Best gang books

Best gang books DEFAULT

Six Mafia Classics You Won't Want to Miss

There are few things that drive us, and divide us, in the way that the almighty dollar does. And wherever there is money to be made, greed grows.

Corruption is an unfortunate, but inevitable, byproduct of greed, and where there is corruption there is often crime.

Something has recently become very evident—America is obsessed with crime. The rise of true crime stories and documentaries, the fascination with the morbid, and the draw of the crowds to blood, deception, and the criminal underworld… One doesn’t have to go far to see numerous examples of the popularity of these stories. Think Netflix’s Narcos, OJ: Made in America, or the recent release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… But the American obsession with crime doesn’t hinge on its validity—we can’t get enough of these stories, real or not.

One of the biggest crime narratives, gripping the national psyche for decades, is the world of organized crime.

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While organized crime still operates in major criminal enterprises such as drug trafficking, money laundering, weapon smuggling, and more, we have seen a noticeable shift towards legitimacy. In-fact, the acquisition of legitimate businesses is one of the things that has allowed for the “disappearance” of modern crime organizations.

The gangsters of the past are no more. The wise guys got too wise, and the reach of criminal enterprises has gone beyond the strictly criminal. Bowler hats and tommy guns have been exchanged for briefcases and ties.

In writing my novel, The Don of Siracusa I delved into the world of corporate corruption and tried to contrast that against the incredibly complex modern structures of Italian American organized crime. In doing so, I took inspiration from the many books, fictional or otherwise, that span the mafia crime genre.

Mario Puzo

Puzo’s writing is some of the very best the genre has to offer. He has often been criticized for glorifying the mob, and perhaps to a certain extent that might be true, but a look at his full body of work showcases an ability unlike any other to write compelling, larger-than-life characters, and engrossing plots. If you are looking for great mafia fiction, Puzo’s novels are undeniably the place to start.

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Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires by Selwyn Raab

Selwyn Raab’s work of narrative nonfiction has taken its (rightful) place as the go-to­ book for organized crime non-fiction. Raab’s novel is expertly written, while still relying on Raab’s journalistic approach to create a reliable history and documentation of organized crime.

Donnie Brasco by Joseph Pistone

Pistone’s tale of his infiltration into the mob provides fascinating, and sometimes tedious, insight into the daily workings of the mafia in the 1970’s. Any fan of organized crime novels would do well to read this one. The accompanying movie is also considered an all-time great.

Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano

Roberto Saviano is considered a hero, and also a target, in Italy for this work of investigative nonfiction, delving deep into the world of the Camorra crime syndicate. An absolute must read for any with even the slightest interest in modern organized crime. While the novel provides incredible insight to the violence and corruption that the clan produces, the television series of the same name has been the subject of criticism for humanizing gangsters.

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I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt

This novel was recently adapted by Scorsese for Netflix, and it takes only one read to see why, although I’m partial to the original title over Scorsese’s choice of “The Irishman”.

Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, and Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas by Nicholas Pileggi

Nicholas Pileggi only wrote three novels in his career, two of those novels being Wiseguy and Casino. The first he adapted into Goodfellas, and the second (of course) became Casino. There isn’t much to say here other than – If you like the movies, you have to read the books.


The staying power of organized crime stories, real or not, demonstrates that audiences have been eating this stuff up for years.

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The mafia stories stand the test of time because they romanticize an often-dangerous world. We are drawn to that danger, not because we want to glorify the mafia, but because we enjoy what they stand for in these books: Justice, camaraderie, family, and most importantly, retribution upon one’s enemies.

It’s hard to justify that vigilante style of justice, but in the context of a mafia fiction novel for example, it makes for a satisfying story. Sometimes, we just want the bad guys to lose, even if it’s not at the hands of the “good guys”.

And nowadays, it’s difficult enough figuring out who the “good guy” even is.


The best books on Gang Crime

You spent two years with inner-city police units and gang members in British cities – what did you hope to achieve?

I felt that gang crime was being reported very superficially. You would hear news stories of teenagers being stabbed but you weren’t getting the powerful human stories behind why this was happening. I wanted to find out more about the complexity of it.

I presume the police were happy for you to observe them in action. But how were you able to win the trust of gang members?

It’s actually not that easy to get access to front-line detectives and win their trust – they are guarded by the Cerberus of the police communications department. In many ways it was more difficult to get access to them than it was to gang members.

Various portals would lead me to gang members – one person would lead you in and then another person would take you to another level down, and so on. You had to be careful that the person taking you there was someone you could trust, be it a social worker, youth worker or ex-offender. Eventually you gain trust over a period of time and you get more access. It was patient investigative reporting. I’d stick with it and eventually find myself talking to someone and discovering a very powerful human story.

Did you find what you expected?

Not really. I had some idea about what was going on, but the human detail that you find from talking to people about their lives is something you never really expect. Take the heroin addicts I met in Southall [in west London], for example. These young guys had come over from the Punjab with the money their fathers had lent them from their farms. They had arrived on student visas and their money had run out. They ended up homeless and started taking heroin because they were so cold. Most days they went to this enormous temple to have meals, but they were too ashamed to pray because they felt dirty while they had drugs in their bloodstream.

I often found the kids on the streets of the inner cities articulate, charming and charismatic. Many had strong leadership skills. If they had been born in other circumstances they would probably have gone on to have good jobs. But because of the environment they were born into, these elements were being channelled into the drugs trade or gang crime.

Why do young people join gangs?

Many inner-city kids are under a lot of pressure – you’re an education failure, you’re abandoned by society, you’re downtrodden by your family and your associates. You have bad influences in your life and an inability to make good decisions.

