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Tuesday, April 24 Opinion

Woog's World / Restaurants no mystery in this Westport whodunit

For decades, Mario's has been known locally for its thick steaks, well-mixed drinks and very convenient location.

Now, it may become known internationally as the center of an intriguing story of loan sharking, murder and other nefarious deeds.

Fortunately, it's all fiction.

Westport author E.J. Simon wanted to give a shout-out to one of his favorite haunts in his first novel, "Death Never Sleeps." He's created a frothy, very believable world of gambling, night life, big business and high-tech hijinks. Although it's fiction, Westport plays a prominent role.

"Mario's was the first restaurant we went to here," Simon, a 20-year Westport resident, says. "Tiger DeMace was one of the nicest, most generous people I know. Putting him in this book is a way he can live on."

Rustico is another favorite restaurant, so it, too, is in "Death Never Sleeps." Owner/chef Miguel D'Onofrio has the book on display.

Those -- and many other references -- allow Simon to pay homage to the town he's lived in since 1994. Like many Westporters, his path here is as intriguing as a novel's plot.

A Queens, N.Y., native, he spent six years getting through the University of South Carolina. "It was the late '60s," he explains. "Things were crazy." (He wanted to play baseball for the coach -- former Yankee Bobby Richardson -- but was academically ineligible.)

Somehow he landed in the corporate world, went nights to Fairfield University for a master's degree in communications, and eventually became managing director of New York real estate giant Douglas Elliman, and CEO of GMAC Global Relocation Services, a division of GM.

Simon reached a point where he could take a few years off to do whatever he wanted. "You know the trite saying: `You don't regret what you did. You regret what you didn't do,' " he says. "I always felt I had a book in me." The result: "Death Never Sleeps"; an upcoming sequel, and a work in progress, the true life story of colorful Stamford detective Vito Colucci.

Simon's first book roams from concerns about artificial intelligence, to moral questions about the end of privacy and cheating on partners, to cyber-resurrection of dead people, to St. Tropez and the Vatican (go figure).

But it is Westport that the "Death" characters -- and Simon -- keep coming back to. For example, the straight-arrow CEO's house here gets raided. That sets off a chain of events that end up in the underworld. It couldn't really happen here -- could it?

Simon and his wife rented in Westport before buying first a condo and then a house. He's observed the town keenly since then.

The novel "hits mildly at Westport being a hedge fund/equity kind of place," Simon explains. "One of the subtexts is criticism of modern business. We treat employees as just numbers, and try to squeeze every last dollar out of everything."

Yet Simon adds Westport is not like every other New York suburb. "It's a great town. It's where hedge fund guys wear blue jeans.

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"I love the people. There is real diversity here. Despite all the wealth there's a different mentality than, say, New Canaan or Wilton. It's intellectually diverse."

Simon was struck by a Westport Rotary presentation from Harold Bailey, chair of the town's multicultural organization Team Westport. "He talked about the sensitivity here to color, religion, sexuality. I know, it's a very litigious place -- you can get sued for crossing the street -- but the lifestyle seems great. I feel very comfortable here."

One of Simon's friends is a right-wing politician. "I lean pretty far left," Simon says. "But I see him all the time. We go to barbecues. We talk and laugh."

When Simon and his wife moved from Manhattan, their daughter went to private school. Without the opportunity to meet other Westport parents, he felt like "a bit of an outsider." But he found a place here, and shakes his head in awe at events like a recent book party at Mario's. "The place was filled. I don't know how I earned the right to these things."

During his break from the corporate world -- while writing his three books -- Simon got a chance to know his town a bit better. He learned how amazing the Westport Library (and Director Maxine Bleiweis) are. He got more involved in the Rotary. And he went out to eat.

In addition to Mario's and Rustico, Simon is working local restaurants into his books. Matsu Sushi is in his second novel. He's trying to find a place for Arezzo.

Simon will go back to the corporate world soon. But he's got one more literary project in mind: He wants to bring a great little, strong independent book shop back to Westport. That would be truly Remarkable.

("Death Never Sleeps" is available on Amazon, and at www.ejsimon.com.)

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.