As this is posted, it’s the 83rd anniversary of two events. One is the escape of John Dillinger from an Ohio jail. The other is the incarceration of George Francis Barnes, AKA Machine Gun Kelly. They were by no means the only gangsters out there. Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd, and Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel are just a few of the other infamous names of the times. Some of these people were members of criminal gangs and groups. Others were ‘lone wolves.’
Either way, these people were, first and last, criminals. Many of them committed horrible acts, and certainly sanctioned others that they didn’t commit themselves. And yet, they have a certain fascination. Gangsters and mobsters figure in a lot of films, TV shows and series, and books. Space doesn’t permit me to mention all of the crime novels where gangsters figure into the plot. But here are a few to show you what I mean.
Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid, which takes place in early-1930’s Oklahoma, features Jack Belmont. He’s always been a ‘wrong ‘un,’ as the saying goes, and now dreams of being a powerful outlaw, just like Pretty Boy Floyd. If he’s going to do that, though, he’ll have to get past Deputy U.S. Marshal Carlos ‘Carl’ Webster. He’s as determined to put gangsters like Belmont behind bars as Belmont is to be at the top of the ‘most wanted’ list. For each man, it’s as much a personal matter as it is anything else, and it’s interesting to look at the culture that made folk heroes of so many of the outlaws of that time.
Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs tells the story of the Franco family. In 1974, an unnamed art restorer happens to be in the Swiss Alps looking at some of the frescoes at a monastery there. He meets an old man who lives in the care home attached to the monastery, and gets an irresistible offer. The old man promises to tell him a story – a good story – if he’ll tape record that story. The art restorer agrees, and the old man begins. The story really starts at the turn of the 20th Century, when Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco and his family immigrate from Italy. Franco is, by trade, a shoemaker, and soon sets up his business in New York City. He does well, and the family prospers. But then he starts drinking too much. One night, he gets into a bar fight and ends up killing Luigi Lupo, son of a powerful New York gangster. Lupo’s father finds out who killed his son and puts a curse on the Franco family. According to the curse, Franco’s three sons will die at the age of forty-two, the same age as Luigi Lupo was when he was killed. The storyteller than goes on to recount what happened to the three sons, how the curse impacted them, and how it led to the family’s current situation, years later. As the story is told, we learn about the mobsters and gangsters of that era, and how the various criminal families operated.
Before the days of Fidel Castro, Havana was a watering hole for many mobsters and gangsters, and Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra’ uses that context. Joaquín Porrata is a fledgling reporter for Diario de la Marina, accustomed to doing ‘fluff’ stories like interviewing actors. One day, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia, the Great Executioner of Murder, Inc. Anastasia was killed in New York City, but the Mob’s reach is far, and it’s believed he was killed because he was interfering too much with some powerful bosses’ Havana interests. Porrata is taken off the Anastasia story and instead, is told to follow up on a story about a hippo who escaped from a zoo and was found killed. When Porrata discovers that the hippo was ‘a message for Anastasia,’ he is convinced that there’s a connection between Havana’s gangster activity and what happened in New York. The closer he gets to the truth, though, the harder some very powerful people try to shut him up.
Today’s outlaws, gangsters and mobsters are arguably cut from a different bolt, as the saying goes. But they’re still a force to be reckoned with. We see a bit of what they’re like in Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. In that novel, ex-pat Americans Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children move to a small town in Normandy. They’re hoping to settle in and start new lives, but it’s not going to be easy. For one thing, there’s the culture shock. For another, Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mob, who testified against fellow mobsters. In return, he and his family were placed in the US’ Federal Witness Protection Program. When word of the Manzonis’ gets back to New Jersey, the ‘Blakes’ are in serious trouble… There are other authors, too, such as Mario Puzo and Richard Condon, who’ve written books detailing life in the Mob.
What do you folks think? Is there a certain mystique about the gangsters and outlaws of bygone days? If so, why do you think that is? Whether ‘lone wolves’ or members of groups, those gangsters certainly made names for themselves. And they’ve found quite a place in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mitch Murray and Peter Callander’s The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.