The debate is often polarised between left and right. The right thinks that they are all in charge of their own destiny while the left thinks they are the victims of poverty and circumstance. They do make their own decisions and they make bad decisions like any other young person does – it’s just that the environment they’re in means the consequences are so much greater. It’s also difficult for them to free themselves from wrong beginnings. If you are a middle-class person with a loving and supporting family, a good education and a strong peer network, you can come off the rails as a teenager and it doesn’t really matter. But for these kids it does. Very often a small early offence can plug them into the criminal justice system and that’s where they stay.

To what extent do the activities of inner-city gangs go unreported by the media? The fact that gang members are killing each other on the streets of Britain seems to be largely ignored – until the criminality spills over into mainstream society.

That is absolutely right. It became an issue when the riots broke out in British cities in August 2011. The media suddenly became fascinated with gangs and for about a month my phone didn’t stop ringing – not just calls from the British media, but also the foreign press. But since the riots died down the press has been less interested.

Much of Middle England isn’t really interested because inner-city gangs don’t affect them. You’re right – they kill each other and they don’t kill middle-class people. There’s also a subtle form of racism. People believe that gang culture is about race, but in reality it’s an inner-city phenomenon. In Glasgow, the perpetrators of gang crime are white. Gangs are a reflection of deprivation rather than racial mix.

Has inner city criminality really got worse over the years? In Victorian London, for example, there were street gangs and no-go areas, weren’t there?

Henry Mayhew, in his book London Labour and the London Poor, was writing about these issues in 1851. He talked about an “undiscovered country of the poor”. Nick Davies in his book Dark Heart, which we will talk about later, uses quotes from Mayhew at the beginning of his chapters even though he is writing about contemporary Britain.

What has been a constant over the years is the exploitation of the vulnerable – particularly of the young and of girls. You also get the generational disadvantage being passed down – it’s quite likely that the offspring of people born into poverty are not going to raise themselves up out of that situation.

Let’s take a look at your books now. We’re starting off with a novel set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which I believe was inspired by a true story. Tell us more about Lush Life.

I love this book. Richard Price is famous for his detailed research and you can see that here in his descriptions of the cops and the kids. There’s a wonderful description of one kid growing up with his abusive stepfather and reaching the age that he can start to fight back. This is something I encountered a lot when I talked to boys in the inner cities. You have an abusive father or stepfather who beats them and their mothers, and then they reach the age of about 14 and they are big enough to fight back – this is a key moment in their life.

Lush Life is about this character Eric Cash, who is out with a charismatic colleague from the restaurant they work in called Ike Marcus. Two street kids come up to them and pull a gun. Ike Marcus says to them: “Not tonight, my man”. He is then shot dead. The following police investigation is a narrative engine that allows you to deeply examine Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The book is very textured, pacey and has fantastically layered characters.

If you compare it to great New York novels like Bonfire of the Vanities, it does touch on similar themes. There are some great scenes when the lead detective finds sweatshops and apartments overcrowded with illegal immigrants. There are great metaphors in the book for the ant-hill, termite-type living that goes on in New York.

Let’s move to Italy now and a passionate exposé of the Camorra mafia in Naples and Campania in Gomorrah. To what extent does this book put into perspective gang culture in Britain, given that the violence in Italy is on a far larger scale?

It’s true that the numbers killed by the Camorra are so much greater than anything in Britain. Also the way people are killed and disposed of is different and much more brutal. There is also the pervasive influence of the mafia in southern Italy, especially when it comes to the dumping of toxic waste.

Can you give us an overview of this book?

It is a great piece of investigative journalism. Roberto Saviano spent many years researching it and risked his life by writing it – he now has to live under armed guard. He looks at the many ways the Camorra has corrupted public life in this part of southern Italy. He looks at the port, for example, where a lot of goods are smuggled in. He also examines toxic waste dumping and the Camorra’s control over domestic waste disposal, which is a huge part of their empire. He also writes about the garment industry and the illegal sweatshops the Camorra run in Naples, where they copy designer clothing. It’s a business empire on an enormous scale and affects the lives of so many people. The violence they use is extraordinary, especially considering they are in a European country. You really can’t see Italy in the same way again after reading this book.

He writes about it in a very passionate and emotional way.

I love his style. It’s very readable. His reporting is excellent – he’s a very thorough journalist. What links him to two other writers I have chosen – David Simon and Nick Davies – is that not only do they write extremely high quality pieces of investigative journalism, but all three are fuelled by an anger about injustice.

Your next book, The Corner, is set in West Baltimore and spawned the successful HBO drama The Wire. Tell us more.

As you say, this is the book that led to The Wire, which David Simon created. The corner in the title is on West Fayette and North Monroe streets in West Baltimore. It’s an open-air drug market in a post-industrial landscape where the drug trade has taken over. The authors look at the area through the lives of the McCullough family – two drug-addict parents and their 15-year-old son DeAndre.

David Simon was a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun for many years and worked closely with Ed Burns, who was a homicide and narcotics cop before becoming a teacher. This book shows how the drug trade recruits children, which is also a theme of my book. They bring these children to life with strong characterisation and the human details of their stories. These are children that are lost in this secret, oppositional world of the inner-city drug trade.

There are similarities between places like West Baltimore and inner cities in Britain. It’s a post-industrial landscape and there’s a “school of the street” or the “classroom of the corner” in both – it’s where many inner-city kids get their education and earn a living. In the UK the drug trade is worth about £4.5bn. It has a recruitment structure where primary school children who are excluded [from school] are drawn into selling drugs by “the olders”, as the older kids are called. The recruitment of young kids into shotting – street dealing – is all-pervasive now. You see it in The Corner, in The Wire, in Moss Side [in Manchester], Glasgow and London.

