on June 19, 2006
The prior reviews that seem peeved that this book offers little in the way of revelations or breakthrough analysis are accurate. If you are one of the country's great experts, OK, you've heard it before; don't buy the book.
For everyone else, this is an excellent review of the New York Mafia, what they did, who did it, and the enforcement brought against them. I own over a hundred organized crime books, and this is the one I would recommend to someone looking for the best possible overview of the Five Families. It is comprehensive, factual and well-written.
on February 26, 2006
I'd give "Five Families" six or seven stars, were it possible. Having read several Mob-related books, some great, some trashy, I can say with some authority that Selwyn Raab's book is the best historical volume ever on the Mafia, and brings us up to the present.
From its start during Prohibition, the founding of "The Commission" by Lucky Luciano and later events such as the whacking of Paul Castellano and the rise and fall of John Gotti, and the travails of sinister Mob figures like Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso, probably the most vicious mobster ever, and Vincent "Chin" Gigante, to whom even Gotti was deferential, "Five Families" offers a comprehensive yet never tedious look into New York's five Mob families, or "borgatas" and their successes and failures.
While attention is paid to John Gotti, Raab wisely divvies up his time evenly among the families, avoiding the overkill of Gotti stories other books have fallen prey to. His work on more recent figures is especially interesting.
We have always had a fascination with charismatic criminals, from the old days of the West with Billy The Kid, Butch Cassidy, to Al Capone, Luciano and John Gotti. It's the stuff of legend, but we must remember not to become admirers of these outlaws, as Raab points out through his details of some of their meanest and sadistic acts. Nonetheless, it's compelling and a great view into the underworld, its way of life and its prime movers and shakers. Over 700 pages long, and worth every sentence.
on March 22, 2006
Beginning with the Sicilian origins of the Mafia, Selwyn Raab explains how it spread from its New York origins to cities across America.
Raab, a newspaper and television reporter with more than 40 years experience covering organized crime paints a realistic portrait of the Mafia. Avoiding glamorization, the author, who spent more than 25 years as a reporter with The New York Times, exposes the Mafia as a serious threat to honest citizens.
"The collective goal of the five families of New York was the pillaging of the nation's richest city and region," he writes.
The five families--Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese--were responsible for corrupting labor unions to control waterfront commerce, garbage collection, the garment industry, and construction in New York. Later, they broadened their vistas to include the country, particularly Las Vegas, its most successful outside venture.
Since September 11, 2001, the author says, the F.B.I. has been focused mainly on external threats, the author notes. This gives it room to regain some lost turf by moving into new avenues of crime.
Exhaustive in its research and well-written, Five Families chronicles the tale of the rise and fall of New York's premier dons: Lucky Luciano, Paul Castellano and John Gotti. To carry his tale, Raab interviewed prosecutors, law enforcement officers, Mafia members, informants, and "Mob lawyers." The result: anecdotes and inside information that reveal the true story of the Mafia and its influence.
A masterpiece, this book will be considered a model of what great journalism should and can be.
on August 6, 2011
I have long been interested in that force in our society, the Cosa Nostra, first from film narratives and later as a source of political power. I saw all of the major films, from Godfather and Wiseguy to Prizzi's Honor, and avidly read newspaper accounts. When I lived in Manhattan, I felt close to a lot of mafia war incidents. I guess you could say I became a connoisseur of parasitic violence. But I never got a chance to assess this force in historical context - until now.
This is a fat, dense book with so many characters and legal minutiae that it has to be read very very slowly. IT is difficult, at times dry and too much, often without telling riveting personal stories, but in the end it delivers in a way that will forever change the readers' perception and understanding. It is a completely satisfying work of journalistic history.
Coming out of medieval Sicily, the Cosa Nostra was originally a secretive brotherhood to protect locals against foreign invaders. It was a group sworn to blood loyalty, with a tight hierarchical organization, and relied on disciplined violence for its political purposes. In a way, it functioned like a feudal empire within a state. Of course, it was only a matter of time before these lawless vigilantes turned their power into a way to enrich themselves at the expense of those they were supposedly protecting. For centuries, it was a peculiar institution of petty crime, based on threats and extortion, capable of hiding its activities behind a wall of silence (omerta) that was enforced by murder. It was not until the early 20C that a peculiar set of circumstances - prohibition with vast sums of money, but also an influx of Italians who understood the mafia's structure - that it took hold in the US.
At first, the mafia was based on the old traditions of secrecy, hierarchy, and controlled violence. The "families" became immensely rich and influential, with bosses seemingly untouchable because their underlings shielded them from direct links to crime, taking advantage of the legal system. As such, law enforcement could only go after individual crimes by lowly thugs and never touch the bosses. In this context, Donnie Brasco and Henry Hill were used to prosecute certain crews, but did not touch those at the very top.
