Writers are often asked where they get their ideas. The late Nora Ephron and I agree. We get our ideas from life. She used to say: “Everything is copy.” My favorite phrase is: “Everything gets used.” Often a fictional account is based loosely (or precisely) on experiences we have had or, in some cases, have heard about. That latter circumstance is what inspired one of my favorite projects, A Member of the Family, which has just been reissued as an e-book. Here’s how the original novel came about.
In 1992 Nick Vasile, an old friend, called to say that a story he’d lived might be of interest to me. Nick had once been a Washington, D.C. vice squad cop who’d been kicked off the squad for having used “excessive force” on a well-connected political figure. That experience resulted in an earlier book Sado Cop by Nick Vasile, that I ghosted for Nick with my cousin, Jack Pearl.
Following his misadventure in Washington, Nick returned to New York where he opened a restaurant/nightclub in Roslyn, L.I., The Lake Tower Inn, and launched a private detective agency. He’d grown up in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn where his best friend went on to become a leading organized crime figure on Long Island. Nick was a bigger-than-life, straight talking guy, the kind of guy you’d want in that foxhole with you.
Nick’s prime client as a private investigator was one of New York’s five major crime families. When the head of that crime family was arrested, indicted, and convicted of crimes that put him away for 139 years, Nick led the defense’s investigatory team. In that capacity he had a unique insider’s perspective on what had led to this Mafia leader’s conviction.
I called upon another old friend and writer, Anthony Tedeschi, to work with me on the story. Tony and I sat with Nick and were spellbound as he laid it out for us. There was obviously an important book to be written.
In a nutshell, here’s what Nick told us.
The FBI and DEA had caught a low level member of the crime family, the Mafia chief’s cousin, in a drug sting. They had him cold. Not only would the family punish him for dealing in drugs, he was facing a lengthy prison term. But the feds knew that he’d been dating the widowed daughter of the head of the Long Island branch of the Mafia family. They offered him a deal: marry her and feed them information from inside the family in return for being let off the hook on the drug charge. He took the deal, proposed, and they were married. (One can only imagine her devastation when she learned why he’d proposed). That led to three years of keeping the feds informed of every move made by the family head, which resulted in his conviction and lifelong incarceration.
Toward the end of those three years the Mafia godfather, aware that he was being pursued by the authorities, hid out in the informer’s house in Wantagh, L.I. The feds, of course, knew where he was every minute and were content to leave him alone until they had amassed all the evidence they felt was needed to take him into custody and put him on trial.
There was another story, or “back story” in Hollywood parlance.
It had long been rumored that the Mafia had struck a secret deal with J. Edgar Hoover, head of the F.B.I, to stay out of Washington, D.C. in return for The Bureau turning a blind eye on their criminal activities elsewhere. Nick had anecdotal evidence of this pact, and Tony and I decided to include it in the book proposal.
We wrote a non-fiction proposal to submit to major publishers. But before we could do that Nick, because he’d been an integral member of the defense team, insisted that he show it to the crime family head who was in a southern federal penitentiary. He returned with a grim message. The Mafia chieftain felt that such a book would hinder his appeal chances, and told Nick in no uncertain terms to not go forward with the project.
After many discussions, Tony and I decided to turn it into a novel by Nick Vasile, and set it in Washington rather than New York, which worked perfectly with the J. Edgar Hoover story being included. All names were changed, but the true story remained intact albeit dramatized.
It was originally published to considerable fanfare.
Publishers Weekly, the “Bible” of the publishing industry, ended its rave review with:
“The pacing is terrific. Plot, counterplot, and subplot swirl cinematically right up to the ironic ending. With its coolly unsentimental look at a particularly unpleasant dramatis personae, this novel is a natural for Hollywood.”
As a ghostwriter, there is nothing more gratifying than seeing your “author” get great notices. I hope you’ll excuse my crowing; here are some of the blurbs it earned:
“The first novel since The Godfather to take us into the higher echelons of a mob family. Nick’s been there, and it moves at a bristling pace.” Mike Levine, author of the New York Times bestseller Deep Cover
“Was Hoover in bed with the mob? Vasile may well convince you . . . Authentic as a godfather’s kiss or a hitman’s oath of omerta, this novel is street-wise and DC-savvy. A powerhouse blend of fact and fiction.” Jack Anderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist.
“A terrific read. Vasile has clearly spent years with the cops and years with the mob, and it comes through on every page. He captures the thinking of high-level mobsters perfectly.” Vincent Patrick, author of The Pope of Greenwich Village and Family Business.”
“A rare inside look at today’s mafia laid out in a tough, savvy novel, just the way it is happening in real life.” Richard Woodley, co-author of the New York Times bestseller Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia.
“Nick parlays his unique knowledge of the mob into a gripping novel of mafia loyalty and treachery.” Donald Hamilton, author of the Matt Helm novels.
“A harrowing, gripping tale of life inside the mob. It has the unmistakable ring of truth.” Warren Murphy, two-time Edgar Winner and creator of the Destroyer series.
“One hell of a read!” Mystery Scene magazine.
“Powerful . . . Vasile is a George V. Higgins for the nineties.” Loran Estleman, Award-winning author of Kill Zone.
Having this gripping novel available again is immensely satisfying to me. I sat down 19 years after Tony and I had written it and started reading. I couldn’t put it down. I have high hopes that the book will be acknowledged as an appropriate addition to the canon of great Mafia books and, with luck, the basis for a major motion picture.
For fans of the “Murder, She Wrote” novels I write, be aware that A Member of the Family contains graphic violence and sex.
Donald Bain has written more than 115 books, including the “Murder, She Wrote” series of mystery novels. A Member of the Family by Nick Vasile is being reissued by MacMillan, and is available on Kindle, Nook and other e-readers.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at email@example.com.)