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Friday, August 7, 2015

“Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires” by Selwyn Raab

784 pages, Thomas Dunne Books, ISBN-13: 978-0312300944

In the minds of many the Mafia is as deeply associated with the American experience as the Old West – but it presents an unusual problem for would-be chroniclers: if it’s doing its job properly, there’s little to write about, for the Mafia (or rather Cosa Nostra, an Italian phrase which literally translates to “our thing”) thrives in the shadows, making its presence known only when it has to, and then only to those who need to feel it. Former New York Times reporter Selwyn Raab refers to it as a “toxic effect”, with the mob contributing to a general sense of corruption as it exerts its invisible tax through activities conducted just beneath the eye of the law. It is in Raab’s mammoth Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of Americas Most Powerful Mafia Empires that he sets out to provide a thorough history of the “families” that have dominated New York since Lucky Luciano’s organizational brilliance codified the American Mafia in the early 1930s. Held together by its high-profit criminal lifestyle (as well as omertà, a code of silence and loyalty) the Mafia thrived for decades, virtually ignored by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. But in the 1970s law enforcement began to make serious inroads into the mob with the institution of RICO laws (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), which granted greater powers of surveillance and expanded the grounds for prosecution of mob crimes.

This is a great book on the history of the American Mafia with some new insights on its origins and how it came to the US, also how it functioned and bled New York for 70+ years. Raab has a done a masterful job of combing through the myriad newspaper, court documents, and sources out there and assembled a chronological narrative of each of New York’s Mafia families. It is a riveting read, entertaining and informative, and gives new insights into the semi-legit rackets and old history like Appalachia, JFK’s assassination, Luciano’s war-time aid to the US, and Jimmy Hoffa (of particular value is how the new focus on terrorism post 9/11 may give the Mafia a chance to regroup). However, these strengths are also its weaknesses, as it focuses exclusively on New York City and essentially claims that the Big Apple mob made satellites of Mafia families in other cities while never explaining how things worked in other cities or how the New York families subjugated other Mafia groups around the country. It also would have been interesting to learn how the New York mafia related to and cooperated with families in other cities, especially Chicago. It never explains how the New York families could run crews in other cities with active Mafia Families, like Newark and California. Raab also relies heavily on FBI and Court transcripts, and sometimes his explaining the investigations and pursuit of the gangsters is too long and pulls the book off track. We want to learn about the Mafia and how it functions, not read a police investigative-procedural drama. 

A devotee of straightforward reportage, Raab never finds the language to equal his material. His habit of doubling back on the narrative and repeating himself doesn’t help, either. He’s dry, but thorough, and as a warehouse of information it’s tough to beat Five Families, particularly once it catches up with the era that Raab himself covered. As omertà broke down and more wiseguys turned on their bosses in exchange for softer sentences, the truth about the Mafia began to emerge. It’s not a pretty truth, either, even for those who make it to the top. Gotti lived high, but his reign lasted only a few years. Gigante held on much longer, but his feigned insanity made him a virtual shut-in. Raab cautions that, with the government’s attention focused elsewhere post-9/11, the mob could easily rise again. Raab sought to write a history of New York’s Five Families and he succeeded in spades; his only weakness is taking the mystique of the mafia at face value and portraying them as the end-all and be-all of organized crime in New York and throughout the country. But one pattern emerges in his history: failure is hardwired into the Mafia’s success.

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