by Leslie Maitland
In late 1967, Robin Moore met with detectives from the New York City Police Department's elite narcotics squad who were helping him with his classic thriller on the cracking of the ''French Connection'' heroin ring. One of the detectives, Joseph Nunziata, enthusiastically suggested that Mr. Moore write a fictional sequel about confiscated heroin being stolen from the Department's Property Clerk's office.
''Papa's Game'' is based on that idea, but the book - a good one - is not a work of fiction, and it wasn't written by Mr. Moore. In 1969, an unidentified person used Detective Nunziata's name (and the excuse of a court proceeding) to check out of the Property Clerk's office the heroin that had been seized in the French Connection investigation. Then, and five more times over the next three years, heroin and cocaine being held as evidence were removed and then stolen from the office where they supposedly were being guarded. In each of the six instances, someone using variants of Detective Nunziata's name and differing shield numbers replaced the drugs with a flour and cornstarch mixture in which red flour beetles started breeding by the thousands.
By the time the substitution was discovered in 1972, through a survey of narcotics checked out of the office, the loss totaled at least 261 pounds of heroin and 137 pounds of cocaine - narcotics with a street value of $70 million. Moreover, no one really knew whether additional confiscated ''drugs,'' burned by the police when no longer needed for evidence, had actually been replaced with flour.
Detective Nunziata had been found with a bullet through his heart shortly before police authorities had discovered the beetles or the substitutions. His death was ruled an apparent suicide despite suspicious circumstances, and his role in the narcotics thefts, if any, could never be determined. Mr. Moore - who wrote in Show magazine about his discussions with the detective - was subpoenaed by a grand jury but never wrote the book Detective Nunziata had suggested. In ''Papa's Game,'' Gregory Wallance finally tells the story, announcing at the outset (in case any of this seems fantastic): ''All of the events in this book took place. The people are real. No names have been changed.''
In a way, the veracity that adds so much to the interest and excitement of ''Papa's Game'' is also the author's greatest problem. Despite lengthy investigations, both state and Federal prosecutors failed to unravel the workings of a scheme that profoundly rocked the Police Department and resulted in ignominy for its subsequently disbanded Special Investigating Unit. The prosecutors - Thomas P. Puccio of the United States Attorney's office in the Eastern District of New York and Maurice H. Nadjari, the former special state anticorruption prosecutor - gathered evidence that allowed them to bring prime suspects to trial for other crimes, such as tax evasion or contempt for refusal to answer questions. But lacking the cooperation of someone who was involved, they could never prove their theories or solve the central puzzle: Who signed out the drugs in Detective Nunziata's name, and who received them?
And so, like the prosecutors Mr. Wallance can't tell us exactly how the operation worked. He can only build a circumstantial case, describing how authorities came to the unprovable conclusion that Vincent Papa, a major narcotics dealer with underworld connections, had enlisted corrupt detectives to supply him with narcotics stolen from the Police Department.
A prosecutor himself, now in the same United States Attorney's office that investigated the narcotics thefts, Mr. Wallance is necessarily cautious about potential libel problems. But he makes excellent use of the court record to present a colorful account of what happened.
We learn about the 42-foot yacht where a member of Papa's gang, after spending hours counting money earned from selling drugs, must ask a confederate for ''a slug'' in order to buy a Coke from a machine. We see the former nurse, Joan Moreland, a huge woman who ran the heroin business in the Harlem area, using her young children to pick up and deliver drugs that she diluted and sold to addicts for five times the cost of gold.
''She wore only white dresses, white shoes, and white stockings, a hangover from her medical days, and carried a pocketbook big enough to hold two .38s,'' Mr. Wallance tells us.
We come to understand the swaggering, leather-clad detectives who get rich doing business with the criminals they are supposed to be apprehending. One of the police officers, Frank King, spent years dodging the investigators who regarded him as their key suspect. And in the end, we see his disintegration - with his wife institutionalized after an attempted suicide and his life laid bare in a tax evasion case that resulted in his conviction.
We see, on the one hand, the frustration of Thomas Puccio as he dedicates himself to rooting out police corruption; on the other, the earnest loyalty of Papa's lawyer, Frank Lopez, who is ready to go to jail himself to protect the mobster he had long befriended. And, of course, we meet Papa, painted by Mr. Wallance with a forgiving -maybe too forgiving - eye. ''He was a killer,'' Mr. Wallance informs us. But the author shows us far less of the evil side of Vincent Papa than of the ''generous godfather,'' a man devoted to his family and politely respectful to the prosecutors out to nail him.
Gradually, and with considerable skill, Mr. Wallance makes us feel some sympathy for Vincent Papa, who lived by a rigid code of honor based on a single premise: never rat on a fellow crook, no matter how serious your own predicament or how sweet the prosecution's deal for cooperation. His one breach of that rule - informing not on his compatriots but on four corrupt Special Investigating Unit detectives who had been leaking information on investigations -was to spell disaster. Though he has struck no bargain with the prosecution, the rumor starts to circulate among the inmates that he has turned informer. In a gripping chapter in which Mr. Wallance deftly makes us imagine the violence and horror of life in the Federal penitentiary in Atlanta, with its cellblocks like ''high-rise zoos,'' we watch the net slowly being cast around Papa:
''Half the prison population wandered the institution looking for (sex and drugs), while the other half walked in terror of seeing something that should not be seen. Men lay in their cells, shot full of heroin, their heads back, mouths slack, eyelids barely open. Once, an assistant warden walked through a part of D cell house known as 'Needle Park.' Every inmate was laid out, nodding, some were hanging over their bunks with the needles still stuck in their veins and blood trickling down their forearms.
'' 'Well,' said the assistant warden. 'I'm glad to see things are nice and calm today.' '' Papa rejects the opportunity to escape that brutal world by telling the authorities all he might have known about the narcotics thefts from the Police Department. Instead, knowing prison guards would be incapable of offering protection, he faces inevitable and bloody death at the hands of prisoners armed with homemade knives, a lust to kill and a desire for cash that could buy murder. And by refusing to sell himself, Papa, who was killed in prison in July 1977, ultimately displays a greater sense of honor than the detectives who betray themselves along with their department.
In the end, however, this is a story in which all of the players lose - Vincent Papa, the corrupt detectives and, to some extent, the prosecutors who vied for the glory and satisfaction of solving the mysterious scandal. For the criminal justice system, the defeat is truly tragic. We know it has completely failed when prisons are ruled by prisoners, when investigations are rendered pointless by leaks of information to key targets and when the police whose job it is to rid the streets of drugs wind up as narcotics dealers.
Mr. Wallance gives the reader an inside look at an interesting, if ugly, period in the history of law enforcement.