Interview with the Mobster

I Heard You Paint Houses"; Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran and closing the case on Jimmy ...Title: “I Heard You Paint Houses”:
Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran & Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa
Author: Charles Brandt
Genre: True(?) Crime
Pages: 310
Rating: 4 of 5

I was living in Scranton back when this book came out, and it made quite the splash. Russell Bufalino, who figures prominently in the story, had been a local (I lived within walking distance of the borough where some of the early scenes take place…I miss all those little pizza joints!), and the whole Scranton-Wilkes Barre area still has a pretty corrupt “mobby” vibe even if the Bufalino family is allegedly no longer active (I won’t go into local “open secrets” and things observed while working as a bank teller for 3 years). Anyway, I finally got around to reading this, and even though disappointingly little occurs in the SWB area, it was interesting in a horrifying kind of way.

Most of the book is comprised of huge block quotes from Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, culled from years of interviews with the author. The author occasionally interjects paragraphs of his own to explain events, but this is mostly the story of Jimmy Hoffa’s murder (and tangentially connected events related to the Teamsters, the Kennedys,  Cuba, Nixon, etc.) as told in Sheeran’s own words. Some aspects of Sheeran’s story are annoyingly repetitive or confusingly organized, but given how much interview material the author must have had to sift through and edit into a readable story, it’s fairly impressive in its coherence.

Sheeran is cold and largely remorseless as he casually talks about “taking care of” people for the mob and the Teamsters (and, before that, for the US Army). He paints a disturbing picture of the utter corruption, casual violence, and immense influence of both unions and the mafia in their heyday. (Joe Biden even makes a brief appearance as the Teamsters suppress an edition of a newspaper that was running large-scale attack ads against him when he first ran for congress.)

It’s hard to say how much of Sheeran’s story is accurate and how much is braggadocio. The actual description of events immediately surrounding the murder of Jimmy Hoffa takes up a relatively small number of pages and is probably the most believable part since the author offers some corroborating evidence. Other aspects, like Sheeran’s sexual prowess, number of murders, or minor involvement in the JFK assassination, seem a bit more iffy.

Overall, I don’t think there’s any way to know how accurate this is, but it does provide a darkly fascinating look at power, corruption, and murder.

Take that, Mafia!

Image result for the french connection bookTitle: The French Connection:
A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy
Author: Robin Moore
Genre: True Crime
Pages: 284
Rating: 3.5 of 5

In 1960’s NYC two off-duty narcotics officers notice a previously unknown mobster type consorting with known criminals at the Copacabana. This kicks off a months long investigation involving the mob, French heroin traffickers, and soooo much surveillance.

I’d say that at least 70-80% of the book describes surveillance, including interminable scenes in which we get blow by blow descriptions of the exact routes taken in shadowing the suspects as they performed evasive maneuvers. I think that these scenes would be interesting for a New Yorker, but for a non-local they can get a bit tedious and confusing.

Overall, it’s interesting to see an old-school investigation where (for the most part) the good guys win, but this is not an action-oriented book. I’ve never seen the movie based on this book so I can’t compare them, but my guess is that there’s some serious embellishment to make it acceptable movie fare.

MI-6: The Old Boys’ Club

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by [Macintyre, Ben]Title: A Spy Among Friends:
Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: True Crime / Espionage
Pages: 328
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This is a tale of cold-blooded betrayal by a charismatic double agent and of monumental incompetence by his colleagues at MI-6 who sheltered, enabled, and defended him for several decades . Soviet mole Kim Philby (and associated traitors in “the Cambridge five”) wreaked havoc in both the British and American intelligence communities, compromising operations and costing the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Ben Macintyre examines Philby’s career with a focus on his friends/dupes in the intelligence community, especially his closest friend and most loyal defender, Nicholas Elliott.

Clearly, the authors had to wade through massive amounts of self-justification and obfuscation in writing this book, so we are getting version of the story of which a definitive version is probably impossible. That being said, his presentation is convincing, well-sourced, and hangs together well. MI-6 is portrayed as an above-the-law “old boys club” that couldn’t be bothered to do serious background checks on “gentlemen” and refused to believe that one of their own class could really be a Soviet agent (even when presented with damning circumstantial evidence by MI-5 and the CIA). I think that the author was trying to be as nice as possible in his portrayal of Philby’s friends, but to me Nicholas Elliott comes off as a class-blinded moron and naive fool of the first order.

After reading this, it is easier to understand the cynicism in the spy novels of Graham Greene and John LeCarré (the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is based on Philby). Overall, it was a fascinating book, though largely in a “can’t look away from the tragedy being brought about by arrogant fools” kind of way.