Want crime with that?

One gets a powerful hunger when covering the dark side.

Published April 8, 1999 1:09PM (EDT)

Right after agreeing to do a weekly crime column, I rushed out to the
grocery store and stocked up on everything from pasta to Häagen Dazs.
Judging by the bizarre allusions to food that have crept into recent
crime literature, one gets a powerful hunger when writing about bad
behavior. On the first page of "The Orchid Thief," Susan Orlean's fine
tale of rare flower larceny, she describes the book's central character
like this: "He has the posture of al dente spaghetti" (and eyes the
color of marinara sauce? teeth the color of pesto?). In the March
28 New York Times Magazine, meanwhile, D.T. Max depicted fiction writers
Frederick and Steven Barthelme, who've been indicted for allegedly
cheating at cards in a Mississippi casino, as looking like "they have
had too many Fudgsicles."

Cuisine even plays a role in research, if
you're the murderously successful Tami Hoag, reigning queen of the
spatteratti. Hoag, who's clearly a hoot, sells millions of page-burners
like her latest novel, "Ashes to Ashes," in which the first few
paragraphs serve up a dead body undergoing ritual incineration courtesy
of a psycho-pyro-killer who "embraces the concept of evil as power."
Recently, Hoag told USA Today of going "to lunch with cops, and
we've virtually cleared out the restaurant. People at the next table
don't want to hear about burned bodies while they're trying to eat baked
chicken." The novelist's first choice for airplane reading, the article
reported, is a lighthearted romp called "Sexual Homicide: Patterns and
Motives." It's her favorite, Hoag says, because "if it's a man sitting
next to you, you'll suddenly notice you have lots of arm room."

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"It stinks in God's nostrils and I know it stinks in the law's nostrils
and it stinks to me." That's not a review of Hoag's novel, but
the former president of the National Baptist Convention, the Rev. Henry
Lyons, colorfully emoting in court last week just before he was
sentenced to 5-1/2 years for stealing money donated to his organization
to help rebuild burned black churches. Lyons told the judge: "I cannot
shake the feeling that I have let so many people down." Fine sentiments,
pastor, but a day late and $2.5 million short.

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Meanwhile, the traditional family is under siege across America. And
nowhere are things so dire as in New York, where the patriarchs of some
of the country's most powerful families have been dropping faster than
Sonny Corleone at a toll booth. In the last year or so, the Luchese,
Colombo and Genovese crime families have all seen their bosses go either
to the Big House or the Promised Land. Now, thanks to a hail of courtroom activities early this week, the
Gambino family has apparently been brought to its expensively clothed
knees. Last Monday night, with his trial for
extortion, labor racketeering, gambling and loan-sharking, among other
felonies, scheduled to begin the next day, John A. "Junior" Gotti, 35,
alleged to be the acting head of the Gambino family, copped a guilty
plea in exchange for a maximum sentence of seven years.

Throughout his troubles, Junior -- call him "The Drab Don" -- has failed to capture the public's imagination to the degree that his dad, John J.
("The Dapper Don," "The Teflon Don," etc.), did in the early '90s. The
flamboyant, smart-mouthed Gotti the Elder, in prison since 1992 on a
murder conviction, might have walked right out of Martin Scorsese's
imagination. Gotti the Younger, on the other hand, has all the sartorial
splendor of George Lucas, combined with the keen wit of Kato Kaelin. As
late as Monday morning -- with the full weight of the U.S. attorney's
office looming over him, and while staring down the barrel of a possible
20-year sentence under the RICO Act, Junior seemed clueless as to
the gravity of his impending trial. "I'm excited," he chirped. "It's
like my first day of school. It's like I'm starting kindergarten again."

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As for you, Orlean, just put those similes away for now, and, no,
this is not the name of a new pasta dish. Although some of us think Clint Eastwood's
inexplicably well-reviewed dead movie walking, "True Crime," is terminal, Mr. Mono-emotion does come up with one keeper. While
expressing his outrage at the imminent execution of an innocent man, he
bellows that it's not justice, but a "crucifuckafixion!"

On the subject of dreary, banal movies, just when you thought it was
safe to forget how Buttafuoco is pronounced (how is it pronounced?), Amy
Fisher, the imprisoned "Long Island Lolita," may soon be as free as one
of Nabokov's butterflies. Seems that Mary Jo Buttafuoco, wife of our hero
Joey, whom Amy, Joey's former teenage lover, shot in the face (the Mrs.,
that is), has been visiting with Amy's mom and corresponding with Amy.
(Stay with me now, it gets better.) The letters and kaffeeklatches have
convinced Mary Jo Buttafuoco "that there is no reason to keep [Amy] in jail
any longer." But wait, there's more! In court papers filed on March
30, Amy Fisher says she was ill served by her lawyer -- who denies all
her claims as "ludicrous fabrications" -- because, she charges, he
provided hot fondling along with bad legal advice. Stay tuned, but
whatever happens you can be sure that Jay Leno and Barbara Walters are
utterly rapturous.

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Scooped again, and to think that Salon was going to break this story
tomorrow! The endlessly entertaining "Sheriff's Calls" in the Point Reyes
Light newspaper, published in rural Point Reyes Station, Calif., last
week revealed that "a man, who described himself as a journalist,
reported at 9 p.m. that there were several short Europeans playing video
games at the campground. He told deputies he believed the group might
have guns in their vehicle and could be 'hit men from Yugoslavia.'"

There's more, of course, much, much more, but it will have to wait until
next week, 'cause I'm famished. Hey, maybe I'll call Tami Hoag and see
if she wants to drop by for a barbecue.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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