Tag Archives: Miami Vice

Style

I’ve talked before about how I’m fascinated with the idea of the illicit drug business. I like the double lives the dealers and importers lead. Even the cops who work that as their beat—from the DEA to the local vice cops—generally are leading double lives. Then there’s the whole thing of secret meetings in out-of-the-way places, everybody there already paranoid, and most of them taking their own product doesn’t help.

Would I want to live in that world? Absolutely not. But it’s great looking at it from the outside.

Style, man. That’s what they have. You can watch the fictional version, with Miami Vice being one of the more

Don Johnson epitomizing the dress style that b...

well-known examples, or you can get into the reality with documentaries like Cocaine Cowboys, which chronicles the times the original Miami Vice made famous: the Cocaine Wars of South Florida in the late seventies and early eighties.

You got expensive cars. Sonny Crockett drove Ferraris on TV, Jon Roberts preferred Porches and Mercedes in real life. They had expensive clothes, with Sonny doing the Armani thing, and I’m not sure what Jon wore, but they were flashy.

Of course, we’re talking about opposite sides here. Sonny Crockett was a fictional vice cop. Jon Roberts was a very real importer for the Medellín Cartel. According to his own estimate, in a roughly six year period, he burned thorough some one hundred fifty million dollars. He bought seven or eight Mercedes a year. He and his girlfriend Toni once trashed two in a fight with one another. He called someone the next day to haul them off and they went and bought a couple more.

Miami-vice-car-b2

Expensive cars. High-end clothing. Exclusive clubs. It’s the kind of setting I’d like to write about sometime. Mostly because, at the very least, I don’t have to keep track of my characters’ budgets. And who knows? Maybe I will someday.

But then again, maybe not. My style seems to be different. No matter how much I might admire the films and TV shows based on this—and the flashy style they convey—my fiction is, for the most part, rooted closer to home. My characters tend to be more down to earth…and a lot poorer.

Take the characters in my forthcoming book Spree. Yeah, they go through a considerable amount of money during the story, and end up with a goodly sum at the end, with the prospect of more to come. But when it starts out, they’re just scraping by, a couple of two-strike losers looking at doing some serious time if they screw up again. Like a lot of people these days, they’re one paycheck away from living on the street. In fact, Steve has spent a lot of his life there.

And then there’s Lyle, the central character in my Rural Empires setting. When we first meet him, he’s already around forty, and he’s spent almost twenty years in a factory job when he’s confronted with the specter of leukemia in his daughter. If not for that, he probably would have lived his life out working the factory job and dealing with his divorce. Pretty Joe Average kind of stuff. And even after he makes a ton of money distributing meth, his lifestyle doesn’t change that much. He spends a lot of money carting his daughter around the world seeing if there’s some way to get her to walk again, only stopping when she insists. It’s the kind of thing most of us would do for our kids.

And I think that’s why I might not ever write about the characters I mentioned above: I’ve never led a life with expensive clothes, cars, and houses. I’ve struggled to make ends meet for as long as I can remember. Seems like I’m always watching people around me slowly build their fortunes, or at least achieve a level of being comfortable, but I don’t even have a retirement account right now.

I’m not looking for pity. I’m just saying I can’t easily relate to driving around in sports cars and needing a machine to count my money. I can’t imagine my biggest problem being finding a way to avoid paying taxes on the proceeds from my latest drug deal.

But I think, in a lot of ways, that means I write characters readers can more readily identify with. Even Eddie and Steve, career criminals that they are, are more relatable than someone like, say, Tony Montana is. We like Scarface because, in the end, we see a guy get what’s coming to him. He lived a life of excess and danger, and made tons of money. But he was still a psychopathic killer who cared pretty much for only one person: Tony Montana. So when he takes that coke-addled, bullet-ridden plunge into the pool at the end, we’re a little sad, but we nod to ourselves and think he got his just desserts.

But Steve Wilson, or Lyle Villines, they’re just a couple guys trying to make it in the world. One is a criminal, one becomes one to take care of his child. The first one comes to regret his life of crime and seeks a way out. The other one does his best to abandon his life of crime at the earliest opportunity, only to find it keeps pulling him back in.

Alfred Hitchcock was famous for making movies that involved men who were out of their element, but had to deal with

Cover of "North by Northwest"

it. I just watched North by Northwest the other night, and that’s exactly what Cary Grant was in that movie: a man out of his natural element. But as the movie progresses, he adapts to the reality he finds himself in and even excels at it.

That’s what I try to do with Lyle. Working in the drug distribution business was never on his list of things he wanted to achieve in life, but he finds that he’s good at it. And has a disturbing ability to deal with the violence that goes along with it. Much to his dismay.

