Sunday, December 04, 2016

A conversation with Gerald Petievich, May 1988 Part Three

This is Part Three of an archival interview with ex-Secret-Service-agent-turned-novelist/screenwriter Gerald Petievich. It was conducted on May 13, 1988, shortly after the release of his sixth novel, SHAKEDOWN. You can read Part One of the interview HERE, and Part Two here.

(Above, Dennis Hopper plays a counterfeiter being pursued by two Treasury agents, played by Dan Hedaya and Wesley Snipes, in the 1993 film BOILING POINT, based on Petievich's novel MONEY MEN).

WALLACE STROBY: I noticed in your work you seem to have – if not affection but maybe a fascination – with your villains. There seems to be more characterization done of them than of your heroes sometimes.

GERALD PETIEVICH: I do have an interest in fleshing these people out, mainly because I think I’m one of the few writers in the world who actually knows what criminals are like, because I’ve talked with them and dealt with them on a daily basis for such a long time. That’s an opportunity for me to, I really think, show something different about human nature.

Q: In SHAKEDOWN, even though Eddie Sands is the villain, we feel sympathetic toward him in a lot of ways, if only because of his personal relationships. Do you still see your novels as morally ambiguous? Is that something you try for?

A: Yes, it is. And the reason I specifically go for that, and probably always will, is because life is morally ambiguous. The decisions that people make in their lives to determine which way they went, whether they became a crook or they became a cop ... It’s fate and it’s human nature at its best and at its worst.
I do show a gray line between the cops and the crooks, because they're in the same world. Cops are just part of the underworld. The underworld there first, and everything (cops) do is in the context of that particular world. There are no rules – you make up the rules as you go along. And frankly, the guys that are occasionally the best cops on the street are the guys that are the most unscrupulous and the coldest. That’s a dichotomy that’s still interesting for me to study.

Q: Is that an existential threat when you’re a law enforcement officer? That you’re waging a war inside yourself about whether or not to be ruthless? Or do the people who are that way not even think about it?

A: Well, I like to think of myself as one of the better and more successful agents. I made a lot of big cases when I was in, and I was always very active. And I was ruthless.
To me, it was never a game. A lot of times it was life and death, when you’re making a buy or covering another agent. I always took it as a very serious thing, because somebody could get killed.

When you’re dealing with the real underworld – and I’m not talking about people that commit misdemeanors, I’m talking about the real underworld of people who commit felonies for a living and never hold employment of any kind in their entire life – you’re dealing with sociopaths. You’re dealing with people who really do nothing but harm other people every day of the week in one way or another. After awhile, if you’re successful (in law enforcement) you lose your sensitivity for these people. I couldn't care less – and I still couldn’t care less – if they took lifetime career criminals and put ‘em in jail forever. Or gang members that are out shooting people and killing innocent people. I mean, I could pull the switch on all of ‘em and go eat a sandwich afterwards.

But what happens in law enforcement is you start out and you get real tough, and then after awhile you get real smart. You know who you should be tough with and who you shouldn’t. You know it doesn’t work sometimes and after that point – unfortunately for everyone I know in law enforcement, including myself – you get burned out. You can only work so many hundred weekends without getting paid for it, and then you realize that you’re arresting the same guys over again.

The first week I was a Secret Service agent I arrested a guy for counterfeiting, and that guy was arrested again a couple weeks before I left the job – the same guy. He’d been committing crimes the whole time and getting caught. So you say, “Should I really work Saturday night to try and catch this guy for the eighth time?” And the answer is “No, let somebody else catch him.”

Q: Was there a lot of frustration on that front?
A: Well, there’s no more frustration in the Secret Service than there is in any police department or (law-enforcement agency). I actually think it’s better in the last five years in particular. I think there’s more people in prison and the crime rate is actually going down.

The secret of it all is that there are only so many actual career criminals. And if you put them in jail, each one that you put in jail stops thousands of crimes from occurring. For instance, the average burglar commits sometimes 20 burglaries a day, year-round. So you put him away, look what you’ve done. So prison is the answer for the career criminal.

