idea which direction they will take.” Over dinner at Knife and Fork, Dutch concedes that he generally doesn’t know which way his stories will develop. “I hate to plot,” he says. “I just put some street types together and see what happens. I don’t know where I’m going until I hear my characters talk. Take Walter Kouza and Jiggs Scully, the strong-arm guys in Slit Images and Cat Chaser. At first they were there just to provide information. They weren’t even going to have names. Then they started talking. When I find a character who can talk, I think I’d better use him.
“My best characters are the peripheral figures, the guys around the edge of the story—particularly the bad guys. My protagonists—Detective Bryan Hurd in Split Images, Detective Raymond Cruz in City Primeval, ex-con Ernest Stickley in Stick, LaBrava in LaBrava—they’re not as colorful as the others. They’re observers who reflect my point of view on authority, autonomy, living your own life. They don’t get serious about things. My wife asks me, ‘Don’t you ever worry about anything?’ And I say, ‘There’s not much worth worrying about.’
“I don’t want my guy to be a heroic hero. I try to make him a very ordinary person who accepts what comes along. He doesn’t kick and scream until he’s forced to do something about the situation. He comes on so flat and deadpan, the antagonist usually underestimates him. By the time he realizes his misjudgment, it’s too late.
“My guy is essentially the same in every book—middle-aged, usually divorced, an outsider, someone who could go either way—but I vary the details, the background, I don’t think I could do the same character over and over, a private eye like Travis Magee or Lew Archer. I’d be bored. And there’s a technical reason, too. Nearly everything I do sells to the movies, but the production company owns the characters in your film for several years after the release, so you can’t sell a stock character to another producer. When I wrote Split Images, I used Raymond Cruz right out of City Primeval, but my agent said he couldn’t shop it around Hollywood that way. So we jus crossed out Raymond’s name and replaced it with Bryan’s—everywhere, that is, except one page where we slipped up and you’ll still find Raymond instead of Bryan.”
“I’m not consciously setting out to make any statement about American society. I’m telling a story.”
Back at the hotel, we drop by the Rendezvous Lounge again to catch a band called Sam Butera and the Wildest, a stage full of beefy Italian guys whose performance is very raunchy, very Vegas. “They look like teamsters,” Dutch remakrs. “If you don’t applaud, they kill you.”
Speaking of killing, I say, Dutch’s books are filled with some of the most vicious and depraved killers in American literature. These “low-life scum dogs,” as Gregg calls them, get their kicks out of shooting, drowning, maiming and torturing their victims. How, I wonder, does an amiable, preternaturally placid man like Dutch work himself up to such paroxysms of violence?
Breaking out his quizzical little smile, Dutch manages to dodge the issue. “I don’t think I’m a violent man. I’ve only fired a handgun once in my life. A friend took me to a range in the basemen of a hardware store, and I fired a .38.”
I wonder too about the violent ends to which most of his bad guys come. In at least three books—Cat Chaser, City Primeval and 52 Pick-Up—the protagonist executes the villain with a brand of frontier justice reminiscent of the characters played by Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson. Sometimes it seems as if Dutch is saying that urban America is so steeped in corruption that only a ritual purification of violence can release it.
“I’m not vigilante, if that’s what you mean,” he answers. “In fact, I’m not consciously setting out to make any statement about American society. I’m telling a story.” We chat a bit longer; then, with Sam Butera and the Wildest still thumping away, Dutch toddles off to bed.
The next morning he has an appointment with William Weinberger, the president of the Bally’s Park Place Casino-Hotel. He wants to ask him about skimming, money-laundering and other illegal casino practices, but fears that Weinberger won’t talk about them if I’m along.
When he gets back, Dutch is armed with all sorts of statistics—Ball’s has 1650 slot machines, 76 blackjack tables, 22 crap tables, 12 roulette wheels, 3 baccarat tables—but no information of skimming and laundering. “As soon as I asked about that, he clamed up. I guess those are naughty words around here.”
In his never-ending search for inside dope, Dutch has another ace up his sleeve. Through a contact in city government, he has located another croupier who is said to know all the angles—some of them rather shady—in casino operations. Dutch calls to set up an appointment, and the croupier says he’ll call back at four o’clock to arrange a meeting place. We sit around Dutch’s hotel room until well paste give, but the phone never rings. Finally, Dutch calls the croupier’s number again, only to be told that the phone has been disconnected—sometime in the last three hours since we dialed it last. “I guess the croupiers don’t want to talk to me,” Dutch says lightly.
The phone rings. It’s Dutch’s agent, the legendary H.N. Sawnson, who once represented the Hollywood interests of Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulker, and now, at 85, still gets his clients top dollar. “Swanie” reports that Walter Mirsch wants Richard Gere to play Joe LaBrava, Ann-Margret for the faded actress, Jean Shaw. Dutch thinks Ann-Margret might do, but he isn’t sure about Gere.