Will I write a slick Miami Vice-style novel someday? I hope. I still think it would be great to pull one off, if only as an homage to something I love. But for the most part, I imagine I’ll stick to what I do best: taking some poor schmuck and plunking him down in a setting he never imagined to find himself in. And in that way, I’ll make my own style.

One I’m happy with.

Later,
Gil

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American Desperado

My initial interest in crime started back around 2000 or so, when I started reading books about serial killers. Maybe this stemmed from reading Red Dragon when I was a teenager. I don’t know. But I got tired of reading about the killers after a while. I still dabbled in it from time to time, but not like I had in my initial burst of interest.

I do that with a lot of thing, so I didn’t think much of it.

But the interest in crime was apparently still there. I reluctantly began reading crime novels that took place in LA a couple years back because my daughter lives out there and it made me feel closer to her, in a weird way. The thinking was, if I couldn’t go out and visit her regularly, I could at least read stories that took place there.

That’s what led me Robert Crais, T. Jefferson Parker and some as yet unread Raymond Chandler novels.

Then you throw all that in with being a fan of Miami Vice. I’d pick up books that took place in Florida by authors as diverse as James W. Hall and Carl Hiassen. But the real interest there was what I think of as the Cocaine Cowboys days of the late 70s/early 80s. That’s where Miami Vice comes in, as well as Scarface and even Blow.

Miami in those days is a lot like the Chicago of the 30s, except instead of Mafia wiseguys making money off Prohibition, it’s Colombian cartels and their American colleagues importing drugs—chiefly cocaine—and getting filthy stinking rich off it. There was the same excess, the same debauchery, the same set of corrupt officials. This era fascinated me, partly, I supposed, because I lived through it. The 80s are to me what the 60s were to aging hippies. That’s when I came into my own, learned about the larger world, all that. That’s when I had that most interesting time of my youth, the part I look back on and miss in many ways.

When I began research into meth for my Lyle Villines novels, I started looking at documentary DVDs and books. One of the DVDs I discovered as a result was the documentary Cocaine Cowboys. Even though it wasn’t concerned with meth, I got it anyway because it did center on something of interest to me.

One of the characters interviewed for Cocaine Cowboys is a guy named Jon Roberts. Jon and his partner Mickey Munday imported the bulk of the Medellín Cartel. The stories these two tell are practically unbelievable—except that, they’re so out-there you have to believe them. I mean, how could you make this kind of thing up? Jon and his girlfriend, the model Toni Moon, getting mad at one another and destroying two Mercedes cars, then laughing about it the next morning. And buying two more Mercedes. Mickey—a real-life McGuyver—talking about buying a twin-prop airplane for over $900,000 in cash after having to ditch one just like it when law enforcement got too close.

All this and more is talked about in the book I just read, American Desperado: My Life—from Mafia Soldier to Cocaine Cowboy to Secret Government Asset by Jon Roberts and Evan Wright.

I learned about it when NPR had Mr. Roberts and Mr. Wright on for an interview about the book. The ways it’s written is different from most of these kind of books. Most of it is told by Jon, but Evan tried to document everything that he could, and most of it matches up. Of course, Jon was a criminal his whole life—he witnessed his father kill a man when he was seven—and criminals don’t exactly document their doings with the idea of writing their memoirs when they’re older.

One of the things that kept going through my head while I read this was that it almost seems as though Jon is bragging about what he’s done. But, hey, who wouldn’t? The Cocaine Cowboys documentary makes the claim that Jon Roberts and Mickey Munday imported $2.5 billion for the Medellín Cartel in the 80s. But, as Even Wright notes late in the book, that’s a very arbitrary number. The government estimate that Jon Roberts and Max Mermelstein—who was married into the Cartel—imported $2.3 billion is based on what Max told them. But Max didn’t know all the loads that were brought in because Jon didn’t like him. He portrays Max as a blowhard who liked to parade around and think of himself as el jefe—the boss. But because he was such a nervous Nelly, Jon didn’t let him in on all the details. The $2.3 billion estimate is a low-end one based on Max saying they brought in fifty-six tons of coke. On the high end, including flights that Jon and Mickey brought in independent of Max, the figure is $15 billion.

Whatever the true figure is, the bottom line is that these men imported about 80% of all the coke imported in the US during those years. Jon lost $150 million when the US captured Manuel Noriega in 1989. When Jon and Mickey were arrested, 250 local and federal law-enforcement personnel were involved and they hit 17 locations, seizing 12 airplanes, 21 cars and trucks, and 28 boats. Jon also owned Mephisto Stables and several expensive racehorses. In Cocaine Cowboys, Mickey says he owned whole neighborhoods.

This kind of stuff is too ridiculous to be false.