I was out with the cops in Moss Side and we came across some gang members shortly after a kid was shot dead. I asked one of them why he was doing what he was doing and he said: “It’s all in the game. You’ve got to play or be played.” That’s actually a quote from the character Omar [Little] from The Wire, which shows its influence outside the United States. All the natural abilities and promise of these kids is just taken and plugged into the drug trade – that’s one of the saddest things. David Simon and Ed Burns capture the despair and hopelessness of these kids so well.

In terms of structure, how do Italian mafia groups such as the Camorra differ from inner-city gangs found in Britain and the US?

The mafia is structured like a large corporate organisation in that it has its fingers in a lot of pies and runs a variety of business enterprises. The narcotics trade is a huge cash-based business and the money has to be laundered through these enterprises. There are certain businesses that lend themselves to cleaning large amounts of dirty money – nightclubs, lap dancing clubs – and that’s why the mafia sets them up.

The larger gangs with about 200 members in Manchester have a hierarchical structure. At the top you have the generals, who command the three tiers below them. At the bottom you have boys as young as 10 or 11 who do the drudge work. So urban street gangs do have this slightly military structure. You can see that too in the language they use – they talk about “soldiers” and “the fallen”.

Your next book, Code of the Street, is by the American sociologist Elijah Anderson. Can you tell us what the code of the street actually is?

The code of the street has to do with the difference between “decent families” and “street families”, as Anderson calls them. The decent families believe in family values, provide their children with a supportive network and an accepted code of behaviour. In street families, in poor urban areas, it’s all about respect and aggression. To be respected in this environment you have to give the impression that you are capable of extreme violence quickly. In Britain, for example, people have pit bulls, prison muscle and tattoos. Giving the impression that you are capable of extreme violence is very important. The code of the street says that the moment you are disrespected you have to avenge that with violence. If you combine this desperate search for respect with the hormonal nature of teenagers, you have a very explosive mix.

Anderson puts the blame for this street culture on feelings of hopelessness and alienation in inner-city communities. But that doesn’t explain why some people go down the gang route and why others don’t. Would you agree that there’s an element of personal choice here and it’s not inevitable that you will grow up to be a gang member if you live in certain inner-city areas?

Choices are massively influenced by peer groups. Quite often the influence of the older kids is very powerful, especially when there is no father around. Young boys are impressionable and are looking for role models. It’s the luck of the draw if you get influenced by a malevolent male role model or a good one. That’s why I think mentoring is very interesting. Mentoring as an early intervention gives these kids with behavioural difficulties a chance to have a decent role model for a period of time. Ex-offenders command huge respect among the kids and are able to turn them away from gang crime.

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Once kids are already involved in gang crime, it’s very difficult to make them stop. Group dynamics play a big part. You get toxic groups of boys and young men. People are carried along by the group, and make very bad decisions as a group that they wouldn’t necessarily make as an individual.

For your final pick you have chosen Dark Heart by Nick Davies, one of Britain’s most respected investigative journalists. Tell us more.

As you say, Nick Davies is a brilliant investigative journalist. Dark Heart is not so much about crime but about poverty, but he does show how they are linked. He was at a fairground in the centre of Nottingham and noticed two boys hanging around, whom he befriended. They take him on a very dark journey around the streets of Nottingham – one that involves child prostitutes, pimps, vice squads and drugs. The title Dark Heart has got echoes of Conrad. You go deeper and deeper into poverty. Davies uses a quote from Henry Mayhew: “The undiscovered country of the poor.” That is basically where he takes you in the book, into areas that no one really knows about – a world of violent estates and people so poor they have no electricity and have to use candles.

What’s interesting about this book for me are the human stories. It does not read like a long column in the society section of The Guardian ­– it’s a book of powerful human stories. It was a big influence on me when I was researching Hood Rat, because I realised if I was going to write about social issues that I would have to write powerful human stories to make it readable, otherwise it could easily become earnest and worthy.

The strength of the human stories in The Wire and The Corner was the reason for their enormous success too, wasn’t it?

If you are going to write about social justice, you need to take the reader with you. That’s where the powerful human stories come from. Nick Davies spent a lot of time with the people he writes about in his book. So did Roberto Saviano and David Simon. With Hood Rat, I spent a lot of time with drug addicts and gang members, talking to them face-to-face. I wanted to find our common humanity, so that the reader appreciates what they are going through and doesn’t just see them as something “other”.

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What’s also interesting about the books by Saviano, Davies and Simon – and also mine – is that to a certain extent they show the demise of newspaper journalism. In the old days journalists would be going out and reporting these stories and spending time on long investigations. This is no longer happening. It’s a sad thing because we need to get out there and find out what’s going on. In Britain today we are hearing reports about gangs grooming young girls in Rochdale, many of whom come from care homes that are owned by private equity groups. These are the kind of things that should set off alarm bells in people’s heads. Someone needs to get out there and spend time speaking to the people involved and find out the true picture. That’s why these types of books are important in the absence of that kind of journalism.

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

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Top 10 books about gangsters

It’s not hard to understand the enduring appeal of gangsters in fiction. From the romantic notion of the outlaw antihero to the caricature of the psychotic mob boss, they have been portrayed in many different lights; but the unifying theme is that they live by a set of rules alien to the law-abiding public, and that makes them fascinating. We want to know what makes them tick, to understand their world and to see it in all its bloody reality. It’s the essence of what makes a good thriller: showing us a violent existence from the safety of an armchair.

