Being brought up as a nice little middle-class white chick in a northern Chicago suburb didn't help much when it came to learning about Slick's world. But a few memories served me well. I actually visited the neighborhood where Slick lived at Outfit headquarters on Ohio Street. By the time I was there, the Devonshire and Berkshire hotels were long gone. But there were still remnants of the flavor of Slick's era hanging around. In fact, my brother tended bar at several mob-run nightclubs and bars and I remember him talking about Jimmy Allegretti, the Outfit guy who figures prominently in THIEF and who ran the Loop for the mob. Even remember looking inside one of the State Street strip joints when I was about 16. What atmosphere! The bump-and-grind music and smokey interior sent my young imagination on a roll.
But vague memories can only get you so far. I needed concrete material so I did a lot of research. Slick took me to some of his old haunts that were still standing like the Fountainbleau Hotel and some of the Jewish delis in Miami and the Stardust and Landmark casinos in Las Vegas, plus many scenes from the book in Chicago, Miami and Las Vegas.
By far the hardest part was learning what made Slick tick, his motivations and quirks. That took years of watching him in different situations...like around my wealthy friends. If I didn't trust Slick to refrain from conning my friends, I never would have introduced him or brought him over to their homes. There is one friend in particular, a very lovely woman, who considers Slick a dear friend. He was often an overnight guest at her house and her boyfriend's beautiful ranch. The boyfriend considers Slick a good friend too. Being excellent judges of character, they felt they could trust Slick, a convicted felon. And they weren't disappointed.
If I'd been much wiser in the ways of researching, I would have asked Slick questions like "Did you run into any problems on your jobs?" or "Where did you learn to crack a safe?" Instead I pretty much picked up info as we went along. Slick jotted down the most basic stories and I slowly fleshed them out.
As prominent One Flew Over the Cockoo's Nest screenwriter Dale Wasserman said, "...you reach that point when every additional person tends to confirm what you've already learned, and when you can be a full participant in shop talk among people in the area you're exploring."
That's exactly what happened to me. I was nearing the end of the manuscript and talked with one of Slick's cronies about a certain incident using the words I picked up from Slick. The guy said, "Wow! It's like you were there." That was the biggest compliment I'd ever had to that point.
About a year after the book hit the stands, I was seeing this Italian guy from New York who I later found out had mob connections. One day when I was telling him about writing THIEF he blurted out, "You know, I'm about 80% convinced your an FBI informer."
I looked at his face and realized he wasn't kidding. Then it dawned on me how I'd evolved into something of a mob "expert" after 9 years of research. I stopped seeing him after that...