Near the end, I finally had to abandon this too-long, too-slow, too-discursive "biography" of Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein. Rothstein is a fascinaNear the end, I finally had to abandon this too-long, too-slow, too-discursive "biography" of Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein. Rothstein is a fascinating figure and the times he lived in are amazing, and there are a lot of great anecdotes in this book. But I'm afraid the overall information is too random and all over the place. I have read over 100 books on organized crime, so when I read a new one I should have at least a vague sense from the first few chapters where this guy fits into the overall history of OC in America. I didn't get that, and I got the distinct impression that it was because the author doesn't really know. There are some great stories and discursive histories of other figures of the time, which is why it pains me to give this book only 2 stars. But it is RARE that I make it 3/4 of the way through a book and then not decide to finish it. There is too little information about Rothstein, and too many detours along the way. I didn't even get to his murder, and I'm not sure I care.
I'll try The Big Bankroll, but my suspicion is that -- as with many of the OC figures from early this century -- there just isn't enough info about Rothstein to warrant a full biography. He's one of those figures who is incredibly important, but nobody's 100% sure just why he's important, or, at least, why he's important can't be cooked down into a 3 or 400 page book. Maybe Rothstein's just a force that weaves through the rest of the organized crime histories, especially of Jewish gangsters.
Anyway, a noble effort, but too all-over-the-place to work for me as a book, either on an entertainment or a research level....more
I really liked this book by NYPD detective Rick Cowan, about Operation Wasteland, the undercover investigation that crippled the garbage hauling rackeI really liked this book by NYPD detective Rick Cowan, about Operation Wasteland, the undercover investigation that crippled the garbage hauling rackets in NYC. I don't tend to be partial to books by police officers, maybe having been burned by the stunning dullness of Donnie Brasco early on in my true-crime-reading career. But I found this much more interesting, maybe because Cowan was younger and greener and, at least as he portrays it, had to do more improvising due to the lesser resources of the NYPD vs. the FBI. There's also some great stuff about inter-departmental politics and lower-grade corruption in NYC; for instance, a leak about Operation Wasteland led to the city government opening up the hauling contracts for the NYC Marathon to an out-of-state company for the first time. Lots of great political gems like that, viewed from street level. I enjoyed this more than I expected to....more
I'm sorry to have to give this one star, but it just doesn't deserve any more. Like Gaspipe: Confessions of a Mafia Boss, it is not really a book. TheI'm sorry to have to give this one star, but it just doesn't deserve any more. Like Gaspipe: Confessions of a Mafia Boss, it is not really a book. There's nothing new but some warmed-over sentimental childhood memories from someone whose half-assed reflections are presented as fact that I as a reader am supposed to care about, without either the insight or detail that should be brought to all memoirs or the investigatory qualities that belong in anything third-person about organized crime. Garden-variety historical realities are presented out of context and in rapturous tones as "revelations." It's obvious throughout that the author has brought very little of her own to the table in terms of knowledge of organized crime, and yet has presented Scarpa Jr's recollections as factual, sometimes uncorroborated and far too often unquestioned third-person accounts, which is a huge mistake when dealing with an obviously unreliable confessor. The moment the intro asserted that Harmon's principal interviewee had tipped the authorities off to 9/11 before it happened, and the FBI ignored him, I should have known I was in for a rocky road. It only got rockier.
In my opinion, this adds nothing new to the literature on organized crime. Sorry....more
Wow, this is a truly amazing book. One of the best books about the mob I've ever read. It concerns the career, and more specifically the death, of AbeWow, this is a truly amazing book. One of the best books about the mob I've ever read. It concerns the career, and more specifically the death, of Abe Reles, a government witness against Murder, Incorporated. The whole second half is essentially a deconstruction of the investigative process, in which it is painfully obvious to everyone (including to members of Congress) that there was a major cover-up -- but no one can figure out quite what happened. It's a bit of a police procedural at times, which tends to leave me cold, but here for some reason it works. I loved it.
Unfortunately, the author, who studied Murder, Incorporated for 10 years, passed away as the book was being prepared for publication. So there won't be any more awesome books coming from him. Oh, well. This one is serious essential reading for organized crime scholars....more
I don't really know why I so disliked this book. I liked the same author's Made Men rather well, so I'm not sure what was missing in this one. There wI don't really know why I so disliked this book. I liked the same author's Made Men rather well, so I'm not sure what was missing in this one. There was sort of no central character, or even a small set of characters; it was all over the place. A zillion characters, a zillion events I didn't really see connecting; it took a LOT of work to make sense out of. The information about stock scams is very interesting, but really hard to follow; I couldn't tell if it's because I don't have much financial knowledge or because it's oversimplified for people who don't have much financial knowledge, and therefore confusing. I just couldn't tell, and I wasn't really that motivated to figure it out.
