When Tragedy Beckons from Between the Pages

By Carole Reedy

Gangster movies are the inheritor of the Greek tragedy: it’s the only genre where the audience will be disappointed if there’s not a tragic ending. – Daniel Espinosa

When you hear the word “gangster” what comes to mind?  Capone, Chapo, Narcos, Chicago, The Sopranos, Italians, The Godfather? Certainly these, but there are many more names and places, which I discovered while searching for some of the most representative and well-written literature about the men, and a few women, whom we call gangsters. 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “gangster” thusly: “A member of a gang of violent criminals.”  It’s only when we read the synonyms for “gangster” that we understand the nuances that occasionally even romanticize the profession: “hoodlum, racketeer, bandit, robber, ruffian, thug, tough, desperado, outlaw, villain, lawbreaker, criminal.”

Various motives make up the decision to join a gang. To young men looking for a profession and a way to make big money, it may appear that these “breakers of rules and laws” are getting away with something and that it’s an easy way to make a lot money. Research tells us some would-be gangbangers are actually seeking an extended family they may not have had at home. Heredity is another major factor, especially for many Italian and Mexican families.  

In a famous quote from the bestselling novel/film The Godfather, Michael Corleone, the conflicted son who previously had rejected a role in the family business, declares: “Tell my father I am ready to be his son.”

The neighborhood in which a person is raised may be another involvement factor. Infamous crime boss John Gotti spent his childhood in East New York, where his Italian immigrant parents had settled. The area was known for its gang activity, and by the age of 12 John was working as an errand boy for the famed Gambino mob family. (John Travolta stars as Gotti in the 2018 movie of the gangster’s life, called simply Gotti – not to be confused with the 1996 Gotti, starring Armand Assante.)

Gangsters come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. I’ve chosen a few gangster-related books, fiction and non-fiction, from different countries that I hope will provide you with many hours of good reading. 

 

ROBIN HOOD (THE OUTLAW CHRONICLES SERIES), 

Angus Donald (2009 – 16) 

Eight novels make up this series about the legendary Robin Hood, who was first celebrated in the form of ballads starting in 1470 in England. The legend itself, however, dates back to the 13th century. 

It has not been established that Robin Hood was indeed a real person.  Both the name Robin and surname Hood were popular monikers in the 15th century, making it difficult to confirm the tales of this adventurer.  

Iin addition, the name Robin Hood became a stock alias for thieves, perhaps derived from the name Robehod, an appellation given to outlaws in the 13th century. You might conclude that the Robin Hood we know is a compilation of various rogues. Nonetheless, Robin Hood’s actions are synonymous with the famous phrase “take from the rich and give to the poor,” even though he was friends with royalty and said to be born of nobility. 

In any case, Angus Donald has created a series of eight novels that follow the adventures of this mysterious hero, beginning in the late 12th century during the Saxon-Norman rivalry and reign of Henry II.  One reader says of the series: “Donald creates a Robin that is believable and balances the heroic character we all know and love with the more criminal/outlaw that he would have been.”  

The book website Goodreads says of Outlaw, the first book in the series, “Meet The Godfather of Sherwood Forest,” most likely referring to the display of noble generosity in both of their personal lives while practicing ruthlessness in their professions. The adventurous romp received excellent reviews upon its publication in 2009. 

THE GODFATHER, Mario Puzo (1969)

The Godfather, an instant best seller, became an epic masterpiece of Italian Mafia fiction and a global phenomenon, selling between 20 and 30 million copies. It remains one of the top ten best-selling books of American fiction. The films based on the book are classics in the film world to this day. 

Author Mario Puzo admits he wrote the book because he needed the money and might have spent more time with the writing if he had known it would be such a huge success.  Nonetheless, the novel not only gives us an insight into the Mafia’s business, it also allows a glimpse of the commitment, loyalty, and generosity to family and friends.  One reader observes that there is “an incredible sense of moral and religious conviction that what they do is right and good.”

Both book and films are patterned after, and seem to be a compilation of, crime bosses Frank Costello and Carlo Gambino, as well as of Joseph Bonanno (movies have been made about all of them). 

DIEGO CORRIENTE O EL BANDIDO GENEROSO, 

José Marín Gutierrez de Alba (1850)

Known as the Robin Hood of Spain, el señor Corriente had a short career.  He was born in 1757 and hanged in Seville in 1781, after just three years of marauding from Portugal to Seville with the help of the rural folk, who enabled him to operate with great freedom.  

While visiting Andalusia in May, I spent several hours in The Museo de Bandoleros (robbers, thieves), located in the charming pueblo of Ronda. The museum was small but jam-packed from floor to ceiling with information and memorabilia of the bandoleros (mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries), including guns, trinkets, photos, newspaper articles, and clips from the subsequent comic books and films that were made of these anti-heroes. 

