Kevin Riordan: Cherry Hill native tells tale of gangster who did good
The new book by Eric Dezenhall, a nice guy from Cherry Hill, is about a wiseguy from the past. That would be Meyer Lansky, whose cloak-and-dagger exploits on behalf of the Navy during World War II are brought vividly to life in The Devil Himself by a novelist who remembers the famous mobster as Uncle Meyer.
The new book by Eric Dezenhall, a nice guy from Cherry Hill, is about a wiseguy from the past.
That would be Meyer Lansky, whose cloak-and-dagger exploits on behalf of the Navy during World War II are brought vividly to life in The Devil Himself by a novelist who remembers the famous mobster as Uncle Meyer.
"Our families have known each other for many, many years," says Dezenhall, 48, who will return to his hometown Wednesday to read at the Barnes & Noble on Haddonfield Road. "We were friends."
The married father of two lives near Washington, where he owns a communications firm. Dezenhall Resources specializes in representing corporations and others in crisis. Its founder, says Bloomberg Business Week, is "a pit bull of public relations."
Dezenhall's five previous novels (Money Wanders is perhaps the best known) feature Jersey-centric tough guys and propulsive, picaresque plots about all manner of racketeers, including some from the media and politics. As any Godfather or Boardwalk Empire fan can tell you, gangsters fascinate us.
"It's very much a perverse worship of people who get away with doing what they want to do, when they want to do it," Dezenhall says. "That's what we want to do, but we don't because we're civilized."
Protecting civilization from its enemies, whether Nazis or other fanatics, can be an uncivilized business.
"The government denied the Lansky [alliance] for 40 years," Dezenhall says. Sometimes called the "mob's accountant," the Polish-born Lansky built an illegal gambling empire that included wagering hot spots from Cuba to Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He and other underworld figures familiar with the New York waterfront, where Nazi spies and sympathizers were believed to operate, provided intelligence to the U.S. military during the war.
The Devil Himself, due out Tuesday, gives us Lansky, Lucky Luciano, gossip columnist Walter Winchell, Navy Lt. Charles Haffenden, and other real-life figures working together to keep the United States safe from German U-boats.
Along the way we meet an eclectic, ethnic mix of mobsters with names like Socks and Cockeye; a femme fatale in (what else?) high heels; and a cartoonish crew of Nazis whose comeuppances the author describes with relish.
"I had fun writing that," Dezenhall says.
Like the book's Jonah Eastman, Dezenhall's cerebral yet hard-charging alter ego, the author got his professional start as a communications aide in the White House.
The Dartmouth grad's experience in and around government provided the writer one kind of insight; his personal ties with the Lansky family, another. (They gave him access to the man's personal papers, Dezenhall says.)
"This is my first historical fiction. What that means is the broad brushes of the story are true, and the fine print is not necessarily true. You're allowed to fictionalize, but you can't be so half-baked that people just roll their eyes.
"I wanted to be able to make stuff up. And with a novel there are questions I don't have to answer, regarding who I spoke to, and old family connections."
As to the origin of those ties, "I honestly don't know," he says via e-mail. "It's one of those stories that goes back to people who are long dead."
Dezenhall was determined to present organized crime in a less glamorous light in The Devil Himself.
"I wanted to avoid the cliches of gangsters running the world and winning the war," he says.
Not that the book lacks drama. Even Hollywood may be interested.
"I have had several meetings, though I don't know what this means yet," Dezenhall says. "There is a major director, a pretty heavy guy, who has expressed interest in doing a movie based on the book."
It seems Uncle Meyer's story is about more than gangsters. It's also about immigrants, and family, and patriotism.
A real American story, in other words.