Whistling Dixie

The South's mythical Mafia finds a home in Elmore Leonard's imagination--and new novel

 "What do you know about the Dixie Mafia?"

"Nothing...They're not like the organized crime families. There's a bunch that deals drugs. There's a bunch that hijack trucks and commit armed robberies...They're not associated with each other. The only thing they have in common, they're all violent criminals."--from Tishomingo Blues

It is a time etched into the gothic legend of the South, from Dallas to New Orleans to Biloxi, when the deeds of an unsavory band of high-crime doers known as the Dixie Mafia became part of the regional folklore. If it were financially rewarding and against the law, they did it, including controlling the flourishing gambling industry that had briefly earned pre-Las Vegas Dallas recognition as the "Monte Carlo on the Trinity." Old-time law enforcement officers recall the bloody wars fought to protect turf--a car-bombing here, a gangland ambush there.

Author Elmore Leonard prefers his crooks to be likable.
AP/Wide World
Author Elmore Leonard prefers his crooks to be likable.

According to one oft-told story, famed crime boss Al Capone sent members of his Chicago underground family to muscle in on the Southern states' moneymaking only to be told by his scouts that members of the Southern mob were simply too damn mean to mess with.

Yet, unlike the organized crime of New York and Chicago fame, the Dixie Mafia operated without visible leadership or real organization. There was no capo, no godfather, no syndicate or single family calling the shots. It was, in truth, little more than a catchy and colorful name given to all those earning big paydays from gambling, dope and prostitution; a ghastly and ghostly apparition, some say, with few faces or names.

Dallas' Jim Gatewood, a longtime crime historian who recently authored a biography of former Dallas County Sheriff Bill Decker, says at no point in his extensive research did he ever run across any proof that there was, in fact, an organized crime group that operated as the Dixie Mafia. "It was," he says, "a catch-all name for a lot of bad actors back in those days." Even the time frame is cloudy. There are those who say it took form sometime in the early '40s and continued well into the late '60s. Others remember it being a part of the criminal vocabulary for a much shorter time span and referred to in less lyrical terms. Disdainful law enforcement officials, the stories go, liked to call it the Cornbread Cosa Nostra.

Award-winning mystery writer Elmore Leonard, who uses members of the nebulous group as characters in his latest best seller, Tishomingo Blues, admits that researching the organization was like trying to bottle smoke. While gathering material for the 37th novel of his celebrated career, he says, he found illegal activity aplenty credited to the Dixie Mafia. "For instance, one of the most unusual cons they supposedly ran," he says, "was forcing fellow crooks who were in prison to write these heart-tugging letters to people on the outside, soliciting money to help them with their appeals or the hiring of a more efficient lawyer, then collecting the take--which, I understand, was sizable.

"But the truth is there was apparently never any really organized Mafia in the South. Anyone who was into major criminal activity back then was automatically considered part of the Dixie Mafia."

But, hey, Leonard writes fiction, so what's to keep him from fudging the facts a bit and filling his latest effort with a cast of characters that would make any real-life Dixie Mafia-ex cringe? If you've read Leonard, which millions have during his 50-year career, you know to count on one thing: The bad guys who populate his fiction are hilariously inept, a tad dim-witted and generally likable despite the deeds they do.

Regular appearances on The New York Times best-seller list, Grand Master recognition and Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, and 18 movies made from his works aside, the 77-year-old author clearly has fun in the workplace.

"I could never write a book about a serial killer or some dark character that is totally evil," he says. "You could meet the people I write about in a bar, talk with them for a while and have absolutely no idea they lead a criminal life."

Which is to say in this era of endless hardback blood splatter and Silence of the Lambs knockoffs, the mystery fiction of Leonard, filled with snappy dialogue, zany situations and outrageous characters, offers more frolic than fright. Who else would team a priest and a stand-up comic in leading roles, then send them off to genocide-stricken Rwanda as he did in his Pagan Babies? Or turn a mob enforcer into a movie producer as he did in Get Shorty? The main character of Tishomingo Blues is a daredevil high-diver who thrills casino crowds by doing a forward three and a half into a shallow tank 80 feet below when he's not entangled in a plot to commit murder.

And now the author who has enjoyed success in the bookstores and on the big screen (Get Shorty, Glitz, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight) is looking back on his boyhood wanderings for locations of future works.

"I've never set a book in Texas," he says, "but a novella ("Tenkiller") that will be included in a collection of short stories due out next year will open at the Bud Light Bullriding Championships in Austin. And lately I've been thinking about a novel that will be set in Oklahoma in the 1930s."

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