Category Archives: Tonino Benacquista

You Can’t Compete With Murder Incorporated*

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.



Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Lawrence Sanders, Mario Puzo, Mayra Montero, Tonino Benacquista

In Loyalty to Our Kind*

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot solves the stabbing murder of wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett. The victim is killed on the second night of a three-day trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express, and the only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same car. One of those passengers is Princess Natalia Dragomiroff, a formidable elderly lady whose strength is in her personality. At one point in the story, she has this to say:

‘‘I believe…in loyalty – to one’s friends and one’s family and one’s caste.’’

She’s not alone. Being loyal to the members of one’s group is a highly-valued trait, and that makes sense if you think about it. People depend on other group members for a lot, including, at times, survival. So, it’s important that groups stick together, as the saying goes. And there are sometimes very severe penalties for breaking that rule. Loyalty matters, but it can sometimes go too far, and that can make for an interesting layer of character development in a crime novel. It can also allow for plot points.

For example, one of the cardinal rules of the Mafia and of other criminal groups is what the Mafia has called omerta – silence. Every member is expected to keep quiet about the group’s activities, or about anyone else who might be involved. That’s how one proves loyalty to the group. We see that, for instance, in Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. In that novel, Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children move from the US to a small town in Normandy. The four settle in and begin the process of getting used to an entirely new culture.  But all is not as it seems. ‘Fred Blake’ is really Giovanni Manzini, a former member of the New Jersey Mob, who testified against his fellow mobsters in court. Now, he and his family are in the US Witness Protection Program, and have been resettled in Normandy for their own protection. The plan is successful enough, until word of the Manzini family’s whereabouts accidentally gets back to New Jersey. Now, Manzini could very well pay a terrible price for his disloyalty.

Police officers depend on each other, sometimes for their lives. That’s one reason why there’s such a premium placed on loyalty to other officers. In many cases, that’s part of the ‘glue’ that holds the force together. But this loyalty, too, can be taken too far. In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, for instance, we are introduced to Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police. One afternoon, he is called to the scene of a home invasion. With him, he takes probationer Lucy Howard. They’re investigating at the house when White is stabbed to death. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who already has a history with local law enforcement. The other officers are loyal to White, and want to mete out their own kind of justice. But the media is paying very close attention to this case, and everyone knows that if they don’t do everything exactly ‘by the book,’ there’ll be a lot of trouble. It’s all complicated by the fact that Rowley is part Aboriginal. All of the police know that the least misstep on their part will lead to accusations of racism. It’s clear throughout the novel, though, that loyalty to each other and to White impacts all of their choices. There are many other crime novels, too, where loyalty to other police officers comes into play (I’m thinking, for instance, of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight). This is part of the reason for which so many police officers are biased against Internal Affairs and other internal investigation groups.

There’s also the tendency for people in elite groups to protect themselves and one another. We see this, for instance, in the work of Qiu Xiaolong. His Chief Inspector Chen Cao lives and works in Shanghai at the end of the 1990’s/beginning of the 21st Century. Chen is respected, and has an important position within his police department. However, he isn’t at the very top of the proverbial tree. That place is reserved for the elite of the Party – the High Cadre people. Those individuals make all of the important decisions, and displeasing them can lead to the end of a career, or sometimes worse. High Cadre families are loyal to each other and protect one another, and would far rather police themselves than have independent investigators look into their business. Chen is very well aware of the power the High Cadre people have, and their tendency to be loyal to their sociopolitical group. So, when his investigations lead to high places, as they often do, Chen has to move very carefully.

And then there’s family loyalty. Most of us would agree that being loyal to one’s family is a highly valued trait. In crime series such as Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty novels, we see this loyalty in action. Rafferty is a ‘rough travel’ writer who lives and works in Bangkok. He also happens to be very good at finding people who don’t want to be found. That’s why he’s in demand when people are looking for someone in hiding. Rafferty’s married to Rose, a former bar girl who now owns an apartment cleaning company. Rose loves her husband and adopted daughter, Miaow. But she is very loyal to her family of origin. Here’s what she says about it to Rafferty:

‘She [Rose] turns to face him. ‘We have ten dollars left,’ she says. Her voice is so low he has to strain to hear it. ‘Miaow is hungry. My little sister up north is hungry. Who gets the ten dollars? … I would send the money to my sister,’ Rose says. ‘Without a minute’s thought.’’

Of course, family loyalty can create all sorts of obstacles to criminal investigation, too. In many crime novels, people don’t want to talk to the police about their siblings/parents/cousins/etc., because those people are family members.

But that’s the thing about loyalty. Like most other human traits, it’s a proverbial double-edged sword. It’s valuable to an extent, and in many situations. On the other hand, it can also be tragic.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation.  


Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, James Ellroy, Qiu Xiaolong, Timothy Hallinan, Tonino Benacquista, Y.A. Erskine

Got Clean Away in a Stolen Car*

gangsters-and-mobstersAs 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.


Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Elmore Leonard, Mario Puzo, Mayra Montero, Richard Condon, Tonino Benacquista

We Are the Secret Society*

Secret SocietiesSecret societies have been a part of several cultures for a long time. They take many different forms, too, from criminal societies to religious societies to more esoteric groups. Regardless of the kind of society or its purpose, its membership is usually limited, and there are rituals and secrets to which only initiated members are privy.

There are a lot of examples of such groups in crime fiction. That’s not surprising when you think about all of the possibilities for conflict, tension and worse. And, since some societies are criminal in nature, there’s that aspect as well that makes them a natural fit for the genre. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Five Orange Pips, Sherlock Holmes gets an intriguing case from his new client John Openshaw. Openshaw’s Uncle Elias, with whom he lived, was found dead in a pool on his estate. His death seems to have been the culmination of a bizarre series of events that began when he received a letter containing five orange pips. Now the victim’s brother (and Openshaw’s father) Joseph has also received a letter containing five orange pips. He’s thoroughly frightened, but he won’t go to the police. Holmes investigates, and finds that the strange and tragic events on the Openshaw property are connected with the Ku Klux Klan, which had formed in the US after the Civil War there, and had been thought disbanded.

In Agatha Christie’s The Seven Dials Mystery, Sir Oswald Coote and his wife have rented out a manor house owned by the Marquess of Caterham so they can host a house party. Everyone duly arrives and all goes well at first. Then, some of the guests decide to play a trick on fellow guest Gerald ‘Gerry’ Wade, who has a bad habit of oversleeping. They buy eight alarm clocks, time them to go off at different intervals, and hide them in Wade’s room. To everyone’s shock, the next morning, Wade is found dead in his bed of what turns out to be poison. One of the alarm clocks is missing, too. Needless to say, the house party ends and Lord Caterham returns to the property. One day, his daughter, Lady Eileen ‘Bundle’ Brent, finds a half-finished letter that turns out to be a clue to the murder. She gets involved in the investigation, which so far, hasn’t gotten very far. In the end, she and Superintendent Battle connect Wade’s death with another death, and with a secret society.

In Tony Hillerman’s Dance Hall of the Dead, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police gets involved in a disturbing case. A young Zuñi teen named Ernesto Cato has been murdered. And his friend, a Navajo named George Bowlegs, has gone missing. That’s where Leaphorn comes in. If George isn’t guilty of murder, he may be in grave danger. At the very least, he may have important information. So it’s imperative to find him. By the time the boy is found, though, it’s too late: he’s been killed, too. Leaphorn and fellow Navajo Tribal Police Officer Jim Chee work to find out what’s behind these murders. They’re not going to find it easy, though, because the information they need about Ernesto’s last days and weeks is related to a kiva, a religious society, he was joining. Only members are privy to the kiva’s secrets, and it will be difficult for Leaphorn and Chee to get anyone in the group to really talk to them. I can say without spoiling this story that the boys’ murders are not ritual killings. The kiva is not to blame, if you will. But it adds a layer of complexity to the case.

There’s a different sort of secret group in Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights. Accountant-turned-baker Corinna Chapman gets drawn into a strange mystery when she discovers Suze MacDonald, a local junkie, outside on her ventilation grate. The girl has overdosed on heroin, and it takes an emergency crew and some Narcan to revive her. Then, Corinna learns of other cases of junkies who haven’t been so lucky. It’s soon clear that this is a pattern, and that someone may be deliberately targeting junkies. Corinna is reluctant to get involved, but she’s persuaded by her new lover, Daniel Cohen, to help. Together, they learn that the key to these deaths is a Goth club called Blood Lines. One night, they go to the club, and once there, they are invited to the club’s private room. That’s where they put together the pieces of the puzzle, and learn how the club and its secrets are connected to the deaths.

I don’t think it’d be possible to do a post about secret societies in crime fiction without mentioning the Mafia. It’s taken various forms throughout history, and has had different purposes. The one constant, though, is the emphasis on secrecy. And members know the consequences if they betray that secrecy. For instance, in Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas, we are introduced to Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children. The Blake family are ex-pat Americans who have recently moved to a small town in Normandy. They have their share of ‘culture clash’ as they learn to fit in there, but as we soon learn, they have other, bigger problems. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzini, a member of the New Jersey Mafia, who joined the Federal Witness Protection Program when he testified against his former colleagues. The family was moved to Normandy for their safety. And the plan works well enough until word of their whereabouts gets back to New Jersey…

And that’s the thing about secret societies. They can be fascinating, and for members, they provide a real support network. But they have their dangers, too…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Todd Rundgren’s Secret Society.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Kerry Greenwood, Tonino Benacquista, Tony Hillerman

You Had to Open Up Your Mouth*

LooseLipsThere’s wisdom to the old wartime saying, ‘Loose lips sink ships.’ A person may mean well, and may even agree to keep quiet about something. But the right setting, the right atmosphere and the right confidant can get people to say things they otherwise might not. And there are those who enjoy the feeling of seeming important – to whom boasting might come naturally.

