New York City has always figured prominently in gangster lore. The troubled relationship between the Mafia and the city’s vibrant Italian and Sicilian-American diaspora has been mined—and frequently sensationalized—by television and film. Literary renditions of Cosa Nostra and similar crime organizations, however, have traditionally managed a bit more credibility, as they explored the fascinating and complex history of the mob in novels, memoirs, and nonfiction. Here are ten grounded stories of the Mafia that bridge genre, era, and cultural origin.
One problem afflicting would-be exposés of the Mafia’s impact on the U.S.A. is, of course, that their operations are illegal and the penalty for bringing their practices into the open are frequently harsh. For years, writers were forced to invent, giving rise to a body of literature that fed back into the myth of the gangster. But the waning national power of the Mafia, combined with a series of government agency-led initiatives that devastated organized crime in the 20th century, has paved the way for a new wave of memoirs that are a valuable supplement to our evolving picture of the real-life counterparts to Vito Corleone and Tony Soprano. And then there’s the often-bleak world of Italian crime writing, which offers yet another angle from which to examine the mob. Intertwined as it is with notions of personal honor and independence central to American identity, it’s easy to get carried away with the legend of the American gangster.
The President Street Boys: Growing Up Mafia is the fascinating and eye-opening memoir by Brooklyn-raised Frank DiMatteo, born into a family of hit-men. It tells the story of the infamous Gallo brothers and capo Frank Costello from a child’s-eye view. More than just an oral history of the rise and fall of an American crime family, DiMatteo vividly recreates the experience of living with murder, extortion, and the threat of prison constantly in the background, making for an essential true story that humanizes the larger-than-life gangsters of popular legend.
A prehistory of New York City crime and one of the sources of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Luc Sante’s Lowlife: Lures and Snares of Old New York is a classic, compulsively readable portrait of old New York from 1840 to 1919, from its opium dens and tenements to the gang-saturated Five Points, where Irish and Italian gangs vied for supremacy. Easily one of the great books of urban life and American mythology, Lowlife flawlessly creates the proto-Mafia powers that controlled City Hall and fed the public hunger for gambling, prostitution, and other vices while imparting a vivid sense of an all-but-forgotten past.
Widely hailed as the most complete contemporary history of the mob, New York Times crime reporter Selwyn Raab’s Five Families: The Rise, Decline and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Crime Empires outlines the careers of dons like Lucky Luciano and John Gotti, while relating the game of cat-and-mouse between the FBI and the American Mafia, as they undermined legitimate enterprise for decades. Immediate and painstakingly researched, never has the rise and fall of the country’s premiere crime families—Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese—been rendered quite so completely. It also warns of the mob’s potential rebirth in light of the government’s turn toward terrorism, circumventing the crime-fighting resources previously used to combat domestic offenders.
Leonardo Sciascia is the definitive novelist of Cosa Nostra, and The Day of the Owl is his masterpiece. The random disappearance of a man on his daily commute comes to illustrate how the Mafia penetrate every aspect of Italian society. In timeless novels like To Each His Own and The Wine-Dark Sea, Sciascia pioneered the gangster story while also depicting an oppressive society at war with itself. The result is a series of detective stories whose solution ultimately proves impossible, and whose heroes are typically doomed.
Bandit Love is just one of Massimo Carlotto’s many novels, in which crime is the dominant social reality and the law barely exists. Starring his usual protagonist, Marco “the Alligator” Buratti, this installment pits the freelance private investigator against a Mafioso operating in the vacuum left by Soviet power in Serbia and Kosovo, as he attempts to solve a kidnapping with the help of his sidekick Max the Memory, eventually being drawn into a battle between warring bosses. Every one of Carlotto’s novels is a classic, including the memoir of his own imprisonment and eventual escape from prison, The Fugitive.
The Pen/Faulkner award-winning Billy Bathgate is E.L. Doctorow’s untraditional Depression-era coming-of-age tale. It details how the New York street urchin of the title is accepted into the Dutch Schultz gang, undertaking adventures reminiscent of the stories of Mark Twain or J.M. Barrie but against a grim underworld backdrop.
America’s infatuation with the Mafia begins with Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, the original saga of the Corleone crime family that introduced the conventions of the genre to an English-speaking audience. Michael Corleone’s unlikely assumption of power after his father Vito is shot by an agent of a rival crime syndicate is an example of the classic story of a hero coming into his own, but set in a criminal world that inverts the usual dynamics of police versus gangsters.
Richard Condon had already made his name with The Manchurian Candidate when he began the saga of the Brooklyn-based Prizzi crime family with Prizzi’s Honor. The book became a movie, directed by John Huston and starring Jack Nicholson, in 1985. The story of a hit-man whose loyalties are torn between the woman he loves and the mob, Prizzi’s Honor would go on to inspire three more novels, all written in Condon’s idiosyncratic style.
The memoir that inspired the film of the same name, Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia is FBI agent Pistone’s intimate recreation of the years he spent posing as jewel thief Donnie Brasco, as he interrogated the mob’s operations from Miami to New York. Moving like a thriller between tense scenes and featuring memorable characters like Lefty Ruggiero, played by Al Pacino in the movie, the book also works as a history of the mob’s waning powers in the late 20th century.
Here’s one you may have overlooked. The Mafia and the Gays is a surprising but essential history of the mob’s control over New York’s gay club scene well into the 1980s. Crawford’s book brings to light the intertwined stories of the LGBTQ community and the gangsters who operated once-illicit bathhouses, or who offered gay businesses protection from the police pre-Stonewall while hijacking gay liberation to serve the ends of families like the Genovese, who controlled the famous Haymarket.