As far as the narcotics problem, every case I ever had had something to do with narcotics. That’s an unanswerable problem , and one that is not being dealt with at all by anybody right now in the government or outside the government. Because the only answer is to arrest all the users. And as soon as you went to a middle-class party in some suburb and you arrested the users and they all got a year in jail, I think shortly after it would be legalized. Which is basically what happened with marijuana.
I laugh when I read in the newspaper about (imprisoned ex-Panamanian president) Manuel Noriega (being a drug kingpin). Like Manuel Noriega is the guy that’s causing our narcotics problems here in this country? He has nothing to do with it. Somebody’s always going to supply contraband, and it’s going to be a guy that wants to make money. If it’s not Noriega, it’s somebody else. We have a country that has an enormous demand for narcotics. I don’t think you can blame these people in South America for doing that.

Q: You say you made a lot of big cases. How many counterfeiters would you say you arrested in your time?

A: Thousands. There were years I was working the counterfeit squad in L.A. where we’d arrest 500 counterfeiters a year. These are people that either passed counterfeit money, dealt counterfeit money or printed it.

Counterfeiting is a very minor crime. Compared to the amount of money that’s in circulation, it’s negligible, and counterfeiting is under control. The reason it’s under control is that, Number One, the Secret Service is very effective. Number Two is because of the type of crime it is. It’s not a consensual crime.

In narcotics, the guy that’s buying wants to buy – he’s not going to say anything. The seller, he wants to sell. In counterfeit money, the only way you make a profit is to take a counterfeit bill and pass it at a hamburger stand. Well, that guy loses $20. So therefore you have a victim, and the victim points to whoever gave him the bill, and you arrest the one that sold it to him. Then you go up the ladder. It makes it an easier law to enforce. Dope is virtually impossible to enforce.

Q: You say counterfeiting is a minor crime compared to others, but at the same time you’d be just as dead if something went wrong making a buy or an arrest. Was there ever any worry as to the risk involved compared to what the final outcome might be, someone getting probation or a minor sentence?

A: No. Because what happens is you get caught up in it. It becomes You against Them. It’s combat. You’re out there and you’re going to get this guy no matter what. And he wants to get away no matter what. I guess you could call it a macho thing. But you need that feeling out there. Otherwise, what you see is a lot of guys who just retire on the job, show up every day and they go home at five o’clock. They’re not going to go out and work overtime to get the bad guys. It's easy to understand why that would happen.

Q: Reason I ask is that in the film TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. – though this might be more Friedkin than you – you almost get a feeling at the end of the film that there’s a touch of absurdity about it. Because all these people are killing each other and doing all these terrible things over what are essentially worthless pieces of paper.

A: Well, that’s actually part of the theme of my book too. (The money’s) counterfeit, it’s not real. And when a counterfeiter makes a million dollars and he sits there in his little print shop and puts it in a big trunk ... They always make a million dollars, by the way.

Q: Why is that?

A: I don’t know, but they always make a million dollars. It’s just as easy to make a million as it is $100,000, so they want to have a million dollars. But it’s nothing more than printed pieces of paper, and all you have to do is get caught once and you go to jail. So it’s a belief in a fantasy – “gee, I just sat here in my print shop and made a million dollars.” When actually he didn’t make anything.

Q: You say the character of (Secret Service agent) Chance is made up of people you’ve known, people you’ve seen, people you’ve heard of. Would the same hold true of the Rick Masters character (played in the film by Willem Dafoe)? Is he based on one character or a composite?

A: Rick Masters is based on kind of an amalgam of two or three guys. But believe me, Rick Masters lives. Guys that are just that cold and just that calculating are in every city in the country doing rotten things.

These are the people that the average citizen will never ever come across, the lifetime career sociopath, clever, who goes out and makes a living at crime, and very seldom gets arrested. These people do exist.

Information on – and availability of – all Gerald Petievich's novels can be found HERE.

(Interview copyright Wallace Stroby 2016. All rights reserved)

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