Peter Maas

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The Independent Online

Peter Maas, writer: born New York 27 June 1929; thrice married (two sons); died New York 23 August 2001.

In over a dozen non-fiction bestsellers and hundreds of articles, Peter Maas's writing beat was organised crime and organised corruption. In 1969 he made Cosa Nostra a household name when he published The Valachi Papers, in which the mobster turned government informer Joseph Valachi explains the inner workings of the Mafia. In 1973 Serpico told the real-life story of an undercover New York officer who blew the whistle on police corruption.

In the early Sixties Maas was, along with Tom Wolfe, one of the main exponents of New Journalism, which used some of the devices of fiction in nonfiction. (He wrote fiction too – his first novel, Made in America, came out in 1979.)

"When I write non-fiction, it's like fiction," he once said. "All the research, and the writing too, is a continual process of discovery for me. I never have an outline."

Peter Maas was born in 1929, in New York. He decided he wanted to be a journalist when he attended Duke University in the late 1940s. He had his first scoop for the university newspaper when he sneaked into a closely guarded hospital room to get an interview with a union official, Walter Reuther, who was recovering from an assassination attempt. Impressed by his initiative Reuther waved away two bodyguards and gave him an exclusive. The tiro journalist sold it on to the Associated Press for $100.

Maas graduated in 1949 and spent two years in the navy. In 1951 he moved to Paris as a reporter for The New York Herald Tribune. He stayed six years then went back to New York to work for Collier's magazine as an entertainment writer. His career really picked up when in 1959 he became senior editor at Look. He attracted national interest for his story about a Louisiana man who had been on death row longer than anyone else in the United States.

In 1963 he moved to The Saturday Evening Post and over lunch with the then Attorney General Robert Kennedy inadvertently received a tip about a semi-illiterate Mafia informer, Jack Valachi, who was the first mobster ever to admit he belonged to a crime family.

Maas wrote a series of three articles for the Post, and followed with a book – eventually. The objections of some influential Italian-Americans were taken up by the government. It was over five years before Maas got clearance to publish the detailed account of the structure and workings of the Mafia that Valachi had given to a Senate committee back in 1963.

Then over 20 publishers turned it down. Maas later wrote: "The message, however it was specifically couched, amounted to the same thing: 'Sorry. The Mafia doesn't sell. Nobody cares.' "

When it was published, the hardback of The Valachi Papers sold out within days. The paperback first print run was 1.75 million copies. In 1972, soon after The Godfather became a hit, Maas's book was made into a dreadful Charles Bronson vehicle. Maas described it as "one of the worst films ever made".

Maas's next project was Serpico, the story of Detective Frank Serpico and a colleague who had told the press about rampant corruption in the NYPD after the top brass in the police had done nothing about their allegations. In 1973 Al Pacino won an Academy Award nomination for playing the title role in the film version. There was also a television series. Maas gave half of the $400,000 he received in screen rights to Serpico. "After all," he said, "it's his life."

Maas's fame meant that over the next two decades people now came to him with stories. He wrote books about gypsies, about a turncoat CIA agent and about Edwin Wilson, the international arms dealer. In 1997 he wrote about another Mafioso, Sammy the Bull Gravano, whose testimony had landed John Gotti a life sentence. The book, Underboss, became a New York Times No 1 best-seller.

His most recent best-seller was The Terrible Hours (1999), about a US submarine rescue shortly before the Second World War.

He spent months on detailed research. In 1983 he published Marie: a true story, about a whistle-blowing Tennessee official who discovered that the governor was trading clemency for cash. (It became a Sissy Spacek movie.) For the book he sorted through almost 3,000 pages of trial transcripts and depositions, 4,200 pages of interviews with the whistleblower and transcripts of hundreds of sessions with 76 other witnesses.

He said that usually he cared more about his characters than the story he was telling. He also said that his work usually started "with some anger I have about something, or what someone does about something that gets them hurt". At the age of 72 that anger had still not dimmed. His final article – about a member of the Blackfeet Indian tribe who sued the federal government for mismanaging Indian funds – will be published by Parade magazine in early September.

Peter Guttridge