Why I chose…Murder, Inc.

In my last post, I described the Facebook seven-day book challenge I completed May 16 (seven covers over seven days, no explanations).

Freed from the challenge rules governing, however, I now explain my choices.

In this post, I explore my fascination with true crime by discussing…

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Fictional crime has fascinated me since I was seven or eight years old, when I first started reading Encyclopedia Brown and his various imitators. At Yale, I took two courses on the subject.

But my interest in real-life crime was slower to develop. As a child, I did watch TV movies/mini-series on the Manson Family, Sacco and Vanzetti, and Lizzie Borden. Shockingly, given its graphic violence, I was allowed to watch the 1967 Arthur Penn film Bonnie and Clyde on television. In 6th grade, I first read about Jack the Ripper.

The tipping point, as is so often the case, came in college.

My sophomore year, I lived with two other fellows in a converted basement seminar room. The year before, a Saudi prince (or something) had lived in that room. He had bought a large color television, and when he left the room (and, if memory serves, Yale itself), he left the television there.

One of my roommates worked in the Audio-Visual lab, and a friend lent us her VCR. As a result, a number of movies were screened in our room (including the first pornography I ever watched, the artistic but deeply weird Café Flesh; its Mitchell-Froom-composed soundtrack is still a favorite)

Another film I first saw that year was the 1984 Francis Ford Coppola film The Cotton Club, a historically-flawed but highly entertaining and visually arresting film.

I had vaguely been aware of such 1930s underworld figures as Dutch Schultz, “Lucky” Luciano and “Mad Dog” Coll, but knew little about them. Schultz, portrayed with psychotic intensity by the talented James Remar, is the primary “villain” driving the film’s plot, through Luciano, Coll and Owney Madden are key players as well.

Three years later, I was living in Washington, DC, working at the Brookings Institution. Before going to bed weeknights, I would watch syndicated reruns; this is when I fell in love with Taxi. Another show that caught my attention was The Untouchables, the 1959-63 black-and-white crime show based loosely upon Eliot Ness and his Prohibition-enforcing gang of incorruptible Treasury agents in early 1930s Chicago.

This is another example of well-written, highly entertaining drama built upon completely invalid history (for one thing, Ness played a trivial role in the conviction of Al Capone for income tax evasion). Walter Winchell’s staccato voice-over narration was especially compelling[1], as was the rich chiaroscuro of its cinematography.

The fall of 1988 was also the 100th anniversary of the canonical Ripper murders, and so this absorbing, but wildly inaccurate TV movie starring Michael Caine aired, further piquing my interest in the case.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that within a few years, I was prowling the true crime sections of book stores, slowly building a library. Then, in 1997 the History Channel produced this engrossing documentary on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Whether or not Capone really was responsible for this atrocity (this excellent book makes a good counter-argument), this was my first comprehensive introduction to the “beer wars” of 1920s Chicago and, by extension, the subsequent development of “the syndicate” in New York City.

Over the next 10 or so years, despite immersing myself in excellent books on the Ripper case and some dreck on the murder of Elizabeth Short[2], I still preferred to read crime fiction rather than crime fact.

Most likely what changed was that as I scoured the true crime bookshelves looking for new volumes on the Ripper and Dahlia cases, I began to notice other interesting books.

One was a thick paperback with a garish orange spine on which in large capitals was written “MURDER, INC.,” with “THE STORY OF THE SYNDICATE” below it in smaller letters.

I dismissed it at first because it was a 2003 De Capo Press reissue of a book originally published in 1951. That seemed boring somehow.

But I kept returning to it. It was that title, and that black-and-white cover photo of a bloody hand holding a playing card.

I finally succumbed in 2008 or so.

The book exists because in “the spring of 1950, Burton Turkus, a former [Kings County] assistant District Attorney, asked [journalist Sid Feder] to write a book with him on the fantastic ring of killers and extortionists that is organized crime in the United States.”[3]

The book, which admittedly starts slowly as Turkus settles into his new role as Brooklyn ADA in 1940 and is agog at the number of unsolved murders in the Brownsville, East New York and Ocean Hill sections of Brooklyn, picks up at the end of Chapter 2 with this passage:

“We had to have a Buggsy or a Happy Maione who would put the finger on the rest and reveal the machinery. We needed, in brief, a canary that could sing good and loud—and on key. A Reles would do. Do? He would be the exact, perfect fit! Of one thing in this mess, though, both the Law and the mob were positive: Kid Twist would never break. It was legend in the police department how the Kid was arrested and worked over time and again—but never a word out of him.