Diego Corriente dominates the information with his three-year campaign of robbing the rich, but also taking care of the poor rural farmers.  Gutierrez’s work is actually a drama in three acts in verse, available only in Spanish.  

ROTHSTEIN by David Pietruza (2011)

The name Arnold Rothstein may not ring a bell unless you are a baseball fan.  He is said to be the genius behind the 1919 World Series fix in which the Chicago White Sox players were accused of intentionally losing to the Cincinnati Reds for financial gain. Although he was never indicted, Rothstein made a significant profit as a result of the bets he placed on the series, which the White Sox were expected to win.  

Rothstein was the black sheep of his orthodox Jewish family.  His brother studied to be a rabbi and his father was a wealthy businessman, but Arnold was never interested in school and spent his early teen years shooting dice. He said he never remembered a time when he didn’t gamble.  

Instead of the successful traditional life his family hoped for him, he became the most clever, diversified, unequalled gangster of the Jazz Age.  His repertoire is impressive: from financier of white slavery and drug dealing (some call him the first modern drug dealer) to political and criminal fixer to loan shark, bookmaker, and thief.  

Prohibition provided him with the opportunity to bootleg drugs and narcotics. He was a genuine genius whose talents unfortunately were misdirected. His life was cut short in 1928 in a Times Square hotel room, where he was murdered at age 46 over a gambling debt, a mystery the author unravels for the reader in this biography. 

Pietrusza is considered one of the best historians in the US.  This biography, meticulously researched, was a finalist for the 2003 Edgar Award and received kudos from The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, among others.  

PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN, Jennifer Clement (2014)

Clement offers, in this most disturbing of novels, the point of view of the victims of gangster-narcos in the Mexican state of Guerrero. In the mountains just outside flashy, trendy Acapulco lie villages in which the citizens are mostly women, but you won’t see many little girls. They are being hidden or disguised as boys in order to hide from the narcos who come to steal away beautiful girls. The story starts there and progresses to Acapulco and Mexico City, showing us another side of narcotics abuse.

Mexican-American Clement knows her subject intimately, living in Mexico City, where she writes, researches, and observes.  She has been president of PEN Mexico, and the first woman President of PEN International since 2015.  Her first book, Widow Basquiat: A Love Story, the story of her friend’s life with renowned painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, received rave reviews from the most prestigious publications. It is a personal favorite of mine, as is Prayers for the Stolen.

Prayers for the Stolen was published in 2014 and appeared on dozens of Best Books of the Year lists.  I don’t know a person who has read this book who hasn’t been moved emotionally by the author’s ability to tell these deeply tragic tales with the utmost discretion while allowing us a glimpse into the agonies experienced by these women. 

BRIGHTON ROCK, Graham Greene (1938)

Greene wrote this crime thriller in 1938, and it went on to film fame in 1947 and then again in 2010. Although it is a thriller set in the 1930s underworld of Brighton, England, a reader/fan tells us the book “goes beyond the reach of a thriller and deep into the zone of existential and metaphysical complexity.”   

The anti-hero of the novel is 17-year-old Pinkie Brown, a Catholic (as was Greene), which gives Greene a vehicle to ponder the nature of sin and morality. 

Graham Greene is, of course, the renowned and well-loved British author of many novels, plays, children’s books, poetry, and short stories.  His novels often focus on modern man’s moral dilemmas. 

GANGSTERS OF SHANGHAI by Gerry O’Sullivan (2013)

Both the author and the novel’s protagonist hail from the island of Ireland, and both leave for the East, the author in 1986 to Australia and the protagonist to Shanghai in 1927. O’Sullivan traveled from Australia to Singapore and Shanghai to do research, and even to Brandeis University, outside Boston, MA, where secret files of the Shanghai Municipal Police Special Branch are kept.   

Inspired by his grand uncle, who was a detective in the Shanghai Municipal Police in the 1920s, O’Sullivan wanted to write an adventure-mystery-crime novel that was historically accurate. The result is a compilation of his grand uncle’s stories about his experience in the Shanghai police force, O’Sullivan’s dedicated and detailed historic research, as well as his own perspective on living in Shanghai. 

Again the Jazz Age of the ’20s and ’30s is the backdrop for a glimpse of criminal activity during those decades.

The director of The Writer’s Factory in Sydney, Australia, says it best: “Gangsters of Shanghai is a remarkable story, told in vivid detail and rich in color. It is a racy story underpinned by incredible research that makes the storyline and characters incredibly believable.” 

Keep the lights on while reading from this list!

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