I never set out to write about gangsters. My first novel, The Dark Inside, was based on the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, a 1946 serial-killing case. The sequel, Black Night Falling, saw my protagonist, Charlie Yates, drawn back to Arkansas, to the town of Hot Springs – a real-life mob town in the 1940s where illegal gambling and prostitution flourished. That’s when serendipity came into play: in researching the book, I discovered that Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was at that time a regular visitor to Hot Springs. Having one of history’s most famous gangsters in such proximity to my story was too good a chance to pass up, and in my new novel, Cold Desert Sky, Siegel takes centre stage.

Set in Los Angeles and Las Vegas during the construction of Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel, it sees Charlie investigating the disappearance of two Hollywood starlets while trying to dodge Bugsy. His only care is staying alive long enough to find the missing girls, but LA is Siegel’s town …

Here’s my pick of the gangster books I’ve read over the years:

1. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
An obvious choice, perhaps, but a reflection of how seminal it is to the genre. Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation is regarded as one of the greatest of all time, but the book is a classic in its own right. It introduced terms like Cosa Nostra and omertà to a mass audience and defined the public perception of mobsters for decades to come.

2. Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi
Adapted by Martin Scorsese as the film Goodfellas, Pileggi’s account of the life of mobster Henry Hill was the starting point for the modern-day depiction of the gangster. The book set the template for all that followed - from Casino and Donnie Brasco right through to The Sopranos.

3. American Tabloid by James Ellroy
Ellroy dedicates his masterpiece to “bad men, and the price they paid to secretly define their time”. Covering the period from JFK’s election to his assassination, Ellroy takes us into the world of thugs, fixers and killers on the fringes of power. It still amazes me that in 600 pages, the closest thing to a hero is a hitman who by his own reckoning has killed more than 500 people. It was accused of glorifying criminals, but I prefer Ellroy’s own explanation: this is a story of three men crushed by the weight of their own evil.

4. The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
Winslow’s novel chronicles the first 30 years of the US’s “war on drugs”. Epic in every sense, the book lays bare the violence, futility and hypocrisy of the policy, and is made all the more striking by its grounding in true events. But this is much more than a fictional exposé of recent history; as in The Godfather, it’s the personal relationships that drive the narrative as the friendship between DEA agent Art Keller and narco kingpin Miguel Angel Barrera disintegrates into a blood feud.

5. LA Confidential by James Ellroy
For my money, Ellroy’s five-book run from The Big Nowhere to The Cold Six Thousand is as strong as any crime author has put together. LA Confidentialfocuses on the LA mob scene after Siegel, but takes in LAPD corruption, institutional racism, high-class prostitution and more. Sprawling and complex, yet exquisitely plotted, it’s the pathos Ellroy imbues in his tough guys that sets this apart. That and the fact that it features the villainous Dudley Smith at his absolute zenith.

6. Muscle for the Wingby Daniel Woodrell
Woodrell’s later works such as Winter’s Bone are more famous but I love this fast and violent novel about a gang of ex-cons muscling in on a town run by the southern mob. Woodrell has never wasted a word, and this is no different: the local crime boss, for instance, “measured five foot seven standing on your neck”. You would struggle to find any heroes to root for here, but Woodrell doesn’t care about that. Pacy, hard-boiled thrillers aren’t hard to find, but ones that are written with this precision, this memorable a voice, are a rare thing.

7. The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke
Burke’s first novel in the Robicheaux series sees him running up against New Orleans crime boss “Didi Gee” Giacano. Omnipotent and universally feared at the outset, by the end Didi Gee’s got a litany of problems: the law is closing in, the cartels are moving on his turf and his health is failing. A corpulent, complacent kingpin, his story arc comes to symbolise the decline of the mafia’s underworld stranglehold in the face of newcomers with new rules.

8. Live By Night by Dennis Lehane
This is the other side of the coin: Lehane’s sweeping novel charts the rise of Joe Coughlin from the streets of Boston to Florida mob boss. Lehane’s fearlessness as a writer is in evidence here once again – not just in the change in period and setting from his earlier works, but in the ambition of the novel’s scope. By turns a gritty mobster epic, a coming-of-age story and a cautionary tale about the price of success, at its heart this is a story of love and loss – and one that seems constructed to deliver an inevitably happy ending only to sidestep it, twice, in a manner probably only Lehane could pull off.

9. The Rules of Wolfe by James Carlos Blake
Blake’s tale of Texan gun runners starts with one of the most breathless action sequences I’ve read – an arms deal at sea goes bad, resulting in a showdown with cartel killers in a pitch-black coastal lagoon. The climax sees a wounded man begging for a bullet before the crabs can eat him alive. Blake doesn’t deal in sentiment. The writing is taut and spare throughout, the tension never lets up, and this is as dark as noir gets. But there’s a literary quality to it that elevates this above the norm, and the later stages evoke Cormac McCarthy’s works set in the same border badlands.

10. After Hours by Edwin Torres
Torres’s work opens up the rarely featured world of Puerto Rican gangs in Spanish Harlem. It is the second book in the series, and this time Carlito Brigante is older and wiser and looking for a way out of the life – and anyone familiar with the genre knows that never goes well. The book hums with authenticity, and Brigante is a standout character: a killer and a survivor, but smart and thoughtful with it.

Top 8 Gangster Books!