Jon was born John Riccobono in 1948, to Edie and Nat Roccobono in the Bronx. In fact, their apartment was above the Luna Restaurant, used by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather when Al Pacino kills the two guys with a pistol hidden in the restroom (in the movie the restaurant is called Louis’ Italian American Restaurant).

Jon was a Mafia blueblood (as Evan Wright calls it). His uncle Joseph was indicted in 1937 as a member of “Murder Incorporated,” a mostly Jewish syndicate ran by Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky that worked closely with the Italian Mafia. As Jon says later in the book, if you put a Jew and an Italian together, there’s gonna be a crime. His other uncle, Sam, was a capo and ran a large loan-sharking business. Father Nat, though, was the violent one: one of Lucky Luciano’s most trusted killers.

I won’t go into all the details of Jon’s biography—that’s what the book is for. But I will recommend reading this thing. Hollywood should be embarrassed that they haven’t come up with something as interesting as this. Well, actually, I’m not sure about that. If I wrote this as a crime novel, it wouldn’t be believed. Some of what happens stretches things that much, but proves the old adage of truth being stranger than fiction. Jon is the original Scarface in some ways, such as having a pet cougar named Cucha. In fact, in the extras of the Platinum Edition of Scarface, screenwriter Oliver Stone says he got a lot of the ideas for Tony Montana’s excesses from his research hanging around drug dealers in Miami in those days—including one who owned a tiger. And I think this is touched on in Cocaine Cowboys as well.

It’s an incredible, wild ride. You could read this as fiction. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t fiction. Yes, in some ways it’s Jon Roberts bragging about his life story. But to see it only that way is to possibly reveal that you’re jealous. The guy had the American Dream: houses, cars, money, racehorses, the works. But he paid for it, in a lot of ways. Who wants to be able to say they can kill somebody and it not bother them? Sure, it sounds macho, but would you really want to know you could do that? That it bothers you more to kill one of your racehorses because it broke a leg (or you doped it up till it was a mercy to kill the poor thing) than it does to kill somebody because they screwed up?

I write about that kind of world, but I don’t want to be in it. For me, it’s something to study from a distance. And if that means I’ll never be able to say I had $150 million in the bank, so be it. He had it and lost it, along with all the other toys he acquired.

And, in the end, I’m not sure if he’s as guilt-free as he likes to project. His sister Judy, who is also interviewed for the book, doesn’t think so. And Jon himself says things that makes me think maybe he’s not that way. He repeatedly points out times when someone died who should have lived, a good person. For instance, there’s an incident when he’s approaching a jockey who just on a race. This guy is one of the most beloved jockeys ever. Jon waves at the guy, and when the jockey raises his hand to wave back, he is literally struck by lightning and killed. Did God miss? I don’t know. Not if He’s perfect. But it does leave you wondering why it happened that way. And it left Jon feeling bad and asking what kind of justice there is in the world if someone like him can keep going while a good person gets killed.

Jon served a grand total of three years in prison for everything he did as an importer.

If you want to gain insight into the drug world of the 80s and what it is to grow up in a Mafia family, living like a true-life Tony Montana, read American Desperado. I think you’ll come away from it glad you did.

Later,

Gil

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And Now for Something Completely Different

Okay, so my daughter gave me an award for my blog and one of the rules is that I have to list seven things about myself. That’s why I’m calling this one “And Now for Something Completely Different.” I thought it was a good title, as it’s not going to be a blog about my most recent word count (just over 141,000 if you want to know. If not, ignore that number), but rather an attempt to fulfill that part of the award rules. Oh, and it’s also kind of an homage to Monty Python. Yeah, I’m a fan. I guess I’ll start, quite logically, with:

