Book Break: A History of Corruption

As I mentioned last summer, I’ve been reading a number of diverse books as research for a novel that I hope to complete in 2012. These have included three books on the Irish mob in the U.S. which, together, paint a sobering picture of corruption extending back to the earliest days of our republic.

The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld

Written by journalist Herbert Asbury and published in 1927, this book provided much of the fodder for the Scorcese film Gangs of New York, if not the actual storyline. It paints a picture of unimaginable squalor, poverty, violence, racism, and political corruption beginning in post-colonial New York City and continuing through Prohibition. Filled with colorful characters and a mix of historical facts and gangster lore and legend, it is a darkly engaging read that makes the reader question how close our animal instincts may lurk beneath our human surface. The propensity for grotesque violence among those with no hope and nothing to lose stands in sharp contrast to our usual views of American ideals and opportunity at the time of our nation’s founding. I will see the film soon, but I don’t expect to enjoy it much…

Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster
This 2006 volume by T.J. English draws on the Asbury book as a source, but digs deeper, extending beyond New York City to Chicago, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Boston, and including the mid- and late-20th century. The book is more explicit about the relationships between Irish mobsters and hoods and the Italian Mafia, organized labor, corporate strikebreakers, and politicians on both sides of the aisle. (It also paints a less romantic picture of the Kennedy family and suggests multiple strong motives for the assassination of President Kennedy.) It appears to be well researched and is also an engaging, if disturbing, read. Whereas The Gangs of New York made me question human nature, Paddy Whacked made me question the nature of our democracy.

Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal
This 2001 book by Boston Globe journalists Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill tells the story of the legendary South Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger: his rise to power and secret status as a federal informant whose corrupt FBI handlers protected him and his men from prosecution for years. The recent Scorcese film The Departed may have been a remake of the Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs (in some cases shot-for-shot), but the South Boston setting and the Jack Nicholson character are inspired by this true tale, and Bulger’s capture this past summer after 16 years on the lam does little to fend off the disquieting feeling that we cannot know who the bad guys are or how far their reach extends. A parallel history of Bulger’s brother, formerly a prominent state senator and president of the University of Massachuesetts, adds to that feeling…

Taken together, these books provide a sobering look at the seamy underbelly of “truth, justice, and the American way.” Strong language and violence abound, and these books won’t leave you feeling warm and fuzzy about the world, but they are good, solid reads.

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