Writer Denny Griffin on the Mob Book Business

Profile of "mob book" author
Dennis Griffin has written several books on
organized crime in America.

Dennis Griffin writes about a lot of things, perhaps most notably, the Mafia (see story on Andrew Didonato, about whom Denny wrote Surviving the Mob, one of my favorite mob books).

When I interviewed him recently, one of my first questions was: "What do you consider the most difficult part of the book-writing process?" I expected a few possible responses, one or two involving a firearm. "Promotions," he said immediately as if that answer had been lurking on the tip of his tongue all along.

I nearly fell out of my chair. "What about the research?"

Research... One of the most fascinating, absorbing and noble of pursuits... and also an extremely difficult one in that it can be quite expensive and extremely time-consuming.

Internet research is of course very simple and invaluable--but if I were doing a nonfiction Mafia book, I'd always believed I'd have to be independently wealthy and able to afford airplane tickets and accommodations to visit numerous locations (hopefully all within the continental United States) to find documents. I'd thought I'd need to visit libraries, the archives of various law enforcement entities.

Research is a huge project, but also the only way to make the discoveries that can change history or really separate a nonfiction work from the pack.

We don't always have to change history, though, and in the case of Denny, he usually has all the information he needs available to him from the get-go. That was the case with Surviving the Mob: A Street Soldier's Life Inside the Gambino Crime Family, which Denny wrote with the book's subject, Andrew DiDonato, who himself possessed the documents Denny needed to write the book. For his other books as well, the "subjects" tended to have a lot of the needed research material.

So maybe research isn't the huge obstacle I'd always thought it to be.

The Hole in the Wall gang on the day of their arrest.

But that, however, means I'd only run more swiftly into the obstacle Denny first noted to me.

Promoting the book.

"It's been my experience that unless you have national name recognition and a large publisher with deep pockets, marketing, and promotion fall primarily on the shoulders of the author," Denny told me.

"Trying to get yourself or your subject interviews and event bookings can be almost a full-time job. And if you're a one-man operation you have to make all the calls and send all the emails yourself..."

Denny's been lucky in that he's worked with former mobsters, people who tend to be inherently interesting to talk to. Colorful characters who tend to have a kind of street poetry to their words. I would say this is a definite benefit of writing a book with a mobster; it would help with the promotions... I know from personal experience that it's difficult not to have an interesting discussion with a guy who was or is in the mob, though I do feel a bit more at ease when they are out and I know there's no chance of them killing me if I somehow say the wrong thing. (Just kidding, just kidding...)

Denny has made quite a career writing about crime -- the mob in particular. In addition to DiDonato's book, Denny has also written: Hole in the Wall Gang and Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness (True Crime), both with Frank Cullotta, as well as The Battle for Las Vegas: The Law vs. The Mob. He's written other books, as well as some novels, too.

Before he began writing, Denny built an entire career in law enforcement. He was a social services investigator for the state of New York after working as a deputy sheriff in Madison County in upstate New York.

That's Henry Hill there on the left, and Dennis on the right.
Wait a sec... think I got that backward...

In addition to writing, Denny also does occasional work as a private investigator. And he plays a role in an event that debuted last year. Called Mob-Con, it's a kind of convention at which the public can meet real former mobsters and the G-Men who hunted them. This year, some Mob Wives are going to be in attendance, as well as those who write about the mob and are otherwise associated with it.

And he's always been interested in organized crime, he told me. "I personally love to read/hear in detail about the battles between the good guys and bad guys, how the crimes were planned and perpetrated and how the law investigated them.

Interviewing mobsters may offer promotional benefits, but it can also present unique "potential pitfalls," to put it one way.

Cullotta, for example, offered unique challenges, Denny noted. He had finished his first book, on Las Vegas, and had talked to Cullotta for that book. It involved a quick phone call. When it came to writing an entire book-length work with Cullotta--he was out of Witness Protection but living under an assumed identity--they initially tried to make do with a cumbersome system. A third party ferried Denny's frequent followup questions to Frank Cullotta. Denny knew it would take forever to write the book that way. At his urging, he had the former gangster who once murdered people on Tony Spilotro's orders over to his house for a meeting. Denny's wife was not happy about it, but the two agreed that the author needed to have total and unfettered access to his subject during the writing of the book.