What WAS vaguely interesting is what I like in all NYC mob books -- the reappearance of "characters" (aka people) I read about elsewhere. Here it's Frank Lino, Tommy Karate, Joseph Massino, some other guys. Interesting to connect the dots between stock scams and street crime in LCN. This book attempts to do it, but I don't know that it did it all that well because I was just so bored much of the time. In context, though, it takes on a greater value.
Another problem I had with it was the obvious contempt the author displays for many of the players in this drama; it is a little too obvious that he thinks Warrington is a spoiled brat, Cary Cimino is a sleazy windbag and Robert Lino is a crazed psychopath. Not that I'm arguing any of those people are okay people -- I just find it boring to read a book where the author heaps abuse, stated or unstated but expressed in tone, on the characters he's describing. It just feels icky. This is a reasonably common trait of true crime books, and I find it tedious. I don't remember it from Made Men, so I'm not sure if it's just that these pigdogs are exceptionally bad to the author -- possibly because the book was published in the midst of the financial crash about the glory days of the late-90s early-aughts? Who knows. Overall, I'll be happy to check out Greg B. Smith's other books on OC, but this one to me was an icky, sticky bust. I just feel sleazy. I think I need a shower. ...more
I very much enjoyed this first-person book by an undercover ATF agent who was actually patched in to the Hells Angels -- though the investigation endeI very much enjoyed this first-person book by an undercover ATF agent who was actually patched in to the Hells Angels -- though the investigation ended before he actually got his patch. It's a good read and at times really mind-bending.
Unlike a lot of books by undercover cops, No Angel moves quick and feels real. Perhaps most importantly, the language and life attitude portrayed by the narrator/cop/author is appropriate to the biker lifestyle, which is important because I look for total immersion in a world when I'm reading a book about undercover work. That is definitely here -- in spades. Dobyns shows a real ability to laugh at himself which makes the book feel more genuine and also makes it read more pleasantly. That wisecracking nature also doesn't erode the genuine noir-ish, hard-boiled feeling of the book, which is too, too lacking in cop books. I'll never understand how some cops who write books can see reprehensible behavior and then write about it as if they were writing church sermons. That's not this; Dobyns comes across as genuinely hard-boiled, and his enthusiasm for the bad-ass life seems real.
For these reasons, I gave it five stars but I have some serious reservations about it both as a work and as a law-enforcement document.
The first is that this guy talks a LOT about his family -- his wife and his kids who are reportedly adorable. NOTHING is more boring than someone talking about their kids, unless it's an UNDERCOVER COP talking about his kids. It drives me nuts. They're his kids; of course he likes them. I don't really like or dislike your kids, Dobyns. But in a cop book a little of that crap goes a long way. For the undercover cop to survive being undercover and writing a book about it, the family MUST be portrayed as perfect and wonderful and ooey-gooey. This is not so much because undercovers form a longing for family life while they are undercover, but because after spending years being neglected, their wives and kids will put hatchets in their heads if the cops don't lavish them with unending praise. It serves the cop authors' purposes, but man! It is damned boring for the rest of us. At the end, he throws in a few bleating huzzas for God, who I'm glad he got to know, but I'm sick of hearing about Him in a half-assed context in cop books, since resorting to God to find grace in police work seems, to me, irrelevant to my interests and actually actively counters any respect I would have for the insights about law, order, morality and immorality that a dedicated police officer has seen in the world of cop and criminal. If you lay it all on God, in my view you're abdicating human responsibility. If God is watching, I believe He wants you to actually understand the nasty things about human behavior, not just howl thank-yous to him for saving you from humanity's dickwads. I trust that Dobyns finding of God was important to him and meaningful, but it makes anything about people that I learned from this book feel, to me, empty. My kingdom for an atheist cop.
The next, and hugely more important reservation, is actually partially ameliorated by the ending of the book and the ending of the case (which was called "Black Biscuit" -- after a slang term for a hockey puck.) Or maybe my point is not ameliorated -- it's just that the courts agreed with my point overall. Hysterical weirdos like Yves Lavigne and The History Channel want to portray the Hells Angels as an international crime syndicate on par with the Mafia. Some sources (Lavigne chief among them) said explicitly in the '90s, following the "collapse" of La Cosa Nostra, that the Hells Angels were going to take over the place that LCN had held in American crime.
This was and is total bullshit.
