Review: Whitey’s Payback by T.J. English

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WhiteysPaybackWhitey’s Payback: and Other True Stories: Gangsterism, Murder, Corruption, and Revenge by T.J. English (Mysterious Press/Open Road, 2013)

Blurb: James “Whitey” Bulger is the last of the old-fashioned gangsters. As a polished, sophisticated psychopath—who also happened to be a secret FBI informant—his reign of power in Boston lasted for more than twenty years. When he went on the lam in 1995, the kingpin’s legend grew to rival that of Al Capone. Captured after sixteen years in hiding, he now sits in a maximum security prison awaiting trial on racketeering charges and nineteen counts of murder. T. J. English has been writing about men like Bulger for more than two decades. And this collection, culled from his career in journalism and supported by new material, shows English at his best. In addition to the numerous pieces about Whitey, he reports stories about gangsters and organized crime from New York City to Jamaica to Hong Kong and Mexico. Be they about old school mobsters, corrupt federal agents, or modern-day narcotraficantes wreaking havoc on the US–Mexico border, English tells these stories with depth and insight. Combining first-rate reporting and the storytelling technique of a novelist, English takes his readers on a bloody but fascinating journey to the dark side of the American Dream.

The Savage City was one of the best books of 2011. I’ve read almost all of English’s books, and I’d recommend them to anyone who is interested in organized crime in America. He’s not a journalist so much as he’s a social historian, and his books make for compelling, compulsive reading.

This book is a little different. It’s a collection of articles written by English and spans almost two decades (the first story was published in 1991 in Playboy, the last in 2012 in the New York Times). As with his books, English focuses on organized crime in his articles—not so much the Mafia, which is what most Americans think of when they hear the words “organized crime,” but on Irish gangs and on the newer movers and shakers of the underworld: the Chinese, Vietnamese, Latin American, and Jamaican gangs, whose violence and ruthlessness are untempered by the Mafia’s code of honor.

English describes his method of writing, which is “to approach a subject with a wide lens and then zoom in on a particular storyline, to reveal the big picture and then focus on details within the big picture.” Each article in Whitey’s Payback follows that structure: he paints the background and then fills in the details via case studies, the experiences of individuals that bring the story to life.

His earlier work tends to focus on the changing face of organized crime—the impact of RICO on the Italian and Irish crime families, and the groups that replaced them—but the newer articles focus more on policies, often flawed if not outright failures, and their impact on organized crime and the innocent, vulnerable people who are forced by economic circumstance to live in high-crime areas. The “war on drugs” gets special focus in articles about the narcotraficantes in Juárez, Mexico, and about rogue DEA agents in the American Midwest.

All of the threads come together in the book’s final section, which is a compilation of articles about Whitey Bulger. These incorporate themes from the preceding articles: an indictment of the FBI’s use of informants; the demise of “traditional” organized crime; the failure of American law-enforcement policies, and the lengths people will go to to gain and consolidate power.

Overall this was a good introduction to English’s body of work. Having read most of his books, I was familiar with some of the people featured in the articles, and because some articles were written on similar subjects for different publications, there’s obviously some repetition. However, that doesn’t detract from the collection, which I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in organized crime beyond the Italian Mafia.

This ARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 stars

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