Murder, Mayhem and Mail Order

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Every junk-mail expert is skilled at gauging the overall success of a mailing by counting the early returns, and Danny was no exception. Mathematical formulas printed in direct-marketing textbooks explain how to do it, but a veteran like Danny did it mostly by feel.


The new book "God Doesn't Shoot Craps" has a little bit of everything: the Mafia, murder, mayhem and mail order. Yup. Mail order - dry tests, house lists, bind-in cards, lettershops, response rates, U.S. postal inspectors. Now that's not something you read for fun every day. But it seemed like a natural topic for a book by freelance copywriter Richard Armstrong. Published last week by Sourcebooks Inc., "God Doesn't Shoot Craps" already has had a roller-coaster ride on Amazon.com's book charts, rising as high as No. 96 on the fiction and literature list and No. 408 on Amazon's overall best-seller list, thanks to an e-mail effort Richard sent to his and his wife's friends and family members.


It's his first novel, and it took six years from when he finished writing it to actually getting it published. It's good that he persevered because the book is entertaining and an easy read. The main character is a con man named Danny Pellegrino, who's always pushing the envelope with his work, so to speak, until he thinks he comes upon a gambling system that actually works. Too bad Danny just mailed a million letters to sell the booklet, and the orders are coming in by the sack loads. You'll have to read the book to find out why that's a bad thing.


Why did Richard decide to write about the industry's bad side? Well, he needed to get the plot going and keep people interested. Maybe it will help people understand the business better, too. "Our industry, for better or for worse, has a very, very low public image, and it doesn't deserve it. But I think it's mostly as a result of people's general ignorance about it," he told me. "In that way, anything that informs them more, gets them more interested to find out what goes on behind the scenes, it might actually work to improve the image of the industry."


Richard says he's not done using characters involved in the industry -- he expects his next book to feature a mail-order entrepreneur. After all, they say it's always best to write what you know. Richard and Sourcebooks post the first part of the book. If you want to read more, go to www.goddoesntshootcraps.com and you can read the first two chapters.


Excerpt from "God Doesn't Shoot Craps: A Divine Comedy"


CHAPTER ONE: "THE MAGICAL MIRACLE WATER OF LOURDES"



For a man on the verge of discovering the Holy Grail of casino gambling, Danny Pellegrino was in a rotten mood.


But it would be at least another hour before Danny realized he was in possession of the secret to beating the game of craps. At the moment, he was simply trying to make a tricky landing at Bader Field in Atlantic City.


"There's no good way to land at this freaking airport," he muttered under his breath, unaware or unconcerned that the voice-activated mike on the $2,000 Bose headset he recently purchased was sensitive enough to pick up the barest whisper and send it thundering out on the airwaves for all the world to hear.


"Bonanza Three-Four-Five-Juliet, do you want to repeat that transmission?" said the young lady who was manning the UNICOM microphone at Atlantic City's Bader Field in a tone of studied professionalism.


"Yeah, we'd love to hear that one again," chuckled another voice on the radio. The pilot behind Danny in the traffic pattern just couldn't resist making a comment.


Danny was not amused. "I said, 'Say your active runway again, please' ... could you do that for me, dear?"


"Bader Field is recommending runway two-niner, left traffic," the UNICOM operator replied curtly.


"Thank you ever so much," said Danny with exaggerated politeness.


Runway 29 or Runway 11, what difference does it make? They both stink, Danny thought. One of them sends you directly into a headwind coming off the ocean that's so strong you can have an airspeed of three hundred miles an hour and a groundspeed of three. So you just sit there hovering like a helicopter, glancing at your watch, thinking to yourself you should be landing any day now. While the opposite runway, runway two-niner, makes you do a kamikaze-like approach over the top of the Villagio Hotel & Casino. The pattern calls for you to fly much too high as you make your final turn -- unless you want to scrape the penthouse with your landing gear -- then swoop down at the last second to hit the end of the runway like a falcon diving for prey.


So, according to the UNICOM lady, today was going to be a kamikaze day, not a helicopter day. That suited Danny's mood just fine, since he was on his way to the aforementioned Villagio casino to try out a new craps system that he knew was going to cost him some money -- money he could ill afford to part with at the moment.


At 49 years old, with graying hair and a growing potbelly, the ability to fly an airplane in all kinds of weather and under all sorts of conditions was one of the few things left in Danny's life of which he was genuinely proud. When it came to flying an airplane, Danny left nothing to chance. This was in marked contrast to the rest of his life, where he left almost everything to chance.


It was mostly by chance, for example, that ten years earlier he had left an honest job as a copywriter for a mail-order encyclopedia publisher called Wonderworld Press to become a con man selling bogus gambling systems through the mail. It all started, as did so many of the pivotal moments in Danny's life, over a stiff martini.


He was having a long Friday afternoon lunch with an old friend at Spark's steakhouse in Manhattan when the conversation turned to, of all things, religious relics.


"Every church in Italy has one of these freakin' things," said Danny, as he sipped his martini. "And it doesn't seem to matter how gross this stuff is. I mean it could be a piece of St. Peter's toenail."


"Jesus, Danny, I'm trying to eat here," said his friend, taking a forkful of porterhouse away from his mouth and setting it back on the plate until the topic changed.


"Yeah," Danny said, warming to his subject, "it'll make you puke if you think about it too much. One church has a splinter from the cross. And another has a piece of Saint So-and-So's eyebrow. And another has a teardrop of the Virgin Mary. But what gets me is, how does anyone know this stuff is for real? I mean, really, the Virgin Mary's teardrop? It could be a drop of Tanqueray for all we know. You've got millions of Italians coming to pray over this thing, and it could be nothing more than Seven-Up."


"Well, it's like you've always said, Danny. It doesn't matter whether it's real or not, because people want to believe. They want to believe that the detergent is new and improved, because they're sick and tired of detergents that don't work. They want to believe the bonus gift is really free, even if they know deep down inside that nothing in life is free."


"You are correct, sir!" said Danny, imitating Ed McMahon, a figure of no small importance in the junk-mail industry. "And what is the copywriter's job?" asked Danny socratically.


"The copywriter's job is to LET people believe what they want to believe!" replied his friend, who had recited this catechism with Danny many times before.


Danny made a very Italian gesture, a little shrug of the shoulder and flip of his wrists as if to say, "Precisely so."


"God Doesn't Shoot Craps" is available at Amazon.com and in major bookstores. Copyright: 2006 Sourcebooks Inc. Reprinted with permission of the author and Sourcebooks.


Tad Clarke is editor in chief of DM News. His editorial appears Mondays on www.dmnews.com and in our e-mail newsletter. You can subscribe to our e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters


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