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Dear John

The Book Proposal, 1997

Never has there been a book like The Dragonhead. Itís the authorized story of a major international gang of organized criminals: of robbers and murderers, of cocaine and heroin dealers, of loyal soldiers and traitors, told with the full consent and cooperation of the gangsters and of their wives, girlfriends and children. In the past, some soldiers have left the Italian Mafia and broken their vows of omerta to speak to Nicholas Pileggi and Peter Maas, who recounted their crimes in Wiseguy and Underboss, both bestsellers. And one man has remained in the Mafia but spoken to Gay Talese, who depicted his family life but not his crimes in Honor Thy Father, another bestseller. But The Dragonhead is the only book where everyone in a gang of organized criminals from the godfather down to the common soldier reports his life and his wrongdoings, even murders, while he and his associates continue to perpetrate them.

Whatís more, the gang in The Dragonhead isnít part of the Italian Mafia, which The New Yorker says is nearly irrelevant and Sammy the Bull in Underboss agrees is on the ropes, and it isnít part of a fifteen-minute sensation like the Russian, Jamaican or Mexican Mafias. The gang Iíll be writing about is part of the Mafia that the police and the FBI predict will be number one ("It has the potential to make the Italians look like wimps") by the time this book comes outóthe Mafia that even now is being driven from Hong Kong and is eagerly relocating in the United States. Itís part of that "unapproachable" and "unfathomable" conglomeration of secret societies, the Chinese Mafia, and itís that most vicious and violent part, the Big Circle. 

Yet very few people who Iíll be writing about will be Chinese men with Chinese names who do wicked things in China while talking Chinese. The top brass, itís true, lives in Hong Kong, but for fifteen years the Big Circle has also committed fraud, extortion, robbery, counterfeiting, smuggling, gun-running, heroin-cocaine-amphetamines, kidnapping and murder in North and South America, Europe and the rest of Asia. Of the crimes in this book, about a third occur in the United States and at American bases in Vietnam, and Americans like General Abrams, General Cushman, and Sergeant John Ruotolo of the NYPD, as well as British in the Hong Kong Police, are significant characters. Most of the conversations that Iíll report (even some conversations among the Chinese) were originally in English or Pidgin English.

For the past eight years, Iíve hung out with the Big Circle. Iíve been to its haunts in such civilized places as Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Milan and New York. Iíve slept at the homes of its membersóits "brothers"óout on Long Island, and theyíve slept at mine in the Rockies. With five burly bodyguards watching us, Iíve dined with the Dragonhead of all Dragonheads, the capo di capi of whom no other reporter knows the identity. Iíve interviewed many of these mobsters, even one who was hiding out, and Iíve interviewed some of their victims and one victim-to-be, an American businessman with a contract on him (he asked me to intercede for him, and I did, unsuccessfully). One brother even invited me to watch him rob an unspecified jeweler (I sent regrets). My edited interviews with these otherwise tight-lipped people come so far to five hundred single-spaced typewritten pages.

I donít think Iím being immodest to call this a journalistic coup. Up until now, the Chinese underworld has been so impenetrable that in one well-known movie the metaphor for the impenetrable is Chinatown. Not even the FBI pretends to understand it. "Itís hard to get a handle on it," admits the federal prosecutor known as the Dragon Lady, and itís "an oriental maze" according to one standard book: it defies penetration, the author writes, its canaries donít sing. Peter Maas, who sold seventy-five thousand copies of China White, his own recent book on the Chinese Mafia, was forced to write fiction rather than fact. "I didnít have a Serpico. I didnít have a Valachi," said Maas on CBS This Morning. "This world is so arcane, so mysterious, that I had to create characters." 

Maasís chief character ("He killed nineteen men") is more or less based on Johnny Kon, the elusive and fugitive dragonhead for the Big Circle in the United States. And this same Johnny Konóthe real one, the man who The New York Times called the "Top U.S. Target" and who NBC in a week-long documentary called King Konóis the man whom I know best, whom Iíve known all this decade, whom Iíve interviewed for four hundred hours, and whoíll be my own chief character in The Dragonhead.


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