When I finished my second novel, 2005’s The Heartbreak Lounge, I was determined never to write about traditional organized crime again. The whole New Jersey mob thing had become too much of a cliché, thanks in part to the brilliance of The Sopranos, which brought that world into people’s living rooms every week.
For a crime novelist who lives in and writes about New Jersey, this wasn’t an easy choice. Clichés are clichés because they’re true. Credit The Sopranos creator and N.J. native David Chase for knowing his subject. Part of his research, by Chase’s own admission, came from stories published in The Star-Ledger of Newark, the newspaper where I worked as an editor for 13 years. Recognizing the Ledger as the N.J. O.C. paper of record, Chase often featured it prominently in the show, with an additional thanks in the end credits of most episodes.
At one point, the Ledger – New Jersey’s largest newspaper – had two full-time organized crime reporters. In 1992, one of them, Robert Rudolph, wrote a book called The Boys from New Jersey, a seminal work on organized crime. It chronicled a Lucchese family trial that went on for two years and ended with the acquittal of all 20 defendants, and a bitter defeat for the government.
So, I decided, enough was enough. For my third novel, Gone ’til November, I knew it was time to leave the wiseguys behind. Instead, I made the villains a Newark drug gang trying to extend its influence into Florida. The central character, Nathaniel Morgan, was an aging hitman contemplating a bleak future, and ready to turn against his handlers. For research, I sat in on a major federal drug trial in the city, and came away with lots of great material to weave into the story.
Then came my fourth and latest novel, Cold Shot to the Heart. For that plot – about a female armed robber being pursued by a sociopathic ex-con – I also needed a N.J. criminal organization, one the ex-con would be beholden to while tracking down the protagonist, a professional thief named Crissa Stone.
This time, I decided to make the gangsters Serbians. Why, I’m not quite sure. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Serbian, much less a Serbian mobster. I don’t even know if there are Serbian mobsters in New Jersey (my only knowledge of them came primarily from Nicolas Winding Refn’s PUSHER trilogy). But the concept sounded unusual and slightly exotic, a welcome change from the earlier novels.
I went ahead and wrote the first 60 or so pages of the book – prominently featuring a Serbian gang patriarch and his shiftless son – based strictly on internet research, translation sites and half-remembered movies. In other words, I was pulling it out of thin air. But it never clicked. It never felt real.
Fast forward to 2008. I and 150 of my Star-Ledger colleagues – almost half the newsroom staff – had opted to take buyouts from the company, which, like many newspapers, was in deep financial trouble. One of my fellow departees was Guy Sterling, the paper’s organized crime reporter with the longest tenure. For three decades, he’d covered most of the state’s major mob cases, and earned the respect of the players on both sides of the law. But that storied career was coming to an end. December 31 would be the last day at the paper for both of us.
One afternoon in late November, Sterling came by my desk to tell me that some of “the boys” he’d written about over the years were planning to throw him a retirement dinner at an old-school Italian restaurant in Newark. He invited me to come along as his guest.
As a crime writer, it was, literally, an offer I couldn’t refuse. But when the night came, I was still uncertain what I was getting into. On the drive to the restaurant, Guy began telling me about some of the people he thought might be there. I stopped him. It was too much information. I didn’t want to be thinking about who these men were and what they’d done while we were making small talk over biscotti.
The restaurant was much as you’d imagine, Al Martino on the jukebox, pictures of N.J. Italian celebrities on the walls, and a clientele who – that night, at least – might have been assembled for a SOPRANOS casting session. I also noticed that every time the front door opened, all heads turned to look. No one was sneaking up on anyone in here.
I won’t go into detail about the dinner that followed, except to say that it was Guy, myself and ten late-middle-aged-to-elderly gentlemen who were definitely not Serbian. The tone was set by one of our hosts, who proclaimed early on, “You know, half of us are violating our parole just by being here together.”
At first, I was unsure how to behave. Should I keep my mouth shut, or try to participate in the conversation? Would they consider it rude and suspicious – since none of them knew me – if I just sat and took it all in, without saying a word? Finally, when the conversation turned to Rudolph’s book, I tried to interject a comment in a friendly manner. I was met with icy stares, and a sudden change of topic. Okay, I thought, Plan B. Shut up and listen.
I grew up in a working-class Italian neighborhood in Long Branch, N.J. – I’m half Italian myself – so these men weren’t totally alien to me. They were essentially working-class Italians, except for the fact they’d never really worked. Most had spent long stretches in prison. Two of them were then under indictment. They were generally friendly though, in a reserved sort of way, and once I adopted the policy of keeping my mouth shut, laughing at their stories and pouring wine whenever I saw an empty glass, they began to warm to me. By the time we got to the espresso (with anisette and lemon peel, of course), they were including me in the conversation – sort of.
Those four hours passed in a blur. At one a.m., I was home, frantically writing down bits of dialogue and anecdotes before I forgot them. For curiosity’s sake, I pulled Rudolph’s book off the shelf and scanned the index. Four of my dinner companions were in there, including two who’d been charged with murder on separate occasions, and acquitted in each case.
When I woke the next day, my head still spinning, I knew one thing for sure – the Serbians were out. With that dinner, I’d been handed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Cliché or not, this was the way it really was. This was The Life.
Almost immediately, I began to rewrite COLD SHOT, and for the first time it began to breathe. Yes, I was writing about traditional N.J. organized crime again, but it felt like I had a new approach, new insight. It was exactly what the story needed.
I didn’t use any actual dialogue or stories from that night. I never will. Those men were sharing a little bit of their life with me, wary as they may have been. Using them as fodder for a novel, without their knowledge or approval, would have been wrong.
Instead, what I took from that dinner was something else entirely. It was a sense that, for these men in their 60s and 70s, that life which may have been attractive early on was now anything but. These were no golden retirement years. None of them had achieved any great wealth. Some were facing indictments, likely paying thousands of dollars to lawyers on a regular basis. For the oldest of them, a prison term of even a few years would be a literal death sentence. Others were wondering when they too might again be the target of an investigation. And, rare as it may be, there was always that other occupational risk – a swift and sudden forced retirement of the more permanent variety.
It was the life they had chosen, true. But these were old men, dealing with age, regret and disappointment, as old men do. They were concerned for their families, for their children and grandchildren. But they were resolved to their lives. And long past the point of opting out.
Since that night, one of my dinner companions has died of natural causes. Another is gravely ill. A third – in his late 60s – was indicted last year in a RICO case that could land him in prison for the rest of his life.
I haven’t seen any of them since that night – and don’t really want to. But I’m glad I had the chance to meet them. That dinner put a human face on something I knew only from movies, books and news stories. This was the reality of that world, and there was nothing glamorous, enviable or exciting about it.
The food, however, was excellent.
Wallace Stroby is an award-winning journalist and the author of the novels Some Die Nameless (Mulholland Books), The Devil’s Share, Shoot the Woman First, Kings of Midnight, Cold Shot to the Heart, Gone ‘Til November, The Heartbreak Lounge and The Barbed-Wire Kiss.
A Long Branch, N.J., native, he’s a lifelong resident of the Jersey Shore. “The Barbed-Wire Kiss,” which The Washington Post called “a scorching first novel …full of attention to character and memory and, even more, to the neighborhoods of New Jersey,” was a finalist for the 2004 Barry Award for Best First Novel.
A graduate of Rutgers University, Stroby was an editor at the Star-Ledger of Newark, Tony Soprano’s hometown newspaper, for 13 years.