In crime fiction, anyway, saying too much can get a person into real trouble. For the police, it can put an investigation in jeopardy. For a criminal, it can lead to getting caught. And in any case, it can lead to murder.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, we are introduced to twelve-year-old Joyce Reynolds. She and several other people are at the home of Rowena Drake one afternoon, getting ready for a Hallowe’en party to be held there that night. One of the others at that gathering is detective story writer Ariadne Oliver, who’s staying locally with a friend. When Joyce finds out who Mrs. Oliver is, she boasts that she herself saw a murder. Nobody believes her, and at first everyone hushes her up. But Joyce continues to insist that she’s telling the truth. Many people there put those remarks down to the efforts of a young girl to get the attention of a famous writer. But that evening, during the party, Joyce is murdered. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he travels to the village of Woodleigh Common to do so. It now seems clear that what Joyce said got someone frightened enough to kill, and that the peaceful town may very well be hiding a murderer.

In Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly harmless older man named Holberg. At first, the case looks like a home invasion gone very wrong. But a few clues suggest that this was a deliberate killing. If that’s the case, then the more the team members know about Holberg, the more likely they are to find his killer. So they start to dig into the victim’s past. What they find is not at all pleasant, either. It turns out that Holberg has a history that includes multiple rapes. To check up on this, they have a conversation with a man named Ellidi, who’s been in regular trouble with the law and is currently in prison. Ellidi has this to say about Holberg:

‘Holberg liked talking about it [one particular rape incident]. Boasted. Got away with it.’

It soon turns out that more than one person could easily have wanted Holberg dead.

Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring features her sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn, who is an academician and political scientist. In one plot thread of this novel, she is concerned about a student of hers, Kellee Savage, who has missed several classes lately. The last time anyone saw Kellee was one night when several students were at a local bar. The evening ended in disaster when someone noticed that Kellee had secretly been recording everyone’s conversation. Kilbourn follows up on what happened that night, and what was said. It turns out that Kellee had been drinking heavily, and said some things that would have been far better left unsaid. Later, those comments have their consequences.

Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas concerns Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children, ex-pat Americans who have moved to a small town in Normandy. As we learn, though, the Blakes are not the people they seem. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mafia. In return for testifying against his fellow gangsters, Manzoni was placed in the US Federal Witness Protection Program, along with the members of his family. Because of the sensitive and dangerous nature of what’s happened, it’s vital that all of the ‘Blakes’ keep quiet about everything related to that part of their lives. And at first, all goes well enough, although there’s plenty of ‘culture shock’ as they get used to living in Normandy. Then, the ‘rule of silence’ is broken, and word of the family’s whereabouts gets back to New Jersey. Now, getting along in a different country is the least of the family’s troubles.

In Donna Malane’s Surrender, missing person expert Diane Rowe learns of the murder of James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson. This death has special significance for her, because it’s suspected that Snow killed Rowe’s sister Niki a year earlier. Before his death, that suspicion was confirmed. Snow confessed that he’d been hired to commit that murder; he even boasted of his skill. Now he’s been killed in the same way. Rowe reasons that if she can find out who hired (and, presumably, killed) Snow, she’ll also learn who paid Snow to kill her sister.

And then there’s David Whish-Wilson’s Zero At the Bone, the second of his novels featuring former Perth Police Superintendent Frank Swann. It’s the late 1970’s, and Swann is dealing with the fallout from events in the first novel (Line of Sight  – recommended, by the way). One of the consequences of that fallout is that he’s not working as a copper. In one plot thread of this novel, another former police officer, Percy Dickson, hires Swann to help him get to the truth about a series of robberies. Dickson is head of security at one local department store, and consults with several others, and with some local jewelers. So for him, a series of robberies like this will mean the end of his job. Swann agrees to look into the matter, and in fact, finds out the truth about the thieves. This particular truth is very dangerous, though, and Dickson is under strict orders not to say anything to anyone about how the stolen merchandise was recovered, or even that the case has been solved. Unfortunately for both Dickson and Swann, Dickson makes mention of it to the wrong people…

And that’s the problem with unguarded words, whether they’re casual comments, boasts, drunken remarks, or things said in anger. They can get people in a lot of trouble. These are only a few examples; over to you.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Shot.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, David Whish-Wilson, Donna Malane, Gail Bowen, Tonino Benacquista