When I first got locked up, in 1993, I didn’t know a thing about prison, so I had to learn fast. It was either that or end up on the wrong end of a shank. I had a release date, and I was intent on making it. Prison has its own parlance, unofficial rules and customs. As a guy from the suburbs, I needed to immerse myself in prison gang culture real quick. So I read a lot. By reading I gained insight into where the gangs were coming from, which I hoped would alleviate any potential problems. (By reading I also satisfied my insatiable appetite, which began in my youth, for the unknown and potentially dangerous.) Here are best of those books. 

The Black Hand: The Story of Rene “Boxer” Enriquez and His Life in the Mexican Mafia, by Chris Blatchford

This 2009 book offers a glimpse into the secretive world of the Mexican Mafia, also known as “La Eme.” This is the same prison gang that murdered people over their involvement with the Edward James Olmos–helmed American Me, a film that depicted the gang in all its savage glory. Blatchford tells the mesmerizing and unbelievably violent story of Boxer, who defected from La Eme, and his involvement in the cutthroat world as a member of what’s been called the “Daddy of All Street Gangs.”

In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison, by Jack Henry Abbott

This is a prison classic — one of the best books written about life on the inside. Abbott was a long-term convict who’d served in some form of confinement since he was a juvenile. The book goes into the do’s and don’ts in prison, especially when it comes to interactions between different races. In this 1981 book, edited by literary giant Norman Mailer, Abbott provides a compelling breakdown of the politics of surviving prison. I used this as a guidebook on how to communicate with the gangs and different races in prison: If you don’t obey the rules and codes on the inside, you can inadvertently start a riot.  

Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, by George Jackson 

A classic collection, published in 1970, of letters from a revolutionary figure credited with starting the Black Guerrilla Family in the California penal system in the late ’60s. The BGF is one of the big four prison gangs, which also includes La Eme, the Aryan Brotherhood and Nuestra Familia. In his letters, Jackson discusses the system of oppression he saw as keeping his people down —  he was a firm believer that African-Americans had to be militant in their response to this oppression. Reading this book helped me understand the racism, persecution and violence that Black men face in prison, and in the world, every day.

This 1993 book takes readers inside the vicious Leavenworth penitentiary, where Earley had unprecedented access for almost two years. Of special interest to me were the chapters on Thomas Silverstein, former leader of the Aryan Brotherhood and a cold-blooded killer who murdered prison guards for disrespecting him. Earley documented his interactions with and the stories of everyone from sexual predators and bank robbers to wardens and correctional officers, providing a riveting insight into the primordial world of one of the most notorious correctional facilities in the U.S. — a place I was glad I never had to serve time at. 


Books best gang

If you have any interest in the gangland genre – and let’s face it, you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t – then, at the very least, you’ve probably read a book or two on the subject. Whether based on fact or fiction, these chronicles often give access to a secretive lifestyle that most would never experience otherwise.

So we were curious. If you could recommend just one book that you’ve read, what would it be? We posed the question on our social media channels and this countdown is the result of your answers. We added up votes for what was originally only meant to be a ‘Best 10’. We got such a great response that we doubled that!

The list is fairly eclectic and, in some cases, surprising. Your choices range from Prohibition-era mobsters to modern-day drug cartels, with a dash of what we believe to be fiction thrown in along the way. Some of these books are almost textbook-like with cited facts (many that I personally use for research), whilst others are more casual, fascinating stories that are written from an eyewitness standpoint.

The list is a count down from from number 20, all the way through to the book with the most votes at number one. A sincere thank you to everyone who gave feedback on this, we appreciate you sharing your personal recommendations with us.

20. ‘Deal With the Devil’ by Peter Lance

A fact-based book exploring the relationship between the FBI and one-time Colombo crime family capo Greg Scarpa.

In Deal with the Devil, five-time Emmy Award–winning investigative reporter Peter Lance draws on three decades of once-secret FBI files to tell the definitive story of Greg Scarpa Sr., a Mafia capo who “stopped counting” after fifty murders, while secretly betraying the Colombo crime family as a Top Echelon FBI informant.

Lance traces Scarpa’s shadowy relationship with the FBI all the way back to 1960, when his debriefings went straight to J. Edgar Hoover. In forty-two years of murder and racketeering, Scarpa served only thirty days in jail thanks to his secret relationship with the Feds.

This is the untold story that will rewrite Mafia history as we know it —a page-turning work of journalism that reads like a Scorsese film. Deal with the Devil includes more than 130 illustrations, crime scene photos, and never-before-seen FBI documents.

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19. ‘Ride a Tiger’ by Harold Livingston

An excellent fictional gangster saga which is also fairly rare and sought-after – as the selling price reflects. It spans seventy years in the life of Leo Gorodetsky, and his rise in the Mob, from lowly beginnings to the big time. The book is in a similar vein to The Godfather

Chronicles the story of poor Jewish boy Leo Gorodetsky’s rise from poverty on New York’s Lower East Side to the highest levels of the Mafia.

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18. ‘Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System’ by Roberto Saviano

This factual account served as the basis for the TV series ‘Gomorrah‘ (Sundance). The English version of the book is translated from the original Italian.

A groundbreaking, unprecedented bestseller in Italy, Roberto Saviano’s insider account traces the decline of the city of Naples under the rule of the Camorra, an organized crime network more powerful and violent than the Mafia. The Camorra is an elaborate, international system dealing in drugs, high fashion, construction, and toxic waste, and its influence has entirely transformed life in Campania, the province surrounding Naples.

Since seeing his first murder victim, at thirteen, Roberto Saviano has watched the changes in his home city. For Gomorrah, he disappeared into the Camorra and witnessed up close the drug cartel’s audacious, sophisticated, and far-reaching corruption that has paralyzed his home city and introduced the world to a new breed of organized crime.

