One of the most influential films of the last decades has arguably been Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, which premiered 46 (!) years ago. It’s based, as you’ll know, on Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name, and traces the fortunes of the Corleone family. Many people consider it a remarkable film; certainly, it’s had a real impact.
But it’s not by any means the only story about members of the Mafia. It seems as though we have a real cultural fascination with Mafiosi, crime families, and their doings. And, if you look at crime fiction, such characters and plot lines are woven into the genre. There are crime families and dynasties all over the world, and there’s only so much room in one post. But here are a few examples.
Puzo’s original 1969 novel, of course, had quite an impact of its own, independent of the film. It features the Corleone family, mostly between 1945 and 1955, and traces that family’s rise to power and its feud with other New York crime families. This novel’s focus is the New York Mafia culture, and its links to the Italian Mafia, and that’s become part of the mythology.
As you’ll know, there were also many connections between the New York Mafia and other crime syndicates and the underworld of Havana during the years before Fidel Castro took power there. There’s an interesting look at those links in Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra,’ which takes place in 1957. In that novel we are introduced to Havana journalist Joaquín Porrata, who writes for the Diaria de la Marina. He’s accustomed to writing ‘puffball’ pieces such as interviews with performers. One day, though, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia, who’s been killed in a New York barbershop. Anastasia was known as the Great Enforcer of Murder, Inc., and Porrata believes that he was murdered because he took more of an interest than was good for him in some of the other Mob bosses’ dealings in Havana. Porrata’s supervisor doesn’t want him to follow up on that story, though. Instead, he sends him to cover the story of a hippopotamus who escaped from a Havana zoo and was later found dead. When Porrata hears that the animal’s death was likely a message to Anastasia, he is convinced that the two incidents are linked, and starts to ask questions about Anastasia’s death, and about what it suggests about the Mob’s hold on Havana. The closer he gets to the truth, though, the clearer it becomes that some people do not want him to find out what’s really going on.
Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs is the story of Franco family, who moves from Italy to New York City at the beginning of the 20th Century. Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco wants the ‘American Dream’ for his family, so he gets a job in a shoe repair shop, works hard, and within a few years is able to open his own shoe sales and repair shop. The business does well, too. But then disaster strikes. Ben Franco, who by this time has changed the family’s name to Frank, kills a man in a bar fight. That man turns out to be Luigi Lupo, son of notorious Mafioso Tonio Lupo. Frank is arrested and imprisoned for the murder, and Lupo visits him in prison. There, he curses the family, and says that each of Frank’s three sons will die at the age of forty-two, the same age Luigi Lupo was at his death. It’s not an idle threat, either, as Tonio Lupo is powerful, notorious, and ruthless. As the years go by, we see what happens to Frank’s sons, and how this curse impacts the family. And we also see how the Mafia plays a part in what happens to the Frank family fortunes.
Mafiosi make an appearance in Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes, too. In that novel, we are introduced to professional thief John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison and is trying to ‘go straight.’ He changes his mind, though, when he gets the chance to visit a posh Manhattan apartment building. He decides to plan a robbery, but not just of one apartment. His plan will be to rob the entire building. For that, of course, he’ll need equipment, money, and people to work with him. So, for about five months, Anderson makes his plans and gets his team in place. One of Anderson’s sources will be the Angelo family, a Mafia family involved for some time in New York’s underworld. The FBI and other authorities are very interested in anything they can learn about the Angelos’ activities, so they’ve placed the members under electronic and other surveillance. They’ve also got an interest in several other of Anderson’s contacts. The question will be: can the authorities stop this robbery before it takes place? As we get to know the Angelos, we learn a little about how such families work.
And then there’s Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children move from New Jersey to a small town in Normandy. The four settle in and try to adjust to the new culture, the new language, and so on. But this isn’t a typical American family. ‘Fred Blake’ is really Giovanni Manzini, a member of the New Jersey Mafia. He’s committed the unforgiveable sin of testifying against his former Mafia colleagues in court. Now, he and his family are in the US Federal Witness Protection Program. The plan to start life over in Normandy works well at first. But then, word of the Manzinis’ new location gets back to New Jersey. Now, the family has much more serious problems on their hands than ‘culture shock.’ This novel was the inspiration for Luc Besson’s 2013 film, The Family.
The Mafia has woven into the underworld for a very long time. So it makes sense that we’d see examples all through crime fiction. I’ve only had the space to mention a few; I know you’ll think of many others (right, fans of Andrea Camilleri’s series?). Which ones have stayed with you?
As you know, I usually take my own ‘photos for this blog. But I just couldn’t resist this iconic image of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Murder Incorporated.