In 1975, Robert De Niro took home the Academy Award for supporting actor for his portrayal of Mafia don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, partially based on Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel. The film was also was awarded best picture during a ceremony hosted by Hollywood luminaries Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, Shirley MacLaine, and Frank Sinatra.
Forty-five years later, in a much different era, the 2020 Oscars were host free and dominated not by major movie studios but by streaming services. De Niro, alongside Godfather II costar Al Pacino, was nominated once again, this time for his depiction of real-life Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses.
Though much about how the public consumes stories of organized crime has changed, fascination with those stories endures. The coming months bring titles on mobsters, corrupt institutions, and more.
A family affair
“Organized crime is a story we tell ourselves over and over and over again,” says Michael Cannell, a former New York Times editor and the author of A Brotherhood Betrayed (Minotaur, Oct.). “Like a morality tale, it bears constant repetition.”
In Betrayed, Cannell traces the trajectory of Murder, Inc., a group of contract killers for a coast-to-coast network of the various mobs that arose in the wake of Prohibition and lasted until 1940. As a way in, the author focuses on Abe Reles, an executioner turned informant found dead in Coney Island just before he was set to testify against mob bosses.
“Reles seemed like the natural through line for a Murder, Inc., story because he was its hardest liner and its biggest betrayer,” Cannell says. “I pursued the book as a portrait of a certain kind of man—a monster, a demon, a golem—whose life ended in a mystery of retribution that will never be solved.”
In Lord High Executioner (Citadel, May), Frank Dimatteo and Michael Benson also delve into Murder, Inc., through a biography of its founder, Albert Anastasia, “one of the most feared and one of the deadliest Mafioso in the annals of American organized crime,” says Gary Goldstein, editorial director at Kensington. “He was a very scary man who scared a lot of other scary men.”
Dimatteo, the child and godson of Mafia bodyguards, wrote about growing up among the mob in 2016’s The President Street Boys. He was an important resource for Benson (The Devil at Genesee Junction), who also cites another: “All I can say is thank God for the New York papers, which often managed to photograph the latest corpse of the latest mobster to get whacked even before authorities arrived.”
Goldstein attributes the ongoing fascination with the mob to what it represents: a bit of what everyday, law-abiding citizens wish they could be. “They lived their lives on their own terms, never paid taxes, often had a mistress or two on the side, didn’t work nine-to-five jobs, always had money,” he says. “They possessed a mystique not seen in any other profession.”
Jeffrey Sussman, author of the forthcoming Big Apple Gangsters (Rowman & Littlefield, Oct.), agrees. “Gangsters are people who acquire millions of dollars, have enormous power, break nearly all the laws that keep society in line, and in many cases get away with their crimes,” says Sussman, who also wrote 2019’s Boxing and the Mob. “I think the average person fantasizes about living such a life.”
In his new book, Sussman profiles the top mob bosses of 20th-century New York City, including John Gotti, Lucky Luciano, and Bugsy Siegel. He interviewed criminal defense lawyers, prosecutors, and what he calls “old-time mobsters,” plus a psychoanalyst whose father was in the mob.
New York may have been, as Sussman says, the capital of mob activity, but it didn’t have a monopoly. In Hunting Whitey (Morrow, May), journalists Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge track the mob boss synonymous with their hometown: James “Whitey” Bulger of South Boston. “We lived in the neighborhood, even met Whitey on occasion,” Wedge says. “We were there when the bodies of his victims were unearthed from shallow graves.”
In 1994, indicted on 19 counts of murder, racketeering, narcotics distribution, and extortion and facing imminent arrest, Bulger fled, and was on the run for 16 years, becoming a “mythological figure,” Sherman says, “the last of a dying breed of mob bosses that traces its roots back to Al ‘Scarface’ Capone.” The book, the fourth the authors have written together, tracks Bulger’s life on the run; his capture in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2011; and his murder inside a high-security prison in 2018.
More than Mr. Wiseguy
Though the term “organized crime” typically conjures images of central casting mobsters and Prohibition-era bootleggers, forthcoming books on the subject highlight various other angles—gang activity, a corrupt police squad, illegal gambling far from the Vegas strip—and in doing so, they cast a light on larger systemic problems.
