Saturday, August 6, 2011

Book Reviews-The Outfit, Hard as Nails, Deathstalker Legacy and more

The Outfit
by Gus Russo
The classic era of American organized crime was from the thirties through the seventies. During this period the Chicago Syndicate aka "The Outfit" was close in power to all of the NY Five Families combined. Chicago famously enforced an edict that stated "Anything west of Chicago belongs to Chicago!". The Outfit controlled or oversaw satellite families or crime organizations in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Los Angeles, Memphis, Milwaukee and other areas. It shook down Hollywood studios, kept a heavy hand in labor unions, and maintained a presence in Las Vegas. 

Although it had to share the Teamsters Union with the Midwest and East Coast Families, the Outfit was the primary organization that used Teamsters Pension Fund monies to invest in a wide variety of legal and illegal activities.
Gus Russo details this story. After Capone went to prison, the new leaders of the Outfit met to set up a structure that would endure for seven decades.
The differences between the Chicago Outfit and the NY Families were:

  1. The Outfit was organized more along the lines of a corporation instead of a Mafia Family
  2. The Outfit had eliminated or subsumed all serious competition within Chicago
  3. The Outfit made more use of "front bosses" 
  4. The Outfit seemed to have a few more open psychopaths
  5. The Outfit allowed non-Italians to rise to positions of authority and dominance, although the ultimate leadership remained Italian
One of the more interesting gangsters profiled and a possible real life model for the fictional Tom Hagen was Curly Humphreys, a man of Welsh descent, who as a young hoodlum had hijacked one of Capone's liquor shipments. Hauled before Capone, Humphreys not only talked himself out of the usual sanction for such a crime but also managed to get a job with the Outfit. Humphreys became the organization's preeminent fixer, legal advisor, business contact and labor extortionist. He would later sit on the leadership council of the post-Capone Outfit until his death by natural causes. As Capone himself said of Humphreys , "Anybody can use a gun. The Hump uses his head. He can shoot if he has to but he likes to negotiate with cash when he can. I like that in a man".  Humphreys was the first mobster to come up with the 5th Amendment privilege tactic when questioned by Congress. 

Humphrey's fellow ruling council members and later Outfit Bosses were Paul Ricca, the real leader in the immediate post-Capone years and a man described by sixties era boss Sam Giancana as a "wild shifty dog" and  "a real heartless b*****d"   (given that Giancana himself was widely considered by mobsters and law enforcement to be an unstable homicidal maniac that's saying something) and Anthony Accardo, Ricca's friend and a former Capone driver/enforcer who was given the nickname "Joe Batters" by Capone for his savage prowess with a baseball bat.

These men and a few others would take over and lead the Outfit for decades. Accardo originally came to prominence via a capacity for violence during the Capone days. He may have overseen or even participated in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre but soon made a bigger name for himself in gambling and labor racketeering. Accardo was smart enough to take a background role in the Outfit from the late fifties onward. Despite that he maintained greater power and respect within the Outfit than virtually anyone else besides Ricca. It was unusual that in the dog eat dog underworld Ricca, Accardo, and Humphreys never seemed to have any serious dislikes or rivalries with one another. The same could not be said of the later boss Giancanca, who was a polarizing personality to people in and out of the Outfit. No one knows who murdered Giancana or whether it was ordered by the Outfit. the CIA or some other group. What we do know is that Accardo continued living long after Giancana's death, which lets you know where the real power resided in Chicago.

Russo pulls no punches. The book is extremely detailed and sourced. With books like this though you still have to take things with a grain of salt as the primary people of interest generally didn't keep diaries or talk to biographers. Some other people thought that this book gave too much emphasis to Humphreys; his family provided primary and secondary sources. However if you are interested in the classic era of organized crime in America, give this a read.

Hard as Nails
by Dan Simmons
Hard as Nails is the third Joe Kurtz novel by the eclectic author Dan Simmons. The previous two were Hard Freeze and Hard Case but this one stands alone.
The protagonist, Joe Kurtz, is a Buffalo area former PI who has more than a little in common with such fictional heroes as Marlowe, Marv (from Sin City), Mike Hammer, or Burke. He is a former PI because as an ex-con he can't have a PI license. He is an ex-con because he did 11 years in Attica for killing a Mafia ranking member who murdered his partner. Once in prison he managed to make enemies of Black Muslims, white power types and of course organized crime adherents. But Kurtz is not so easy to kill.
As the book opens Kurtz is walking his parole officer to her car when both of them are shot. As Kurtz and his parole officer have any number of enemies with long memories the list of suspects is pretty large. And since Kurtz doesn't exactly have a pleasing personality there's not a lot of people willing to help him figure out who tried to have him murdered.
The list of possible suspects includes the feuding heads of two upstate NY mafia families, each of whom assure Kurtz that if they wanted him dead he would have been. Like any good noir hero Kurtz has his share of femme fatales, including a former girlfriend /police detective who wants to either arrest him or marry him and the aforementioned head of one of the Mafia groups (think Lucrezia Borgia as a young woman). Silly but fun, this book wasn't quite as good as the first two. 

Deathstalker Legacy, Deathstalker Return and Deathstalker Coda
by Simon Green
The British author Simon Green was a favorite author of mine but he's about run the string out here. He writes the literary equivalent of comfort food. You always know what you're going to get. It's fun but it's not overly challenging. In this trilogy he's become a little too repetitive. 
Green writes space opera. It's set millions of years in the future in which humanity is united under a single government (British derived of course) and has spread across the universe. There is peace, largely because a now legendary hero, Owen Deathstalker (subject of a previous and much better series) , led a great rebellion in which the corrupt Empress was overthrown. 