After a terrible war between groups, Lucky Luciano negotiated a cooperative agreement between the five biggest "families" in New York: they would set policies together, even to the point of approving who could get killed in accordance with their code, and provided support for orderly succession, ensuring that the overall organization would survive death or prosecution of supreme leaders (the "capos"). This added a new level of organization and control, far beyond anything that had existed in Sicily. For a time, it proved unbeatable. The author is very hard on Hoover's FBI, which he sees as a publicity machine that focused on easy-to-solve crimes like bank robberies rather than the long cases that mafia organizations would require lawmakers to build, all without guarantees. Indeed, it was only under Bobby Kennedy's brief tenure at Justice that any effective attention was given to the mafia, which Hoover long denied had even existed.
Regarding the secrets, with omerta it was not until the 1960s, with Joe Valacchi, that the organization was finally understood. From prison, he explained the mechanisms of the organization, its rigid hierarchies, and the extent of its reach. To all but a select few, these revelations were truly shocking. He asserted that the mafia controlled many unions, set up protections rackets that extorted money from innumerable legitimate businesses, and enforced its demands by violence or its threat. That made one of the best early films, starring Bronson, but the author points out that it led to no major convictions.
In this period, the most significant new effort to combat the mafia was created in the RICO legislation, which treated the organization like corporations: all top officers became legally responsible for the actions of their underlings. This in effect removed the need to directly connect criminal action with explicit orders from capos. Add to this advances in technological detection - microphones and film devices that were legally authorized as evidence - and the mafia could be prosecuted, at least in theory. Amazingly, law enforcement avoided RICO for an entire decade as both constitutionally suspicious and costly in terms of their resources. Rudy Giuliano first used the law, in combination with an activist FBI officer in New York, the seat of the 5 families that controlled organized crime in the entire US. Once applied, the result was devastating: all 5 top mafia bosses, e.g. the "Teflon Don" Gotti and Persico, were imprisoned for life. Fears of convictions by testimony of underlings caused capos to become extremely cautious; after many decisions to kill those they suspected, it eventually led to a rash of defections under the witness protection program. While their organizations survived, they were severely diminished in scope, just not fatally. As attention of the FBI was diverted by 9/11, the remaining families had a chance to revive themselves and so the story continues.
One thing that is very fun in this book is the references to popular culture. The reader learns what was accurate in which film or TV series and what was romanticized or stereotypical, creating unrealistic images in the viewers' minds. Wiseguy and Donnie Brasco did not use RICO, but convicted relatively unimportant under-bosses and thugs. The Godfather films, which I love, come in for very heavy criticism: in his view, they romanticize family loyalties, elevate them to exaggerated cultural levels, and are unrealistic in that RICO would have devastated the organization like it did the other families.
An additional strength is the coverage of the economics and sociology of mafia crime. The details of their parasitic activites - and they add no value to the economy, but only finds ways to pass hidden costs to consumers - are explained with exceptional clarity. The personality type of those who went into organized crime is also explained: they tended to be lower middle class, early dropouts from school, and utterly without scruple when it came to hurting, intimidating, or murdering targets under orders. I.e. simple, rather stupid sociopaths.
This is an extremely informative read. If you want to understand the mafia, this is your book. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.
on April 5, 2007
I really enjoyed this history of the five New York Mafia families. It is very well written. It is a very lengthy book but if you have any interest in the Mafia you will not care. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to get an overview of the Mafia's history and how their "rackets" work. Saab also does an excellent job of giving the good guys (the cops and prosecutors) the attention they deserve. Usually they are merely mentioned by other authors but Saab makes them as interesting as the mafioso.
on March 20, 2006
Selwyn Raab, one of America's premier journalists, has produced the most fact-filled and complete work on the modern-day mob ever published. Rich in detail, it shows how the mob has grown, changed, and adapted itself throughout the years. Raab also shows that the mob in America, though staggered by a series of defections and successful investigations, is far from finished. Kudos to Mr. Raab for this well-researched, highly readable, definitive guidebook to the mob.
on August 21, 2006
This book provides the definitive rendering of New York's five Mafia families. Although Selwyn Raab's account of the early years won't add much to what experienced Mob buffs already know, he is tops--absolute tops--on the last 30 years, when he covered the Mob for the New York Times. Raab provides a meticulously detailed account of their ups and (mostly) downs. I finally made sense of the revolving-door "leadership" (if you can call it that) of the Five Families. He also explains how the various scams--the garbage hauling rackets, the "Concrete Club," the Fulton Fish Market--worked, and how they generated billions for the Mob. He provides a superb explanation of the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act; and how, after a decade-long learning curve, law enforcement was able to use RICO to bring down the Mob. The Bible for any serious Mob buff.