  1. I have an interest in quantum physics/mechanics. From a layman’s point of view, of course. At first, it was simply fascinating, because there are times when I want to just educate myself on various things. It’s sort of making up for all that not paying attention in school. The advantage, of course, is that I get to choose my subjects. Anyway, when I learned how matter at the quantum level can act as either a particle or a wave, depending on whether it’s being observed or not, I flipped. For a while, I went through a period where I felt a little disoriented because I realized that, the deeper you get into this stuff, the more you realize that the only way we see things the way we do is more or less because we’ve all agreed to see them that way. You also realize that everything you see is at least a fraction of a second in the past, because unless light reflects off it, you can’t see it. Think about it if you haven’t and see if it doesn’t mess with your mind too. I finally decided that it really didn’t matter. We’ve accepted things this way for a long, long time. Why change now? The really interesting part for me, though, was (and is) trying to figure out a way to make that apply to magic in an urban fantasy/paranormal novel. The idea is, if our brains interact with the quantum level, and we can train ourselves to control that interaction, then perhaps small changes there equal large changes in the macro world. Haven’t really fleshed it out yet, and I think it’ll take awhile to do it. Haven’t had the courage to buckle down to it.
  2. I never seem to be able to read books that are considered classics. You know, books like Catch-22; Catcher in the Rye; The House of Seven Gables and other books like that. The ones they seem determined to inflict upon you in high school. God save all our children from teachers who want them to read Moby Dick. I can do some Mark Twain, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and I really like, for the most part, Edgar Rice Burroughs. If you’ve never read any of his Tarzan books, you’re missing a treat. Ignore every old Buster Crabbe movie you’ve ever seen. Or whoever it was played Tarzan in those days. They changed him beyond all recognition. I did make it through Dracula and Frankenstein, but just barely. Neither of them was like the old Hammer Studios movies, either. Or I should say the movies weren’t much like the originals. But even though I can’t make it through them, every once in a while I get the wild idea that I should finish at least one. After all, “they” say you should. Well, “they” ain’t always right, are they? Think I’ll just avoid Hemingway and Steinbeck.
  3. I love looking at maps. I get enjoyment from buying the most recent road atlas from Rand McNally. I’ll open it up to a state at random and just look around at town names and things like that. There are some towns with really weird names out there. For example, there’s a town in New Mexico called Truth or Consequences. You gotta wonder how it got that name. There’s one here in my home state of Arkansas called Toad Suck. No, I ain’t lying. Look it up. They have a festival called Toad Suck Daze. It that don’t put you in a daze, I don’t know what will. Just a little ways east of Dodge City, Kansas is the world’s largest hand-dug well. Kansas also has the world’s largest ball of sisal twine (I don’t know what sisal twine is), and not far from there, close to the small town of Lebanon, is the geographical center of the conterminous U.S. Oh, and the Little House on the Prairie is in southern Kansas. In fact, Kansas has a lot of sites like that, but according to my brother (I’ve never been to Kansas), that’s about all it has. I’m not sure why maps fascinate me so much. Just one of my little quirks, I guess.
  4. I sometimes think I should have been a meteorologist. Storms, and tornadoes in particular, fascinate me. I used to have a pretty good collection of tornado videos, including the one known as the Kansas Turnpike Video, where a news team filmed a tornado going right over them. It was a small one, but it’s still something to watch. I’m sure it’s on YouTube or somewhere like that if you’d like to watch it. I’ve never thought to try. I liked the movie Twister, despite all its dramatic inaccuracies. Watching Twister and then learning about real tornadoes is something like watching Miami Vice and then watching a documentary like Cocaine Cowboys. Sure, Vice is exciting, and I love Scarface, but when you see what was really going on in South Florida during the late ’70s and early ’80s, Miami Vice becomes a pioneering TV show and that’s about it. It’s the same with Twister and footage of what real tornadoes can do: it’s nothing short of amazing. But, see, I wouldn’t want to be one of those guys who delivers the TV weather. I don’t want to work in the studio for The Weather Channel. Put me out there in Oklahoma and Kansas and let me chase them suckers. That’s where the real fun would be.
  5. My favorite comic strip has got to be Calvin and Hobbes, followed closely by The Far Side. None of our local papers run either of these comics anymore. I know that Gary Larson, who wrote Far Side, retired from comics and wrote some kids’ books. I’m not sure about Bill Watterson. I know he says in The Tenth Anniversary Calvin and Hobbes Book that he never allowed his characters to be licensed, and he was pretty derogatory of the comics world in general, so he may have stopped as well. I found a site online (and I’m sure there’s more than one) that posted lots of new comics every day, everything from Beetle Bailey to Mary Worth and all the ones in between. In the current crop of comics, I’d have to say Pearls Before Swine is my favorite. It’s got that off-beat humor that I really like. Cul De Sac probably has the weirdest kids on the planet, hands down. They’re not so much funny as just out there. For good old-fashioned humor, I’d have to say Pickles is best. And Zits never fails to get a laugh, along with Leann.
  6. I don’t own a suit and tie. What does that say about me?
  7. I’m such a boring person that I can’t come up with seven interesting things about myself. I’ve never been good at these kinds of things. I’ve always hated those questions on job apps that ask you to evaluate yourself, because it seems to me if you rate yourself too highly, you’re arrogant and if you don’t your self-esteem is too low to interest an employer. I worked as a security guard at a nuclear plant back in the ’80s and they made us take the MMPI as part of the application process. I won’t go into all the details of the MMPI if you’re not familiar with it, but suffice it to say it has to be the most ridiculous piece of drek I’ve ever been subjected to.

 

And there you have it. Or them. Are you ready for me to go back to talking about writing my crime novel yet? I know I am. This was harder than writing it has been. But I gave it a try. Next step is to find some blogs to give the award to and pay it forward, as the saying goes. I’ll get back to my novel next time around.

Later,

Gil

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