Now 200 years after Owen disappeared fighting an alien threat to humanity, his descendant Lewis is outlawed, at least in part because he's stolen the wife of his best friend and current King, Douglass. Unknown to Douglass, a man who was jealous of Lewis' position has set into motion plans to overthrow Douglass and take control of the Empire himself. And oh yes there is another threat to all life (human and alien) in the universe that only the disappeared and presumed dead Owen can deal with.

It's fun writing if you've never read Green before. The heroes are snarky and ironic. They ALWAYS have some fantastically and implausibly cool line to reel off to an enemy just before they wreck his day. The bad guys are suitably despicable. Green ALWAYS has rational male heroes and slightly more powerful, slightly more dangerous female heroines. 

He writes more strong female characters than any other male sci-fi/fantasy author I can cite. There are plenty of last stands, derring-do, plots within plots, double crosses, triple crosses, close calls and battles to the bitter end. You can virtually see the bad guys twirling their mustaches and hear them laughing evilly. Green writes books like old time radio serials. It's pulp fiction without all of the ugly associated racism, sexism or pro-colonialism. But if you've read Green before this will all seem recycled. And if heroes won't stay dead and can do thoroughly impossible things, how heroic are they really? 

If 6 were 9
by Jake Lamar
The title tries to capture the absurdity of much modern life in America, particularly when it comes to race. Jake Lamar is an author who knows how to do this in his sleep. This is a short novel that satirizes racial relations, the OJ trial, college professors, the media, black conservatives, law enforcement, liberals, and many other subjects.

Professor Clay Robinette gets a late night call from former friend and mentor, once militant but now ultra conservative Professor Reggie Brogus (think a mix of Eldridge Cleaver and Clarence Thomas) who needs Clay's help. There's a dead body in his office and he swears he has no idea how it got there. Against his better judgement, Clay decides to go see what's going on. As it turns out it's not just a dead body. It's a dead white woman. And not just any white woman, but Jennifer Wolfsheim, a former student of Clay's and his former mistress.
Brogus thinks he's been set up. Clay wonders just who's setting up whom. Nevertheless he helps Brogus cover things up and gives him a ride out of town. He will later regret this.

Of course things don't end there and almost immediately the ensuing investigation starts to pick up links between Jennifer and Clay. So Clay needs to find the "real killer" before the police-led by a woman of disturbing intelligence and indeterminate race whose presence drives Clay to distraction- decide he's the best suspect. The detective, Patsy DeFestina, doesn't miss much and is prone to blurting out things to the visibly nervous Clay like "Who knows? Maybe our killer was wearing a coat like yours."

Clay's investigation requires understanding the journey that Brogus took in life-from being a sixties black militant so scarily uncompromising, hateful and rhetorically violent that he was kicked out of other militant groups to becoming a lapdog black conservative who hawks barbeque sauce on late night ads. This is a bitterly funny book.

Hadrian's Wall
by William Dietrich

I liked The Scourge of God so I thought I'd give Hadrian's Wall a try. It's set a few years before the events in The Scourge of God but in the same setting-the late Roman empire. Dietrich is a good writer who's done his research and it shows. The book is chock full of interesting details about what the Romans and Celts and other peoples of the time were like-what they ate, how they worshipped, how their cultures and values differed. Hadrian's Wall was the fortification between Roman occupied Britainnia and the unconquered North of Scotland (Caledonia)

This story however didn't quite grab me as much. It's told from two points of view-that of a Roman "detective" for lack of a better word, who has come to Brittania after the book's events to find out what took place and the perspective of a Roman woman of astounding beauty, Valeria.

The Wall is under the new command of the harsh but fair Roman commander Galba. Galba has worked his way up through the ranks for the past two decades. He has fought everywhere along the Roman frontier. Just as he is formally promoted to command, Galba is told that he will not actually be in charge. Because of political requirements, actual command will pass to a true Roman noble, Marcus, who is richer and better connected than Galba, and more importantly a native Roman, unlike the Greek born Galba.  Marcus' career is ascending though he barely knows one end of a spatha from the other. To celebrate his new command, Marcus will marry Valeria, a Senator's daughter. The embittered Galba is advised to ensure that Marcus succeeds.

Valeria's arrival and marriage is noted by the Celtic clan leader Caractacus, a former Roman mercenary who has returned to his native land. Caractacus dreams of freeing all of Britain from Roman rule. He also has more carnal dreams when he is told of Valeria's beauty and promptly kidnaps her. Here the book starts to slide uncomfortably close to both romance novel and Dances With Wolves territory as the naive and biased Valeria finds that the Celts are not the brutal barbarians she thought they were and actually treat women much better than the strongly patriarchal Romans. The Celts have women warriors. The Celts keep no slaves. They free Valeria's handmaiden. They do not harm Valeria. She eagerly immerses herself in Celtic culture.

Though at first she is a captive of Caractacus it's soon very clear that the only bonds holding them together are those of love-at least on Caractacus' part. Valeria is more conflicted since she has feelings for Marcus, Caractacus, and to a certain extent Galba. Besotted by love or not though, Caractacus still intends to take the tribes to war. Valeria will need to decide which side is she on. I liked the opening and middle of this book.YMMV.  
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