Saturday, September 29, 2018

Book Reviews: The Detroit True Crime Chronicles

The Detroit True Crime Chronicles
edited by Scott Burnstein
Jimmy Hoffa. Demetrius Holloway. Young Boys Incorporated (YBI). The A-Team. Pony Down. Best Friends. The Devil's Diciples(sic). Black Jack Tocco. The Chambers Brothers. Tony Jack Giacalone. Maserati Rick. White Boy Rick. Chester Campbell. Henry "Blaze" Marzette. Billy Jack Giacalone. The Purple Gang. Taco Bowman. Louis Akrawi. Papa John Priziola. Bernie "The Hammer" Marchesani. Rocking Reggie Brown. Eddie Jackson. Big Ed Hanserd. Joe Zerelli.  

Many of those names will be familiar to those who are interested in organized crime or to those who grew up in Detroit proper or more generally Southeast Michigan. The same way that some people remember where they were when John Lennon or JFK were shot I remember where I was when I heard that Demetrius Holloway had been murdered at a popular downtown clothing store. People may not realize that Detroit area mafiosi and gangsters were the inspiration behind such films and music such as Absence of Malice, New Jack City, and The Ten Crack Commandments

I grew up close to ground zero for the infamous drug gang YBI. Some people in my neighborhood worked for folks in that group. I recall some of the events referenced in this book. The funny thing was is that looking back as bad as things were back then I don't remember at the time thinking that I lived in an extraordinarily violent city. It's a cliche but with some notable and fortunately rare exceptions most of the violence was contained among people who were already in that life. Of course my experience was shaped by having extremely strict parents who pretty much saw to it that I went to school and came home without going almost anywhere else. Perhaps other Detroiters would have different memories of those days.

This older book, edited and mostly written by local true-crime expert Scott Burnstein (a grandson of one of the founders of the Prohibition era notorious Jewish Purple Gang) tells fourteen interlocking stories of various Detroit area bad men from the thirties up thru the present day. There are a lot of interviews with local police, DEA, and FBI agents, as well as some hoodlums of various backgrounds who have survived their bloodletting. There are a number of different stories which focus on different elements within the Detroit/Southeast Michigan underworld. These include the Black inner city drug gangs, white and Hispanic motorcycle gangs, old school Jewish hoodlums, Chaldean (Iraqi Christian) or other Middle Eastern syndicates, crazed serial killers, occult murderers,and of course the local Mafia Family, often referred to as the Partnership. 

One point which this book takes pains to make is that the answer to who runs a particular area or business may vary according to who answers the question. And all the answers could be correct! It all depends on your perspective. The lion thinks he's king of the jungle. The elephant could dispute that. The human would laugh at both of them. And the bacteria would find it inconceivable that anyone thinks the bacteria isn't at the top of the food chain. 

Similarly this book points out the various ways in which different ethnic/racial criminal organizations occasionally compete, but more often either cooperate or take steps to work in different sectors of the business to avoid misunderstandings. 

Motorcycle gangs act as muscle for Italian mobsters who sometimes mentor Black gangsters who occasionally butt heads with Chaldeans who do business with Italians who oversee suburban gambling rackets which provide money laundering opportunities for Jewish gangsters. And so on. 

It's all a big spinning wheel with lots of different parts. Some gangsters don't let things like race or religion get in the way of making money. Other hoodlums would sooner die than work with THOSE people.

The book's other major theme is that the Detroit Mafia, unlike its counterparts in New York and Chicago, has taken secrecy and keeping a low profile seriously. It's more important to make money and stay out of prison than it is to let everyone know who you are. After all, those who need to know will certainly find out soon enough. Although this institutional introversion and relative lack of indictments has led some to believe that the Detroit Mafia is moribund, Burnstein provides solid evidence in this book for the argument that rather than being a dying organization, the Detroit Mafia is simply a very successful one. Many of their leaders aren't known to the general public. Most of their membership is related to each other via blood or marriage. This makes violent intragang rivalries less likely to occur. Many mafiosi are quite successful in legitimate businesses. When you're making millions in insurance or steel hauling or parking structure contracts, you really don't need to hang out in social clubs waving a Mafia flag for all to see. But people who defy you will often pay a price. Ask Jimmy Hoffa about that.

This was a solid read of just over two hundred pages. It was an important addition to a genre that is too often centered on the East Coast.  People interested in organized crime or Detroit history will enjoy this book.
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