Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Boss of Bosses

Boss of Bosses -- the Fall of the Godfather: the FBI and Paul Castellano
© 1991 Joseph F. O'Brien and Andris Kurins
364 pages

A number of years ago I had a considerable interest in the Mafia, from an adolescent fascination with men of power and prestige and a less adolescent fascination with the darker side of human nature -- the corrupting effect of power, and what it can drive people to do. This is not an expired interest, but it is one that is typically latent. Still, it arises every so often, and it did so while I was going through my public library's discard bin in hopes of rescuing whatever science and history texts I could find. (I found none outside of Carl Sagan's now probably irrevelant book on nuclear winter.) The bin was full of parenting books with some exceptions -- like this, Boss of Bosses. The book is a memoir of sorts written by two FBI Agents who spent five years building a case against a real-world godfather, only to see their work rendered moot when the ambitious John Gotti decided to rid the "Five Families" of who they saw as a limiting liability.

The memoir is written in the third person, with emotional and intellectual context being given for both of the agents by themselves. The opening chapters go back and forth from the agents' attempts to build a case against Castellano (interviewing people whose lives Castellano's operations touch) to brief chapters that document Castellano's rise to power. The authors obviously feel something for their prey: they develop respect and even sympathy for him, and moreso once they are able to plant a bug in his home. They aren't cynical of their mission as government agents -- they do believe Castellano is a criminal whose time has come, but at the same time they recognize he's no hood. The character of Castellano that emerges from their book is of a gentlemanly rouge. He's a cut above men like John Gotti; he believes in the old "code of honor" that Mafiosos like Joseph Bonanno claim to have kept. Interestingly, the FBI agents seem to believe in this old code, as well -- or at least they believed it once existed in some form and that some men did keep it. Castellano, despite his attempts to legitimize the Mafia by shifting its interests to noncriminal enterprises, is depicted as a relic from days gone by.

The book has a lot to offer to anyone with any degree of interest in the Mafia: it's a history of one don's rise to power, a psychology of its members -- people so removed from their past that they have to rely on the script of The Godfather to give them answers to police questions -- and a story of how the FBI attempted to bring Castellano to justice, only to be thwarted by the "Pope's" political enemies. The book read well and I'd recommend it.

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