on December 27, 2013
Seldom ever give a 5 star rating to a book, but if Mafia history is interesting reading for you, this is the one to buy. It's not just the tales of rackets and murders. It includes the full history of the families as well as federal, state, & local law enforcement agencies failures to recognize and address organized crime for 80 years. Truly enjoyable reading.
on October 27, 2015
Before purchasing "Five Families", I've seen Raab on several cable channels (Biography, History, etc) expounding on the structure and history of the Mob / Cosa Nostra / Mafia. I scooped up the book when I ran across it at Amazon. Wow.... Raab presents a detailed history of the Mafia and its bosses, capos, made-men, associates, buttons, and wannabes. By far the best volume on the Mob I've ever read, and I've read less than 40% of the book. Highly recommend it.
As I was totally immersed watching episodes of “Inside the American Mafia” on Netflix, I realized that Selwyn Raab’s interesting and invaluable commentary was what made the series so great. His authoritative knowledge and storytelling ability compelled me to order his book, FIVE FAMILIES, as I was watching the series. If there is one source I would recommend about understanding the “nuts and bolts” of Mafia in America, it would certainly be FIVE FAMILIES.
The basic premise of FIVE FAMILIES is to illustrate how the crux of the American Mafia evolves around the happenings of the five major crime families in New York City (Luchese, Gambino, Genovese, Colombo and Bonnano). Paralleling the families’ stories is the gradual acceptance of the US government to acknowledge the Mafia’s existence and eventually formulate a plan to combat it. Raab does a magnificent job in presenting the birth, rise, decline (and likely resurgence) of these families and does so in a manner that is both entertaining and absorbing. Even more impressive is that FIVE FAMILIES manages to simplify the massive, interweaving complexities associated with these organizations to a level that most readers will appreciate. This meaty volume of 700+ pages provides an abundance of detailed information, but Raab graciously divides the material into 60 digestible (10-12 page) chapters that keeps readers focused. Miraculously, the book never became a tedious grind; I find it rare to read books this size that don’t either bore me to tears or eventually challenge my will to finish.
FIVE FAMILIES is pretty much a chronological affair through the 1960s, when the families began to exploit their power. The period from the 1970s to the early 2000s, Raab informally groups chapters by family to better illustrate their peaks and subsequent downfalls in a more concise manner. This 70s-00s era provides much more intricate and juicy storylines as the US government’s willingness to fight the mafia resulted in a number of Mafiosi willing to violate their codes of silence. Much of the book describes the nitty-gritty of the violence perpetuated by the families (both within and outside the families) and the shady rackets that pretty much explains why everything in New York City costs so much (even candy bars). The power and the reach exerted by these families is eerily shocking. Ironically, the pages of mindless bloodshed is accompanied by stories that are both humorous and quirky. The plethora of gangster nicknames peppering each page (and the rationale behind the names) is a gem in-and-of itself. It was easy to see the basis for almost every significant Hollywood presentation of the Mafia being outlined in the book … even the fictitious “Sopranos”.
What I appreciated most about FIVE FAMILIES is that it easily presents itself as being an authority on anything-everything related to the American Mafia. No stone is left unturned in this book as every major gangster from Luciano to “the last Don” Joe Massino (and everyone in-between) is addressed. Additionally, every significant mafia-related event is covered in satisfactory detail. Whether it be the famous Apalachin bust in 1957, the Kennedy assassination(s), the brutality of “Gaspipe” Casso, “Chin” Gigante’s decades-long mental illness ruse or the Teflon-turned-Velcro John Gotti trials … FIVE FAMILIES covers it ALL. More interesting is how the federal government went from turning its back to the Mafia’s existence to aggressively tackling each one of the five families by using the most powerful and effective tool in its armory: RICO. Each subsequent chapter is as engrossing as the previous.
For anyone interested in the American Mafia, I cannot think of a better primer than FIVE FAMILIES as it provides such a comprehensive understanding of the entire organization (as a whole and each individual family) … it’s a one-stop-shop type of resource that entertains from beginning to end. While I have read several books that focus on specific mafia stories or individuals (Roy DeMeo, Nicky Scarfo or Richard Kuklinski), I have yet to see a book that ties everything together as well as FIVE FAMILIES manages to do … Selwyn Raab bats this one out of the park.