“Movies are a big part of my life. When I was a kid, I’d come back from a flick and recite the plot—scene by scene—to my friends.”
I ask Dutch about the role of films in his life. For years he earned most of his money from Hollywood. Virtually every book he has written has now been either sold or optioned to the movies; producers and critics alike say his books read like movie scripts.
“No question,” he says, “movies are a big part of my life. When I was a kid, I’d come back from a flick and recite the plot—scene by scene—to my friends. My wife and I probably see ten films a week. We got out to see two a week, but we’ll see another batch on TV. It isn’t unusual for us to see three films a night. I’ve been influenced by a lot of writers, starting with Hemingway and James M. Cain. George Higgins taught me that it was okay to jump into the middle of a scene and let the reader catch up. I’m in awe of William Kennedy, a master who can do almost anything he wants. But movies have probably been the biggest influence of all.”
It’s time for dinner. We decide to try Angeloni’s again, and this time it’s open. To our disappointment, there’s no sign of Nicky Scarfo or any of his henchmen. The place is filled with silver-haired ladies in town for an evening at the slots.
I have the seafood special and a glass of Orvieto. Dutch orders pasta and ginger ale. He notices me squinting at his soft drink and says, “I used to have a real drinking problem. I could function all right, but I didn’t have to end up in the weeds to know I was in trouble. I had a high bottom. I was in Alcoholics Anonymous for six years, and I had my last drink on January 27, 1977—I’ve got a medallion around somewhere with that date on it. My whole outlook on the world is different now. I used to think I was bored. I thought everybody around me was boring. Now I think everybody is interesting.”
At last I know who Dutch reminds me of: an old friend who is also a recovered alcoholic. They transmit the same sense of enforced tranquility, as if some fierce hunger for excess is held in check by an implacable will. I ask Dutch if he knows what I mean.
“Oh, yes,” he says, “the calm after the storm.”If some of the wild juices have been drained from Dutch’s life, they seem to have found their way into his work. It is probably no coincidence that after some twenty-five novels and screenplays, he began to find his literary voice just about the time he gave up the bottle. “I like my characters more,” he says, “probably because I like myself more. I think I’m getting better with every book.”
After dinner we wander over to Bally’s. At ten-thirty the casino is pulsing with action. Nearly all of those 1650 slot machines seem to be manned. Dutch feeds sixty quarters into the machine and gets only six back. Then he loses those six. “It’s funny,” he says. “I probably have more money than 99 percent of the people out there, but I think it’s kind of shameful to lose a couple hundred dollars at this. I can’t do it.”
About midnight we stroll up the Boardwalk toward our hotel. To our right the surf pounds the winter beach: to our left, a row of shuttered storefronts—Bruno’s Naples Pizza, King Kone Frozen Yogurt and Mme. Edith, Phrenologist.
“I love names. I can’t get a character to talk until he has the right name.”
“Iris would love all this,” Dutch muses. “Teddy would like it too. But I don’t know what Vincent would make of it. I’m not sure about Vincent.”
The next morning we play the slots again, and Dutch loses another forty dollars in quarters. Back in his hotel room I ask if I can take a look at the green spiral notebook in which he’s been scribbling these last few days.
The first thing I see is a list of names. “Rita Moon. Moosleh Jabara. Dawn Baker. Shake Tippy. Sonny.” Dutch explains: “I love names. I can’t get a character to talk until he has the right name.” He often takes his names from people he encounters. Teddy Magyk, the antagonist in Glitz, takes his from Eddie Mogck, a sailor with whom Dutch served in World War II. After he got off the ship in New Guinea, Eddie told me, ‘You got to watch out for pythons. I don’t want no part of them fuckers.’”
Dutch loves that sort of language, and the green notebook is filled with snatches of conversations he’s overheard in Atlantic city. I see an offhand comment one of the detectives made at the Irish Pub: “The owner is this titsy young broad.” Dutch has been rolling that one around on his tongue for days.
There are substantive entries, too. He writes: “What is the situation in which Vincent and Magyk first meet, face off, Vincent overreacts and Magyk ends up seriously wounded?”
Again: “What kind of guy is Magyk that he would be so determined to get revenge? Is he simply violent or crazy? Do we see his point of view?”
And again: “When will Vincent start talking?” As I leave that morning, Dutch Leonard is still trying to get Vincent to talk.
A few days later I get a note from Dutch. “I wanted to tell you how I finally came out with the slots. At 5:15 Thursday, $95 in the hole, almost ready to leave the hotel, I went in for one last assault, got $10 in quarters, fed them three at a time and hit on double bars straight across—75 bucks, 300 quarters. It fills the tray.”
This sure is Dutch’s year.