New York may never represent the best in America, but it has long been the most colorful.
Michael Cannell, a former editor at the New York Times, has now written a second love letter, packed with colorful details, to the New York that was. His appreciation of journalistic hacks in prior writings is now augmented by that of gangsters, specifically the Murder Inc. mobsters from Prohibition through WWII. Midway through the book I realized what a great read it is for these newly dark days of the nation.
The language is rich and evocative. The nicknames given to each other by Jewish and Italian crime-doyens, such as Buggsy Goldstein, Cokey Flo (an addict moll), Abbadabba, Puggy Feinstein (described by Cannell as “a sad-sack minor bookie”), and, our anti-hero, Kid Twist. Alliteration takes front page with Pittsburgh Phil, Lucky Luciano, and Tick Tock Tannenbaum. (Now we have proof of Donald Trump’s New York pedigree, in his creative gift of monikers for opponents.) Equally clever are the sobriquets and epigrams given by stringers on the trial and murder scene beat, including The Kiss of Death (for the bombshell broad whose four boyfriends all get snuffed) and “The canary could sing, but he could not fly” for the book’s main criminal protagonist, Abe Reles, whose five story fall is the book’s central mystery. The gallows humor extends to the Sing Sing electric chair termed “Old Sparky.” Overall, one realizes how large a place gangland took in the American imagination and vocabulary.
I’m not a frequent reader of Crime Inc. lore, and was grateful that Cannell avoided Pulp Fiction luridness, that glorifies the gore, in his terse descriptions of countless crime scenes. Among them was the succinct “A fifth, decisive shot splashed the back of his head against the tile floor.” [p.274] Indeed, his writing may be subtly inspired by the tough guy brogue, with a Give ‘em only the facts, ma’am style. Cannell often deploys the mot , such as his courtroom description in which the setting “had reduced the Brooklyn big shots to sallow failures.” [p.185]
Cannell has an eye for the telling detail but can be repetitive, as when he returns to how one mobster’s head permanently lists to the side (due to a bullet’s ripping several neck muscles) on p.228, or how Twist Kid’s death-impact from five stories up leaves his suit pants ripped at the crotch on p.231. Nice details, but no need to repeat them.
Almost as a motif, he returns to “killer eyes.” One of the few unsullied heros of the period, a prosecutor named Burton Turkus, makes the observation, which Cannell amplifies as “a coldness of soul expressed in their countenance.” [p.220]
For a book swimming in crime and sin, there is little jail time given to the immaterial. While tough guys frequently break down blubbering at the prospect of execution, outside of that there is nary a thought for eternal life. Thankfully, the religious hypocrisy is held to a minimum, the Catholic rituals by and over killers more striking, the Jewish ones less so.
Instead the book, perhaps unavoidably, meanders now and then into authorial omniscience, intuiting the dead characters’ thoughts and motives:
“He was tense with good reason: his appearance before the committee might be his last chance to restore his name, to exorcise Rele’s ghost.” [p.262]
The emotional/emotive insights, even if or when from source materials, can border on psycho-babble:
“Kitty’s body might be failing, but her mind was forever keen. In her calming presence his public show of fighting spirits subsided, replaced by the more contemplative and melancholic nature that was his truer state of mind.” [p.219]
Given how colorfully sordid New York is depicted, we hunger for good guys. The book’s best candidate is perhaps William O’Dwyer (whose wife, Kitty, is mentioned above), a sympathetic and gregarious Irishman who rises from District Attorney to Mayor, before getting sidelined as Ambassador to Mexico. His character is fleshed out more than most, including his relation to his first wife, Kitty, who suffers from Parkinson’s, but even his life ends tragically.
Maintaining a film noirish atmosphere for an entire book can challenge even the most prodigious fabulist. I found the contemporary description “Pixar villain” on the narrative’s first page jarring. As I did, on the book last page, when a list of gangster flicks includes two I’m unfamiliar with, Boardwalk Empire and The Irishmen. (Call me culturally deprived.)
Cannell’s book-noire is massively researched, with no burial stone unturned. A history book at heart, it is one where history sometimes rhymes, even if the sequence is reversed: one learns of the famous penitentiary retreat that “Welfare Island was later renamed Roosevelt Island.” Yet it is a pity that all the characters, and people who knew them, are long dead. Perhaps some interviews lending insights to the vast cast of characters could have helped. (It can be hard to keep track with who’s who in gangland.)
But just when my consuming interest in the book flagged, I was jolted by how well A Brotherhood Betrayed fits our national moment. Think of it. We have Crime Inc. in the Democrat party, intent on power through thievery, willing to kill the nation’s faith in electoral integrity in the process. We have the Biden crime family, led by Godfather Joe, who over 30 years received a 50% cut of his son’s suspicious business activities (per his son’s emails) with foreign adversaries, making them both security risks to the nation.
There’s even a statement which could be applied to today, when “the forces of human belligerence threatened to subsume all those who would impose order on lawlessness.” [p.135] Sounds like forever-Left cities this year, doesn’t it?
Thinking of all the rioting and hatred which blossomed this year from Leftland, followed by an election heist of historic proportions: how topical can a crime yarn get?
[Full disclosure: I roomed with the author at prep school eons ago.]
A Brotherhood Betrayed, The Man Behind the Rise and Fall of Murder, Inc., Minotaur Books, New York, 2020
Author Michael Cannell discusses the book with the Wolf Book Club, based in Miami Beach, FL, via videoconference.