I love books. Nearly every room in my house seems to have grown its own library. Even the kitchen. Novels, photography books, cookbooks, hundreds of books on music, film, history, reference books. An earthquake would bury us under the damn things. There’s an entire sub-industry of the publishing biz that seems to feed off the publics insatiable appetite for mafia books. Since the mafia no longer controls city politics, unions or even gambling, they’ve come to the point where their main function in our society is cultural, that is they exist mostly to entertain us. HBO has reaped nearly a billion dollars off of the Sopranos concession alone! Any prosecutor looking to make a name for himself need only find an Italian who may have committed a crime and a journalist to write about it and he’s or she’s assured of higher political office. Or as I once heard one old guinea say to another–“FBI, For Botherin’ Italians”!
Alexander Stille’s Excellent Cadavers: The Rise And Death Of The First Italian Republic (Vintage Books, 1995) is probably the best written and researched source in English (maybe in any language) on the rise of the Corleonesi. Centering on the 1992 assassinations of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the magistrates who were in charge of the famed “maxi-trial” (where 366 suspected mafia thugs were kept in a cage during the trial), the story follows the rise of Leggio, Riina, Michel Greco, and their ties to politicians at the very top of the Italian pasta chain, including then prime minister Giulio Andreotti (who would go on to be tried for ordering the murder of a journalist, and you think American politics is dirty?). The “Excellent Cadavers” of the title are the high profile victims of the Corleonesi, and their take over of the billion dollar heroin business from the traditional Palermo family bosses is jaw dropping reading. This book also inspired an excellent documentary and a terrible feature movie. Definitely the place to start.
Despite the rather bland title John Dickie’s Cosa Nostra: A History Of The Sicilian Mafia (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2005) is an excellent all around history of the Sicilian mob starting off in 1860 it documents the rise of it’s first real boss Antonino Giammona (who I’m pretty certain was either my great-grandfather’s father or uncle), its entry into political system, its importation into the U.S. then follows the story through the mob’s persecution under Mussolini and his “Iron Prefect” Cesare Mori, and it’s rehabilitation under the auspicious of the CIA. The story then documents the mob’s rebirth, and such golden memories as “the Sack Of Palermo” (the tearing down of beautiful historic buildings so the Mob could get the construction contracts to build the “mafia slums” that scar the landscape today), the take over of the international heroin trade, two bloody Mafia wars (’62-’69 and again with the Corleonesi takeover from 1970-82), the Michele Sindona affair in which the mafia laundered money through the Vatican bank (covered best in Nick Tosches’ classic Power On Earth, Arhbor House, 1986), the era of terror covered in more detail in Excellent Cadavers and the era of “Bombs and Submersion” that followed Toto Riina’s imprisonment and Provenzano’s more low keyed management style bring book up to date circa 2003 when it was published.
Octopus: The Long Reach Of The International Sicilian Mafia (W.W. Norton, 1990) by Claire Sterling was written before the pile of “excellent cadavers” grew into a small mountain, and before the Falcone and Borsellino murders but covers much ground not found in the above books. This one centers on the Corleonesi take over of the heroin trade, the cross fertilization with the American Bonnano family, the American 1985 “Pizza Connection” trials, the testimony of Palermo boss Tommaso Buscetta, the highest ranking Zip (as they’re known over here, because they talk so fast) to ever turn rat. Well researched, this is a fascinating look into the day to day mechanics of the heroin business on four continents.
Men Of Dishonor: Inside The Sicilian Mafia by Pino Arlacchi (William Morro, 1992) is translated from the Italian version by Marc Romano and follows the thirty year career of a mid-level mafiosi, one Don Antonino Calderone. This is a priceless look at the customs, mores, and day to day life of what turns out to be a rather shitty job. Being a Sicilian gangster just isn’t as much fun as it looks on TV. This volume is valuable as a documentary look at life inside a mob clan and quite a good read to boot.
The latest entry into the field Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, translated from Italian) is probably the only book in English the covers La Cosa Nostra’s cousins to the north in Naples, the Camorra. Conventional wisdom tells us that La Cosa Nostra are Italy’s most powerful organized crime group and that their Mezzigiorno bretheran like Naples’ Camorra and Calabria’s ‘Ndrangheta are small time in comparison. Saviano’s book however turns conventional wisdom on its ear as he presents evidence that the Camorra are in reality today’s big time players. They are historically the older organization and are an international outfit with global reach that will make you shutter. Since Camorra history and lore is all new to me I can’t vouch for it factually but it’s a hell of a story, one of the best crime books I’ve ever read. It also inspired a fictional movie Gomorrah that was the hit of the recent New York Film Festival (although it doesn’t seem to have a U.S. distributor yet). The Camorra has been making some fun headlines in the European news of late with the women of the various families opening up on each other wild west style in public (it seems most of their men are doing time). I can’t recommend this one highly enough. I’ve added the trailer for the movie above.
Leonardo Sciascia’s The Moro Affair (New York Review Books Classics, 1978, reprinted 2004) covers one of Italy’s most intriguing cases. The 1978 kidnapping and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigade), a left wing political action group. How does this case tie in with the Sicilian La Cosa Nostra? As Sciascia explains it they (the mafiosi) immediately made contact with Red Brigade members in prison and arranged for Moro’s release. However, as it turns out, the politicos, led by Christian Democrat Andreotti didn’t want Moro back, he knew too much and when the Brigate Rosse conveniently kidnapped him it presented to them the opportunity to silence a potentially dangerous voice. Sciacia does the detective work, and using the letters Moro sent to newspapers from his Red Brigade prison cell tells a chilling story of how Italian politics and the mob worked together to cover their bloody tracks, and how they forced the hand of the Brigate Rosse into a murder they really didn’t want or need to commit. Sciascia has also written many excellent novels concerning Sicilian crime , now translated into English courtesy of the New York Review of Books Classics series I’d say The Day Of The Owl, The Wine Dark Sea and Equal Danger are mandatory reading for fans of genre fiction. Or just plain old great books.
Although it covers much more than just organized crime, Tobia Jones’ The Dark Heart Of Italy (North Point, 2004) has excellent chapters on the Corlenesi rise, and other Italian crime stories (like Berlusconi’s inexplicable ability to avoid prison and get himself re-elected again and again). It’s extremely well written and a good all around look at modern Italian culture. His chapter on Lampadusa’s masterpiece The Leopard is the best anaylsis I’ve ever read on the subject.
The above photos were taken by Palermo born photo journalist Letizia Battaglia and are from her book Passion Justice Freedom: Photographs Of Sicily (Aperture, 1999). Battaglia uses her camera to document not just the mob murders but the entire spectrum of influence that La Cosa Nostra has on day to day life in Sicily, and her riveting images of the other victims, such as the women and children left behind, living in slums, mourning over the bodies of the fallen, sharing a meal with rats, are among the most compelling you will ever see. The photo of the mother of a missing mafia punk, holding a photo of her missing, beloved son (middle) is one of the most haunting things I’ve ever seen. Battaglia raises photo journalism to high art. Unfortunately, after many years of documenting La Cosa Nostra crimes and a brief stab at Palermo city politics she’s been forced to flea Sicily and currently works in Paris. The photos here (pardon my crappy scanner) are reproduced strictly for review purposes and give just a hint at her great talent. Buy the book and you’ll see what I mean.