Steven Dudley, author of MS-13 (Hanover Square, May), about the eponymous street gang, is the former Miami Herald bureau chief for Colombia’s Andes region. After leaving the paper, he cofounded InSight Crime, a think tank focused on organized crime in the Americas, and codirected a project to investigate MS-13’s activities in the U.S. and Central America. As part of the initiative, Dudley conducted surveys with gang members in the region, after which he received an email from a lawyer for an incarcerated gang member. He met with the inmate, whom he calls Norman in the book, multiples times: at the detention center and, after he’d served his time, on the outside.
“The interviews told a story about the gang from start to finish,” Dudley says. “But they also told a story about a family, about counter-gang strategies, about U.S.–El Salvador relations, and justice. When we look at a crime, do we see the individual’s failures or do we see the system’s failures?”
Several authors and editors note that contemporary true crime addresses more than just the particular incident or criminal at hand. “Race relations, police issues, and crime and justice are issues that we’re seeing tackled in the true crime genre today,” says Marc Resnick, v-p and executive editor at St. Martin’s. “Like most nonfiction genres, trends are a reflection, or a result, of what’s happening in society.”
St. Martin’s is publishing Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg’s I Got a Monster (July), an account of Baltimore’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force. The unit was responsible for getting guns off the street, and did so—but members also ended up indicted for racketeering, falsification of records, extortion, and robbery. As of this writing, nine police officers have pleaded guilty, two were found guilty in trial, and two more have been indicted but have not yet made a plea nor gone to trial. According to the authors, more indictments are expected.
Stories of entrenched corruption within police departments are so unsettling, Woods says, because officers “violate the very laws they were sworn to uphold and harm the people they were sworn to protect.”
The Baltimore case is an “extreme example” of police corruption, Soderberg says, noting that all those who testified that they were robbed by the GTTF were African-American. He calls this “the logical, terrifying extension of what happens when we allow police to get away with so much in poor and black communities.”
David Hill, author of The Vapors (FSG, July), anticipated it would be “impossible to ignore” matters of race when tackling his book’s subject: his hometown of Hot Springs, Ark., in the 1950s and ’60s.“What I didn’t expect,” he says, “was how much civil rights and segregation played a direct role in the fortunes and futures of the gambling industry in Hot Springs.”
Before Las Vegas became synonymous with high rollers and mob ties, Hill says, Hot Springs was a destination for illegal gambling and other illicit activities. Because the mob depended on political corruption to operate in Hot Springs, he notes, and because politics at the time were “singularly focused on the question of civil rights,” there existed an inherent link between factions of organized crime and the community leaders being pressed to choose sides in a turbulent era of social change.
By 1964, the Justice Department had called Hot Springs home to “the largest illegal gambling operation in America,” Hill says, and as other oases of illegal gambling were shutting down across the country, “competition among former gambling bosses for new territory grew fierce and violent.” Mobsters across the country attempted to move in on Hot Springs. “Add to this your typical local political infighting over who would control what, and a healthy dose of Bible-thumping Baptists imploring their country bumpkin segregationist governor to shut the town down,” he notes, “and you can see how Hot Springs got hot enough to boil right over.”
In Doctor Dealer (Berkley, Sept.), George Anastasia and Ralph Cipriano address a 21st-century ill—the opioid epidemic—through the prism of one physician’s deadly transgressions. “True crime has always been about the crime, the more shocking the better,” says Tom Colgan, editorial director at Berkley. “But the new wave of true crime also illustrates a deeper societal problem.”
In the book, the authors document the charges levied against James Kauffman, a New Jersey endocrinologist who was convicted of teaming up with a motorcycle gang to operate a prescription drug ring, and working with members of the same gang to kill his wife, who, prosecutors say, wanted to expose her husband’s illegal pill-mill operation.
Even as the books, podcasts, and journalism of the current true crime boom reveal a systemic failure or injustice, Colgan says, they also highlight a collective fascination with the inexplicable—for most people, it’s difficult to imagine killing someone, let alone one’s spouse. And “for that matter, why would a doctor who’s making great money feel the need to supplement that income by running an illegal pill mill?” he asks. “You know you’re going to get caught sometime, so why do it in the first place? I don’t think any true crime I’ve ever read or listened to has ever really answered that question. So I’ll keep reading new ones until I get to the bottom of it.”
Below, more on True Crime books.
Parental Advisory: PW Talks with Leslie Rule
With ‘A Tangled Web,’ Leslie Rule follows her mother Ann Rule – author of ‘The Stranger Beside Me’ – into crime writing.
Case Files: True Crime 2020
PW rounds up a selection of forthcoming true crime anthologies.