Read an Excerpt
[Robin Moore tells how he came to write THE SET UP]
It was the fall of 1972, and the world premier of THE FRENCH CONNECTION movie was about to open in New York City. As I waited for evenings events to begin, all my thoughts were focused on wondering how the movie would be received. Little did I know that by the time the night was over, I would be the first person outside of a few in the New York Police Department to discover the story after the story of the truly LARGEST HEIST OF HEROIN IN HISTORY.
As the author of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, I was invited to the film's first showing. And a great show it was. It was the story I wrote, only Hollywood style - more drama, more action, louder, bigger, and faster. When I wrote THE FRENCH CONNECTION, it had to be correct down to every minute detail, portraying the actual facts in the case. I could not take the factual liberties that the director, Billy Friedkin, and the screen writer were allowed. Billy directed the movie 'in the camera' as they say of a production being filmed according to the vivid imagination of a brilliant director rather than religiously following a script.
How I wished, as I watched the film's explosive sequences unfold, that I had been free to use my imagination in writing the book. This was particularly true of the amazing car/subway chase scene, which never happened. Pure brilliance. The shooting of Frog Two by Popeye was a fitting closure to the wild subway ride, cars careening under New York's elevated railway. I would have loved to use my own imagination to create some of those other great scenes that fit so well on screen, yet never happened in real life.
But I had signed a contract to write the book strictly as it all happened. Although I hungered for the opportunity to write a scene with Popeye Egan (the real detective's name) going into a bar full of drug dealers and addicts; getting information from them the hard way, a smack in the jaw, threats and roughing up, I was confined to telling only the truth about the French Connection case.
After seeing the magnificent drama on the silver screen, I considered the pure facts I had been constrained to working with and decided that in my future books, I would avoid being limited to only writing the bare reality. In other words I would fictionalize my facts and factualize (as I called the process) the fiction I wanted to write. One of my great editors, Ken McCormack at Doubleday coined the word "faction" to describe my books written after THE FRENCH CONNECTION.
My wish for a proper vehicle for the factionalization approach came true a whole lot more quickly than I expected. Walking out of the theater I saw Joe Nunziatti, a detective first grade, who had worked the FRENCH CONNECTION Case with "Popeye" Eddie Egan (renamed Doyle in the movie) and Sonny Grasso known as "Cloudy" in the film script.
Joe was always dressed like a movie actor version of a sharp detective, and I liked him. He had helped several times when I needed some special information about the case. He once took my lady friend and myself to dinner at the glamorous Gardenia Room at the Plaza Hotel. I recall thinking at the time that it was an expensive way for a cop to entertain - unless, of course, he was doing something special for the hotel management.
I had brought Egan, Grasso and Joe Nunz, as we called him, down to my home in Jamaica for a two week stay a few years before. It was a place where we could finish writing the book without the everyday distractions, and have some fun at the same time. Indeed the cops had a great visit. Egan even reverted to his N.Y. detective persona, telling the Jamaican drug dealers on the street to get back into their cages now that they had been cleaned.
Joe Nunz felt himself above such kidding and braggadocio. He wanted to find places where the real gentry of Jamaica hung out.
At the theater after the premier I was happy to see Joe, who had contributed to the book in no small way. Joe was clearly troubled after seeing the premier of "his" movie as he had come to consider it. He had played such a big role in the case, but he was nowhere to be found in those scenes shown on the big screen. Joe Nunziatti was not a cop to be left out.
Right there in the theater on Broadway he began to tell me that he had a story even bigger than THE FRENCH CONNECTION to be written. I thought that maybe it was just bitter grousing until he said: "What if I told you that all the heroin that was recovered in the FRENCH CONNECTION case was stolen from the New York Police Department Property Clerk's Office?" He paused. Then he went on with a wide grin, "AND HAS ALREADY BEEN SHOT UP THE VEINS OF EVERY DOPER IN HARLEM."
Now my writer's instinct kicked in. Hard! So I said disinterestedly, "Impossible."
"You know me Robin. This really happened, and I know the whole story."
"Well then!" I said, "You're coming over to the Lambs Club for my party right now. We'll talk there."
Joe grinned in that same cockeyed manner of his when he had a piece of new information someone else wanted. "It is the truth, Robin," he nodded seriously. "I can't make it to the party, but this is the real story." Joe looked at his watch as though it were a calendar and went on, "I'll meet you on Thursday. Call you and tell you where."
"Sorry you can't make my party at the Lambs Club. It's just around the corner," I urged. "But I'll be there for you on Thursday, Joe. The whole idea is so impossible I can't believe it." I wanted to hear it all at that moment, but I'd have to wait.
"And this time I want to be the star of the show, not Sonny and Eddie. ME, Joe Nunziatta!"
"You'll be the star of this show alright, Joe. Just as soon as you give me the whole story and make me believe it!"
Joe winked and strode off purposefully.
And sure enough two days later I believed him when I picked up The Daily News. Joe had been found dead in his parked patrol car up on Riverside Drive, a bullet in his head from his own service pistol.
His piece had been discharged once. A clean shot through the temple had killed Joe and the police pistol was IN HIS HAND. Suicide, they called it.
"Nuts," I said to one and all. But who would believe me? Or even listen. I told one cop, Eddie Egan, what Joe had confided to me. That he had said that the Property Clerk had signed out the heroin.
We'll never know whether Joe was a suicide or whether he was shot and framed. I delved into the story and when I had finished my investigation with the help of a number of top cops and investigators, I knew at last, that I had the material on which to build a very credible faction book.
I met Joe's wife, a beautiful red headed lady, along with a lawyer representing her. In my quest for Joe's killer and also, as it turned out, the Property Clerk thieves, I met some nefarious characters who I had first run into with Joe. Everyone wanted to contribute to the story of Joe Nunziatta and his murder or suicide.
And in the course of things, I found myself being investigated by New York Special Prosecutor Nadjari.
And herewith, are the results of my first faction account of what may have happened to my old friend, Joe Nunziatta and the mystery of the French Connection heroin theft from the NYPD Property Clerk's Office when the case was young and very much in the news.
August 18th, 2003