I make it a point to not envy too many people. I make an exception for Lee Lamothe.
Lamothe, 60, leads a life that I aspire to: successful reporter, “investigative researcher,” nonfiction author and best-selling novelist. I had lunch with Lamothe today in San Francisco’s Richmond district. The Elmore Leonard-ish dude was in town to unwind and to visit SF-MOMA.
I met Lamothe many years ago when I was a crime reporter at the Sarasota (Fla) Herald-Tribune. I had reported on a rare strain of Italian organized crime, the ‘ndrangheta, that United States authorities were prosecuting. It was the first time that the group, also known as the Calabrian mafia, had been indicted in the U.S., alleged to be in cahoots with members of the Medellin cartel. Lamothe included the Florida case in his 1995 book “Global Mafia,” co-authored with Antonio Nicaso. (I still remember some of the names of the defendants: Paolo Barranca, Fausto Figliomeni and Vincenzo Lomabardo, Canadians all popped in Sarasota.)
Lamothe, who for many years reported for the Toronto Sun, lately has been hopscotching between genres. Two years ago he wrote The Sixth Family (The Collapse of The New York Mafia and the Rise of Vito Rizzuto) and he just finished another novel, The Finger’s Twist. His first novel, The Last Thief, came from researching a money laundering case in the Bahamas with ties to the Russian mob.
“We’ll fuck them all, the living and the dead!” and “Give me everything you got and then I want more,” lines in his Last Thief novel, came directly from wiretap transcripts in the real life Bahamian money laundering case. (Lamothe found the transcripts and other information in the federal courts in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.)
Lamothe has done some surveillance and other straight-up P.I. work in the private sector, though he keeps this part of his identity more compartmentalized.
His native Toronto is a crime reporter and crime writer’s paradise. Why? He explained that lax Canadian immigration policies allow mobsters from across the globe to come roost in the frozen north. “Canada is a haven for organized crime,” he says.
Lamothe knows his limitations as an investigator. He does not have a background with “numbers” or accounting but knows when someone is slimy. “I look at the guy who supplies the numbers,” he says. “If the guy is crooked, the numbers are crooked.”
Lamothe has probably been writing about mobsters and goons for the better part of 30 years. He still as a matter of fairness tries to get interviews with his subjects and have them tell their side of the story. “They tolerate me,” he says. “I can sit there all night with them.” Some things, like reporting about their family lives or children, are off-limits. He has had his share of threats over the years, such as this charming one:
“Fucking look in here and I will put a bullet in your head,” he recalls.
This thought from him rings in my head, music to my crime-reporting roots: “It is the true crime that feeds fiction or screen plays.”