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Whistling Dixie

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

"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.

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."

Fact is, while he's spent his entire adult life in Detroit, the man The New York Times has called "America's greatest living crime writer" has always had a soft spot for this neck of the woods. He even spent a few years of his early childhood in Dallas when General Motors transferred his father here. And though he has little recall of those days--"I wasn't but 5 or so"--he does remember that the newspaper headlines of his boyhood launched a lifetime fascination with the criminal likes of Pretty Boy Floyd and Machine Gun Kelley.

"We'd moved to Memphis by the time Bonnie and Clyde were finally killed," he says, "and I remember reading everything about it that I could get my hands on." Somewhere, he admits, he even has a photo, taken when he was just 10, in which he emulates Bonnie Parker as he remembered her pictured on the nation's front pages. "I'm standing by the family car with one foot on the running board, pointing my toy gun at the camera," he says.

Too, he recalls at least one occasion when he returned home from a Texas visit with grist for his fiction mill. "Several years ago," he says, "I was invited to Amarillo to speak to a group of book distributors. One of the people I met at the luncheon was a guy named Raylan Givens. What a wonderful name. I told him I was going to borrow it if he didn't mind." Thus one of the characters in a Leonard novel titled Pronto was given the name of the Texas distributor.

All of which offers a glimpse into the gathering process Leonard lends to his work. Long applauded for the lyrical and humorous dialogue he creates, he insists that he's not spent a lifetime eavesdropping on strangers. "I just listen to people," he says, "picking up on their dialect, the way they describe things, phrases they repeat, words they use and misuse. For me, allowing a character to describe a scene is far more effective than anything I could do with a narrative approach."

Dallas mystery writer A.W. Gray agrees that Leonard's dialogue is unmatched in today's fiction. "But," he adds, "that is only one element that has elevated him to the position he's achieved. To me, the most remarkable thing about his writing is his ability to say so much with so few words. He can paint the same picture in one sentence that some writers need a page and a half to do."

So why, after critical and financial success that continues at an age when many are content to put daily toiling aside, does Leonard continue his search for new characters, new settings; keeping his daily 10 a.m.-to-6 p.m. writing schedule? "Once I settled on what I wanted to write and found the voice I wanted to use," the former ad agency copywriter says, "it quickly became fun. And still is. So long as that's the case, I'll keep at it."

And, clearly, he hasn't lost a step. Leonard points out that Tishomingo Blues now ranks as his personal favorite among his own books, displacing one titled Freaky Deaky written several years ago. "I've never had such a good time writing a book," he says. "When I began it, I had no real idea where it was going, but it just took on a life of its own."

With that he's off to other topics, talking about a children's adventure novel he's just completed ("It's about this gang of coyotes that roam Hollywood Hills because the actors who live there have such great garbage and a lonely Saint Bernard who is retired from the movie business," he says), a mystery he plans to set in Detroit, then the Oklahoma period novel. There's the short-story collection and a half dozen more movie projects in various stages of development.

And no doubt, somewhere out there is another Dixie Mafia-type legend to research and mold to his needs. If what he finds lacks the proper amount of dark humor or isn't tilted a bit off-center, rest assured Leonard will be sure to make it so. "I like dealing with the gray areas," he says, "where everything and everyone isn't simply good or bad."

 


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