I am not arguing that the Hells Angels is an organization of criminals -- duh, of course they are. But that doesn't make it a criminal organization. And it sure as hell doesn't make it LCN. Guns, drugs and violence are part and parcel of the outlaw biker lifestyle, but too often I've heard law enforcement portray the HA as some organized group of criminal masterminds. They aren't. As far as I can tell, they're a motorcycle club that, as individuals and groups, routinely engages in criminal activity, both organized and otherwise. But in an overall OC sense? Yeah, sure, in terms of the war with the Mongols and other clubs, but not in the sense that they should be placed on the same level as other OC groups that exist solely for profit.
This point is underscored by the fact that even after Dobyns and his associates going so deep underground that they were actually made Hells Angels, the RICO case against the Angels fell apart. It seems to me like it was a crappy case to begin with; the Angels aren't the sort of group that RICO was built to take down, even if the majority of them are engaged in criminal activity. As far as I can tell -- admittedly, from no personal experience but merely from reading books on the subject -- is that the criminal activity is not done in a RICO-worthy sense.
To be fair to Dobyns, he writes quite frankly at the end about the fact that Operation Black Biscuit mostly fell apart. Few meaningful prosecutions were gained, which he blames on problems with the government attorneys. It sounds like the press blamed this on the undercovers, which seems pretty bogus. It sounds like good undercover work, but unfortunately not all undercover work ends up being Joe Pistone ....thank God, since I loved this book but I hate Donnie Brasco.
Overall, this is a great read and Dobyns actually sounds like a decent chap. It also sounds like he got kind of screwed by the government. But isn't that the way?...more
I know this book is a watershed in the history of Mob literature, and that Pistone's investigatory efforts were a breaking point for the Mob. But thisI know this book is a watershed in the history of Mob literature, and that Pistone's investigatory efforts were a breaking point for the Mob. But this book of his just leaves me dozing. I don't know what it is; maybe he's just a boring guy. Everyone blathers on about how great this book is, but I don't get it. It was made into a far worse movie, incidentally. One of the things the book does have going for it is that Pistone explains at great length what undercover agents can and can't do. Sawing up bodies? Pretty firmly on the "can't do" list. The movie completely ignores that, but then...hey, who cares, right? It's not like it REALLY HAPPENED or anything.
Anyway -- if you are a Mob buff or researcher you HAVE to read this book, because the case is so critically important in history. Drink lots of coffee while you do it.
Incidentally -- it doesn't make any difference to me what a man does for a living, understand -- but his ghostwriter on this also wrote The Bad News Bears Go to Japan. I'm just saying....more
I really wasn't that crazy about this book on a number of different levels, but the author's voice is just so engaging and enjoyable that I couldn't hI really wasn't that crazy about this book on a number of different levels, but the author's voice is just so engaging and enjoyable that I couldn't help but like it anyway. My main problem with it was the jumping around in time and space. This was mostly intentional, telling a sort of "weave" story of Codella's hardboiled upbringing in Canarsie in a neighborhood of wiseguys and cops, crossed with the edgy world of Alphabet City in the '80s. However, at times it lapsed into that thing that cop-memoirs do. It would lay down undocumented and at times mildly ludicrous vignettes intended to drive home to us how awful and outrageous life on the streets was. It's not that I don't think that stuff happened, but cop memoirs often relate stories that are provided without reference to actual names or cases...which make them seem like hearsay garbage that cops sling around in the locker room.
On the other hand, the author's freshness in admitting the many times he crossed the line and violated procedure (and probably civil rights) in the interest of getting a conviction is really illuminating. I'm thoroughly sympathetic to the fact that a cop on the street trying to shut down the drug trade is basically crippled by the bureaucratic procedure and the courts. But I can't get behind the flippant disregard shown for the rights of the accused in cases of suspected drug dealing after the Reagan-era "asset confiscation" laws were passed. The author portrays these laws as only being used when the accused was obviously a drug dealer..."everyone knew it." That's fine for the author's conscience, but the next time one of my conservative friends lectures me about Obamacare and the constitution, maybe I'll ask them to defend the extrajudicial confiscation of individual property as championed by that conservative god of "individual rights," Ronald McReagan. It's not that I think these guys weren't scumbags...but how exactly does extrajudicial asset confiscation add up to due process under the Constitution? Or...I'm sorry, is it possible that this was a way to confiscate underprivileged douchebags' assets so that the confiscating authorities could use that money to buy new toys, and figure that they were too screwed up on drugs to get a lawyer and try to get their money/Mercedes/bling back? That's screwed up. Clear violation of due process, and fairly offensive how it's presented here given that the author admirably stays away from racism and anti-poor prejudice otherwise. That's remarkably true even though he does take a lot of liberty with the rights of the accused. But that's a whole 'nother argument, one in which I come down more on the side of Codella than on the extrajudicial asset confiscation.