One unintended consequence of this for Denny was that after his wife decided to move back into the house (just kidding), an FBI agent apprised him of the fact that: "If anything--anything at all-- happens to Frank, I'll be coming after you first."

Denny has written a fascinating piece about this experience that he kindly agreed to share with me:

In the spring of 2006, if anyone had told me I would become involved in a business relationship with a former hit man, I’d have said they were crazy. After all, a guy like me with 20 years working as a law officer and investigator, one who has always been a staunch supporter of law enforcement, would never allow himself to be associated with someone from the dark side. However, in a little over a year I not only co-authored a book with such a man, I’d come to consider him a friend.

"This strange turn of events began for me when I was researching for my book The Battle for Las Vegas – The Law vs. the Mob (Huntington Press, July 2006). In it I told the real story of Chicago Outfit enforcer Tony Spilotro’s Las Vegas reign. As I was writing the book I was fortunate to develop a number of now-retired FBI agents and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department detectives as sources. These were men who had actually been involved in the investigations of Spilotro and his gang.

"I was very pleased with the information I obtained but felt I was lacking one thing: a perspective from the bad guys. Spilotro’s crew were either dead, in prison, or their whereabouts were unknown, except one: Frank Cullotta. Tony’s one-time right-hand man had turned against his friend and become a government witness. After a stint in the Witness Protection Program, Cullotta was around somewhere with a new identity. I thought if I could talk with him, I might be able to nail down additional details and maybe even come up with some previously undisclosed information. But how was I going to get in contact with Cullotta, and would he talk with me if I did?

I knew that one of my sources, retired FBI agent Dennis Arnoldy, had been Cullotta’s handler after the crook rolled. I figured he’d be a good place to start in my quest to locate the former mobster. It turned out that Dennis and Frank had remained in contact over the years and they spoke on a regular basis. Dennis said he couldn’t promise any results, but that he’d mention me to Frank and see what happened.

Several weeks later Dennis called and said Cullotta had agreed to speak with me by phone. The interview was brief; only a couple of questions. Although it was by no means the in-depth conversation I’d hoped for, it was better than nothing. I added Cullotta’s input to my manuscript and submitted it to the publisher. I then forgot about Frank Cullotta, at least for a while.

When chatting with Dennis Arnoldy a few months later an idea popped into my head. I asked him if Cullotta had ever thought about writing his life story. I opined that it would probably be a great read if he would be willing to be totally candid. Dennis said he’d ask Frank and let me know. Not too long afterward I got my answer: Frank had been thinking about doing his bio for several years. He’d already recorded cassette tapes of his memories and had them transcribed. Now he was looking for a writer and wanted to meet with me.

After my initial excitement over the news faded, doubts began to surface. Cullotta had been a thug, thief, arsonist and murderer. All things I’d been against my entire adult life. If we reached an agreement about doing a book, would I be able to bring myself to work closely with him? I pushed those thoughts from my mind as I awaited my chance to meet the confessed killer in the flesh.

I learned almost immediately that when working with Frank, security was first and foremost. For our initial meeting, Dennis Arnoldy told me the day Frank would be in Vegas, but not the time or place we’d get together. I got those details one hour before we met in a hotel room of a major casino. Dennis also informed me that I wouldn’t be able to learn Frank’s new identity, business, location or phone number. Any communication between Frank and me would have to go through Dennis.

Once inside the hotel room, Dennis introduced me to Frank Cullotta. He wasn’t a particularly imposing figure physically, although he looked like he could still take care of himself in a tussle. As we talked, what impressed me most about him was his demeanor. He talked about crimes he had committed, including murder, with no more emotion than a couple of co-workers standing around the office water cooler discussing the weather. I thought of the line from The Godfather: This is nothing personal. It’s strictly business.

After two hours, Frank and I reached an agreement. He’d provide the details of his career as a criminal and I’d do the writing. The story would begin on the streets of Chicago, and go through his days in Las Vegas, life as a government witness, and his involvement in the production of the movie Casino. All the criminal activity he would admit to would be that for which he had been granted immunity or the statute of limitations had long since run. We were in agreement that candor was key. His account had to provide information previously unknown to the general public and be as accurate as humanly possible. As the meeting wore on I became ever more confident that Frank was being up front with me and would fulfill his end of the bargain. We ironed out the financial arrangements and sealed our deal with a handshake.