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17. ‘The Luparelli Tapes: The true story of the Mafia hitman who contracted to kill both Joey Gallo and his own wife’ by Paul Meskil 

An interesting non-fiction account of Joseph ‘Joe Fish’ Luparelli – the guy who supposedly alerted members of the Colombo Family to Joe Gallo’s whereabouts on the night of Crazy Joe’s assassination.

This is the bloddcurdling story of the Gallo crime family told through the eyes of one of his soldiers; Joe Luparelli tells all-how he functioned as a hitman for various Dons, and how he took on the contract to whack Joey Gallo.

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16. ‘Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend’ by Deirdre Bair

A definitive biography of one of the most famous gangsters of all. This is a brilliantly researched book which corrects many of the myths surrounding Capone and replaces them with hard facts.

At the height of Prohibition, Al Capone loomed large as Public Enemy Number One: his multimillion-dollar Chicago Outfit dominated organized crime, and law enforcement was powerless to stop him. But then came the fall: a legal noose tightened by the FBI, a conviction on tax evasion, a stint in Alcatraz. After his release, he returned to his family in Miami a much diminished man, living quietly until the ravages of his neurosyphilis took their final toll.
Our shared fascination with Capone endures in countless novels and movies, but the man behind the legend has remained a mystery. Now, through rigorous research and exclusive access to Capone’s family, National Book Award–winning biographer Deirdre Bair cuts through the mythology, uncovering a complex character who was flawed and cruel but also capable of nobility. At once intimate and iconoclastic, Al Capone gives us the definitive account of a quintessentially American figure.

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15. ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’ by Charles Brandt

An account of Frank Sheeran’s ties with the Mob, and the deathbed confession to top all confessions; that ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran killed Jimmy Hoffa. There are many disputes regarding the credibility of several of Frank Sheeran’s claims in this book, as much of the evidence does not stand up when it’s researched further. It was, however, the inspiration for the movie ‘The Irishman‘, starring Robert De Niro as Sheeran, Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, and Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino.

“I heard you paint houses” are the first words Jimmy Hoffa ever spoke to Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran. To paint a house is to kill a man. The paint is the blood that splatters on the walls and floors. In the course of nearly five years of recorded interviews, Frank Sheeran confessed to Charles Brandt that he handled more than twenty-five hits for the mob, and for his friend Hoffa. He also provided intriguing information about the Mafia’s role in the murder of JFK.

Sheeran learned to kill in the US Army, where he saw an astonishing 411 days of active combat duty in Italy during World War II. After returning home he became a hustler and hit man, working for legendary crime boss Russell Bufalino. Eventually Sheeran would rise to a position of such prominence that in a RICO suit the US government would name him as one of only two non-Italians in conspiracy with the Commission of La Cosa Nostra, alongside the likes of Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano and Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno. 

When Bufalino ordered Sheeran to kill Hoffa, the Irishman did the deed, knowing that if he had refused he would have been killed himself. Charles Brandt’s page-turner has become a true crime classic.

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14. ‘The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano’ by Martin A. Gosch & Richard Hammer

This is a much sought-after classic, said to be based on conversations with the man himself, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. The book was originally released in 1975, and is no longer in print. Consequently, you can expect to pay big bucks for the pleasure of adding this one to your bookshelf.

Expose of organized crime families in New York, based on information provided by Charles “Lucky” Luciano and others associated with alleged Mafia activities.

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13. ‘The Power of the Dog’ by Don Winslow

This is Book One of three in the ‘Power of the Dog’ series – a thrilling, fictional account of the drug trade.

Set about ten years prior to The Cartel, this gritty novel introduces a brilliant cast of characters. Art Keller is an obsessive DEA agent. The Barrera brothers are heirs to a drug empire. Nora Hayden is a jaded teenager who becomes a high-class hooker. Father Parada is a powerful and incorruptible Catholic priest. Callan is an Irish kid from Hell’s kitchen who grows up to be a merciless hit man. And they are all trapped in the world of the Mexican drug Federación. From the streets of New York City to Mexico City and Tijuana to the jungles of Central America, this is the war on drugs like you’ve never seen it.

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12. ‘Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano’s Story of Life in the Mafia’ by Peter Maas

Once riding high in the Gambino family, second only to boss John Gotti, Sammy Gravano’s decision to defect put a lot of guys behind bars. This is his story, from his childhood on the streets of Bensonhurst all the way through to the Witness Protection Program.

In March of 1992, the highest-ranking member of the Mafia in America ever to defect broke his blood oath of silence and testified against his boss, John Gotti. He is Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano, second-in-command of the Gambino organized-crime family, the most powerful in the nation. As a direct consequence of Gravano’s testimony, Cosa Nostra – the Mafia’s true name – is in shambles. In Underboss, based on dozens of hours of interviews with Gravano, much of it written in Sammy the Bull’s own voice, we are ushered as never before into the uppermost secret inner sanctums of Cosa Nostra – an underworld of power, lust, greed, betrayal, deception, sometimes even honor, with the specter of violent death always poised in the wings. Gravano’s is a story about starting out on the street, about killing and being killed, revealing the truth behind a quarter-century of shocking headlines. It is also a tragic story of a wasted life, of unalterable choices and the web of lies, weakness, and treachery that underlie the so-called Honored Society.

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11. ‘The Mob and the City: The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York’ by C. Alexander Hortis

This is another excellently researched book about the rise and history of the Mafia in the U.S. and one that I often use for reference. I would personally class this as essential reading!