That little nitpick aside, Codella did kick lots of ass, and these were not nice guys he was smacking upside the head. The millieu of the heroin epidemic of the 1980s was intoxicating. I love that Codella was on the street enough to see what was really happening, which just about completely eluded the media of the time and since. In the middle of crack hysteria, crack was largely irrelevant in the long-term disintegration of American cities -- heroin was the drug doing far more damage. Codella's views on the two are absolutely invaluable....more
I was very surprised at how much I enjoyed this memoir by Henry Hill, the mob associate whose life was the source for one of my favorite mob books, WiI was very surprised at how much I enjoyed this memoir by Henry Hill, the mob associate whose life was the source for one of my favorite mob books, Wiseguy and one of my favorite mob movies, Goodfellas. Last year I read On the Run A Mafia Childhood by Greg and Gina Hill, Henry's two children.
After the extreme romanticism of Goodfellas, the book by Greg and Gina made me feel absolutely icky and repulsed by the very idea of Henry Hill, because of what the kids went through. On the Run was written a couple years after Gangsters & Goodfellas so it's telling that here Henry doesn't mention his relationship with his kids much. The two books sitting side by side are among the most disturbing documents of my generation (Hill's kids are roughly my age). It's like any other case where parents utterly fail to understand what hell they're putting their kids through. Only here the context is vastly weirder than with most families.
Henry Hill spends some of the time in this book talking about how bad he feels, emphasizing and re-emphasizing that he doesn't want to encourage anyone to become a criminal. He also bellyaches with even greater frequency about how much money he blew, particularly how much money he blew on drugs. I know the feeling -- when one needs money, it's easy to feel extreme remorse about the money one spent unwisely in the past.
Most of the book, however, is spent re-living and boasting about his criminal exploits and his almost incomprehensible compulsive pursuit of women and the trashy drama that wrought. It's like an episode of Dog the Bounty Hunter but with a criminal who keeps getting away. There's something appealing about that, and its vicariously addicting.
Despite Hill's protestations, this book glorifies not only "the life," but the general idea of out-of-control male irresponsibility. I do believe on some level he feels bad about the violence. He may even feel bad about some of the theft. But I don't get the sense from this book that Henry really gives a damn about the pain he caused his family. Maybe he does care; maybe he thinks he does care; but I don't see that intimate regret represented here, and that's disturbing given how much Greg and Gina's later memoir affected me.
Hill may be twelve-stepping his way through the final pages, but the only real redemption I find in Gangsters and Goodfellas is viewing it as part of a dysfunctional whole....more
I don't really give this book two stars because it's a BAD book, I'm just not convinced that it really concerns a gangster. I may be nitpicking, but tI don't really give this book two stars because it's a BAD book, I'm just not convinced that it really concerns a gangster. I may be nitpicking, but this felt more like a garden-variety criminal, really. It's pushing it to put this on my Japanese Mob shelf. It's an interesting enough book, however, and those interested in the American expatriate experience in Japan will no doubt like it. But I was looking for something about "An American Gangster in Japan," and I didn't really feel like this was that....more
I had read some of Howie Carr's columns on the mob in Boston, and was slightly less than blown away -- so when I read this book, I WAS blown away. It'I had read some of Howie Carr's columns on the mob in Boston, and was slightly less than blown away -- so when I read this book, I WAS blown away. It's great. This is top-notch mob journalism, covering the corruption of Billy Bulger's career as president of the Massachusetts Senate, as well as his brother Jim "Whitey" Bulger's career as the principal hood in South Boston. Stands with some of the best accounts of political corruption and organized crime. A great read and immensely informative....more
I'm not really that sure what this book is. It almost seems to be aspiring to be a bunch of zen sayings about...something. Being a criminal? Being a mI'm not really that sure what this book is. It almost seems to be aspiring to be a bunch of zen sayings about...something. Being a criminal? Being a mobster? Maybe. Who knows. I found it unsatisfying and not very illuminating. Just really not my cup of tea. Yanks who love Japan may find it fascinating....more
Mildly interesting for those very interested in the Mob, but not really a general-interest book. Sort of content-free if what you're looking for is geMildly interesting for those very interested in the Mob, but not really a general-interest book. Sort of content-free if what you're looking for is general information and/or entertainment....more
Hell's bells, how I love me some books about cops going undercover as bikers. Having just finished No Angel by Jay Dobyns I checked out this one, alsoHell's bells, how I love me some books about cops going undercover as bikers. Having just finished No Angel by Jay Dobyns I checked out this one, also about an ATF agent, this one infiltrating the Mongols, the Hells Angels' chief rivals in southern California. I dug the book big-time. I think I liked it better than the Dobyns book, but they're both great for what they are....more