The project wasn’t very far along before it became clear that our method of communication wasn’t adequate. I needed to be in touch with Frank frequently, sometimes several times a day. Routing everything through Dennis Arnoldy was simply too cumbersome, resulting in delays and frustration for all of us. I was given a special phone number to contact Frank directly. That simplified the process, but also provided a clue as to Frank’s location. That meant I now had a role in Frank’s security, a fact that Dennis made sure I understood.

My easier access to Frank certainly helped, but on occasion using the phone or mail wasn’t sufficient. There were times when getting together in person was the only way to go. We decided that the best place to have our meetings would be at my place. My wife, nicknamed Bear, wasn’t particularly enthused about me getting involved with Frank in the first place. When I announced his initial visit she was not a happy camper. The day Frank showed up he came in one door and Bear went out the other. Eventually though, they’ve become buddies and she now looks forward to his calls and trips to town.

In summary, although there have been a few bumps along the way, co-authoring CULLOTTA has been an experience I wouldn’t trade, regardless of how the book sells.

For the next projects he's busy lining up, Denny is taking a curve into true-crime territory as opposed to Cosa Nostra.

One item on his agenda, which may or may not result in a book, is his continuing work as a part-time private investigator (for a firm based in Syracuse, New York, called Forensic Consulting Specialties, which is owned by William B. Sullivan) on the case of the mysterious death of a soldier in the area.

On March 16, 2007, Sgt. Patrick Rust of the 10th Mountain Division, who had been based at Fort Drum in Watertown, New York, went missing from a local bar in the early hours. His skeletal remains were discovered in a farmer's field about 3 miles away exactly six months later, on September 16, 2007. The cause and manner of death remain undetermined. (Read all about the fascinating case at http://www.patrickrust.com.)

This coming April 28, at Morrisville State College in Madison County, New York, Denny, who was instrumental in finding a witness who provided the case with a major break that lead to the finding of the body, will be giving a lecture about the current status of the investigation, including both civilian and military law enforcement efforts.

As a law enforcement veteran, Denny is disgusted by home some cases slip through the cracks and become cold.

He thinks of the victims. "Someone they knew and loved was killed," he said. "They can’t even get a callback."

"About 98 percent [of law enforcement personnel] are great and dedicated, but when there are human beings involved, there will be a few who don’t quite measure up."

Denny also is involved with lining up speakers for Mob-Con, an event designed to allow the public to rub elbows with both mobsters and the lawmen who spent many hours watching them from unmarked cars swilling bad coffee and chomping on cheap eats. This year, the event is slated to run its second consecutive event in Las Vegas this September. (To see photographs of last year's event, see here.) Sponsorships are available, as well.

Two projects he is currently working on are slated to be books--if he proceeds with them.

One involves an abuse victim whose father was a well-known figure with organized crime connections in Las Vegas.

The other concerns a robber who went after high-profile targets in New York; he operated for decades.

And was never caught.


  1. I have gotten to know Denny over the last few years and I can tell you first hand he is one of the greatest guys that you could ever meet. Much of what he writes about pertains to mobsters and their live of crime, but Denny is a very compassionate victims advocate and I should know. On page 130 of his book CULLOTTA I was told who killed my father, a case at that time that was 27 years cold. With the help of Denny, Dennis Arnoldy and Frank Cullotta we were able to name Larry Neumann as the killer of my father Ron Scharff and his employee Patricia Freeman. Here is an article about Larry Neumann written by Denny himself. Thank You Denny, proud to know you and proud to call you a friend. http://www.mchenrycounty1981.com/archives/2009/01/murder-in-lakemoor-illinois/

    1. That is an amazing true story worthy of a film or ID-type television show-- the book Cullotta, linked in the story above, was instrumental in solving a cold murder case, the kind of case Denny's PI work focuses on. Considering where he stands as a victim's rights advocate, this was I'm certain quite gratifying to him. And I can't think of a better person to break this news here than you, Paul. I'd love to speak with you if you're interested: you can reach me at eddie2843@gmail.com. I will include the link and info in the story.

    2. I sent you an email Ed, let me know if you did not get it.


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