Forget what you think you know about the Mafia. After reading this book, even life-long mob aficionados will have a new perspective on organized crime.Informative, authoritative, and eye-opening, this is the first full-length book devoted exclusively to uncovering the hidden history of how the Mafia came to dominate organized crime in New York City during the 1930s through 1950s. Based on exhaustive research of archives and secret files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, author and attorney C. Alexander Hortis draws on the deepest collection of primary sources, many newly discovered, of any history of the modern mob.Shattering myths, Hortis reveals how Cosa Nostra actually obtained power at the inception. The author goes beyond conventional who-shot-who mob stories, providing answers to fresh questions such as: * Why did the Sicilian gangs come out on top of the criminal underworld? * Can economics explain how the Mafia families operated? * What was the Mafia’s real role in the drug trade? * Why was Cosa Nostra involved in gay bars in New York since the 1930s? Drawing on an unprecedented array of primary sources, The Mob and the City is the most thorough and authentic history of the Mafia’s rise to power in the early-to-mid twentieth century.

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10. ‘The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins’ by John Pearson

This classic account of the life of the Kray twins was originally published in 1972, and the book is the inspiration behind the film ‘Legend‘ starring Tom Hardy as both Ron and Reg Kray.

Reggie and Ronnie Kray ruled London’s gangland during the 60s with a ruthlessness and viciousness that shocks even now. Building an empire of organised crime that has never been matched, the brothers swindled, extorted and terrorised – while enjoying a glittering celebrity status at the heart of the swinging 60s scene, until their downfall and imprisonment for life.

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9. ‘The Butcher: Anatomy of a Mafia Psychopath’ by Philip Carlo

The fascinating, often shocking, story of much-feared Bonanno family hitter Tommy ‘Karate’ Pitera. It explores the childhood bullying he endured, his interest and excellence in martial arts, his entry into the Mob and his eventual arrest and conviction.

Tommy “Karate” Pitera was not like other mafiosi. A capo in the notorious Bonanno family—a deadly martial artist highly skilled with knives and other lethal weapons—Pitera murdered his way to becoming one of the premier assassins in the New York mafia during the 1980s. He didn’t just whack people; he diabolically made them disappear forever. In hushed whispers people spoke of Pitera’s secret burial grounds and the grotesque things he did to his victim’s bodies. If the Mafia had a Jeffrey Dahmer, it was surely Tommy Pitera.

Offering the first-ever look at the life and crimes of Tommy Pitera, New York Times bestselling author Philip Carlo exposes the man behind some of the most horrific murders in Mafia history—and tells the story of the heroic investigator who brought him down. Cloaked in the bloody history of La Cosa Nostra, The Butcher is Carlo’s most frightening portrayal yet of the depraved depths within a psychopath’s mind.

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8. ‘Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member’ by Sanyika Shakur

This is a thoroughly engrossing account of Kody Scott’s time in the Crips, following his initiation at the age of twelve.

Written in solitary confinement, Kody Scott’s memoir of sixteen years as a gangbanger in Los Angeles was a searing best-seller and became a classic, published in ten languages, with more than 300,000 copies in print in the United States alone. After pumping eight blasts from a sawed-off shotgun at a group of rival gang members, twelve-year-old Kody Scott was initiated into the L.A. gang the Crips. He quickly matured into one of the most formidable Crip combat soldiers, earning the name “Monster” for committing acts of brutality and violence that repulsed even his fellow gang members. When the inevitable jail term confined him to a maximum-security cell, a complete political and personal transformation followed: from Monster to Sanyika Shakur, black nationalist, member of the New Afrikan Independence Movement, and crusader against the causes of gangsterism. In a document that has been compared to The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Shakur makes palpable the despair and decay of America’s inner cities and gives eloquent voice to one aspect of the black ghetto experience today.

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7. ‘The Godfather’ by Mario Puzo

The classic saga of The Corleone family, originally published in 1969. It was turned into a movie three years later, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

With its brilliant and brutal portrayal of the Corleone family, The Godfather burned its way into our national consciousness. This unforgettable saga of crime and corruption, passion and loyalty continues to stand the test of time, as the definitive novel of the Mafia underworld.

A #1 New York Times bestseller in 1969, Mario Puzo’s epic was turned into the incomparable film of the same name, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It is the original classic that has been often imitated, but never matched. A tale of family and society, law and order, obedience and rebellion, it reveals the dark passions of human nature played out against a backdrop of the American dream.

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6. ‘The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer’ by Philip Carlo

As a work of fiction this is a great book. Unfortunately it’s marketed as ‘true crime, which I heartily disagree with. There are some undertones of truth here, obviously, as the guy was no angel, but following much research I’ve come to see him as an extreme fantasist. That’s just my personal opinion, but for further questions and facts on Richard Kuklinski the article HERE is second to none. Just reading the blurb on the back cover of the book has me cringing….

Philip Carlo’s The Ice Man spent over six weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. Top Mob Hitman. Devoted Family Man. Doting Father. For thirty years, Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski led a shocking double life, becoming the most notorious professional assassin in American history while happily hosting neighborhood barbecues in suburban New Jersey.

Richard Kuklinski was Sammy the Bull Gravano’s partner in the killing of Paul Castellano, then head of the Gambino crime family, at Sparks Steakhouse. Mob boss John Gotti hired him to torture and kill the neighbor who accidentally ran over his child. For an additional price, Kuklinski would make his victims suffer; he conducted this sadistic business with coldhearted intensity and shocking efficiency, never disappointing his customers. By his own estimate, he killed over two hundred men, taking enormous pride in his variety and ferocity of technique.

This trail of murder lasted over thirty years and took Kuklinski all over America and to the far corners of the earth, Brazil, Africa, and Europe. Along the way, he married, had three children, and put them through Catholic school. His daughter’s medical condition meant regular stays in children’s hospitals, where Kuklinski was remembered, not as a gangster, but as an affectionate father, extremely kind to children. Each Christmas found the Kuklinski home festooned in colorful lights; each summer was a succession of block parties.

His family never suspected a thing.

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5. ‘Wiseguy’ by Nicholas Pileggi

This is the non-fiction account of former Lucchese family associate-turned-informant Henry Hill – and is often hailed as the best book ever written on organized crime. It was later used as the basis for the movie ‘Goodfellas‘.

This is the true-crime bestseller that was the basis for Martin Scorsese’s film masterpiece GoodFellas, which brought to life the violence, the excess, the families, the wives and girlfriends, the drugs, the payoffs, the paybacks, the jail time, and the Feds…with Henry Hill’s crackling narration drawn straight out of Wiseguy and overseeing all the unforgettable action. “Nonstop…absolutely engrossing” (The New York Times Book Review).

Read it and experience the secret life inside the mob—from one who’s lived it.

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4. ‘Accardo: The Genuine Godfather’ by William F. Roemer Jr

A detailed account of the illustrious career of the former Chicago boss, from the point of view of a former FBI agent.

For forty years Tony Accardo was America’s most dangerous criminal. He cut his teeth on the Chicago mob wars of Capone and Elliot Ness. He got his nickname “Joe Batters” for killing two men with a baseball bat. As the bodies piled up, Capone’s youngest capo murdered and schemed his way to the top.
William Roemer was the first FBI agent to face Tony “The Big Tuna” Accardo. Now, Roemer tells the story that only he could tell: the deals, the hits, the double-crosses, and the power plays that reached from the Windy City to Hollywood and to New York. Drawing on secret wiretaps and inside information, Accardo chronicles bloodshed and mayhem for more than six decades–as Roemer duels against the most powerful don of them all. . .

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3. ‘Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia’ by John Dickie

This 400-page tome charts the fascinating, extensive history of Cosa Nostra in Sicily. The book is extremely well-researched and well-written, though can be hard-going at times! It’s worth sticking with it as it’s an information goldmine.

(the blurb) Hailed in Italy as the best book ever written about the mafia in any language, Cosa Nostra is a fascinating, violent, and darkly comic account that reads like fiction and takes us deep into the inner sanctum of this secret society where few have dared to tread.In this gripping history of the Sicilian mafia, John Dickie uses startling new research to reveal the inner workings of this secret society with a murderous record. He explains how the mafia began, how it responds to threats and challenges, and introduces us to the real-life characters that inspired the American imagination for generations, making the mafia an international, larger than life cultural phenomenon. Dickie’s dazzling cast of characters includes Antonio Giammona, the first “boss of bosses”; New York cop Joe Petrosino, who underestimated the Sicilian mafia and paid for it with his life; and Bernard “the Tractor” Provenzano, the current boss of bosses who has been hiding in Sicily since 1963.

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2. ‘Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires’ by Selwyn Raab

For many this is classed as a bible on the Mob, and the majority of the book appears to be accurate information. Again, I’ve often used it as a reference point, but it’s also an engrossing and comprehensive read.

For half a century, the American Mafia outwitted, outmaneuvered, and outgunned the FBI and other police agencies, wreaking unparalleled damage on America’s social fabric and business enterprises while emerging as the nation’s most formidable crime empire. The vanguard of this criminal juggernaut is still led by the Mafia’s most potent and largest borgatas: New York’s Five Families.

Five Families is the vivid story of the rise and fall of New York’s premier dons, from Lucky Luciano to Paul Castellano to John Gotti and others. This definitive history brings the reader right up to the possible resurgence of the Mafia as the FBI and local law-enforcement agencies turn their attention to homeland security and away from organized crime.

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1. ‘Murder Machine’ by Gene Mustain & Jerry Capeci

And we’ve reached the number one book that is most recommended….Murder Machine. It charts the often dark deeds of the DeMeo Crew, working under capo Nino Gaggi for the Gambino family. A disturbing but gripping read.

They were the DeMeo gang—the most deadly hit men in organized crime. Their Mafia higher-ups came to know, use, and ultimately fear them as the Murder Machine. They killed for profit and for pleasure, following cold-blooded plans and wild whims, from the mean streets of New York to the Florida Gold Coast, and from coast to coast. 

Now complete with personal revelations of one of the key players, this is the savage story that leaves no corpse unturned in its terrifying telling. 

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The classic ‘Murder Machine’ concludes our twenty best gangster books as voted by you. We hope you’ve found this compilation as interesting as we have, and, as ever, we’d love to hear your opinions in the comments. Any books that don’t belong here? Any you’d recommend that didn’t make the cut? Let us know!

We’ll finish with a few that came close to making the grade. Notable mentions are….

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Tags: Al Capone, Books, Chicago Mob, Cosa Nostra, Crips, DeMeo Crew, Five Families, Frank Sheeran, Gomorrah, Goodfellas, Greg Scarpa, Ice Man, Kody Scott, Lucky Luciano, Luparelli Tapes, Mafia, Murder Machine, Nino Gaggi, Prohibition-Era, Richard Kuklinski, Sicilian Mafia, The Godfather, The Irishman, Tommy Pitera, Tony Accardo, Underboss, Wiseguy



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