“And then, Mrs. Kid Twist Reles walked into the District Attorney’s office.

“‘My husband,’ she announced, ‘wants an interview with the Law.”[4]

Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, so-named for his penchant for using his long arms and abnormally strong hands to strangle transgressors, began talking to Brooklyn District Attorney William O’ Dwyer on March 23, 1940. Twelve days later, he had confessed enough dirt on the contract killing organization Murder, Inc., headquartered in the back of a Brownsville candy store, to fill 25 notebooks (and exhausting countless stenographers). In so doing, Reles had provided solutions to some 70 unsolved murders, and his later court testimony would help to convict six men, including Murder, Inc. head Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, of murder; all six were executed.

But just as Reles was set to testify against Albert Anastasia on November 12, 1941, he earned the gruesome sobriquet of the “canary who could sing—but couldn’t fly.” Despite being heavily guarded by 18 police officers on the top floor of the Half Moon Hotel, Reles somehow fell out a window to his death. Some tied-together sheets suggested a botched escape attempt, though that does not quite align with Reles’ obvious relish in telling his stories.

Still, Reles had exposed not only Murder, Inc., but the existence of a vast, highly-organized criminal syndicate, organized by Luciano and Meyer Lansky in the early 1930s.

This, then, was the book that fully introduced me, in riveting detail, to the early history of the American mob, in particular the Schultz-Dewey affair and the consolidation of power by Luciano through the murders of two rival mobsters: his boss Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria (he of the cover photograph; April 15, 1931) and Salvatore Maranzano (September 10, 1931).

This book is also the single best true crime book I have ever read, chock full of detail and written by an experienced crime journalist. At nearly 500 pages, it is a bit sluggish in place, but it is worth the effort.

Honorable mentions:

The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper by Maxim Jakubowski and Nathan Braund

This is not the best book on the Ripper murders, but it is the first one I ever read, back in 2000. It is a highly-readable compendium of factual overview, essays and commentary that provides a comprehensive introduction (and a wide range of more-and-less plausible solutions) to the case.

Public Enemies by Bryan Burroughs

Forget the 2009 Michael Mann film starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. If you want to learn about the Depression-era bank-robbing gangs (Barker-Karpis, Dillinger-Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd [and the Kansas City Massacre], etc.) and their battles with J. Edgar Hoover, director of the newly-reorganized Federal Bureau of Investigation, this is the book to read.

Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster by Jonathan Eig

As I noted above, Eliot Ness, for all his legitimate crime-fighting heroism, both in Chicago and in Cleveland, had very little to do with Capone’s 1931 conviction for income tax evasion. This terrific book tells the story of the true hero of the story, Internal Revenue Service agent Frank J. Wilson, who painstakingly compiled the required forensic accounting evidence. Incidentally, the book’s title stems from President Herbert Hoover’s direct order following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbitt, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu

This story has almost been forgotten today. The “crime” of the title is the murder, atop the roof of the original Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906, of renowned architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, violent and paranoid husband of beautiful young model Evelyn Nesbitt (later known as “the girl on the red velvet swing”). But it is Nesbitt’s bittersweet life—and its female authorship—that makes this book so interesting.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

As compelling as the story of serial killer H. H. Holmes is, what I loved most about this book was the way Larson contextualized the killings in the context of the 1893 Chicago Exposition. For example, among other things, it introduced a giant slowly-revolving wheel created by a man from Pittsburgh named George Ferris; it seems everyone wanted to ride “Ferris’ wheel.”

In short, I think the best true crime books do what all of these books do, place crimes within a larger context, so that by learning about the crimes, we learn a good bit of history as well.

To be continued…

[1] This is the second time the late great Elizabeth Montgomery appears in this post. This clip is from the 2nd –season episode “The Rusty Heller Story,” featuring Montgomery as Heller, and she portrayed Lizzie Borden in the TV movie listed earlier.

[2] I freely admit that this characterization is informed by former Los Angeles Times reporter Larry Harnsich, who once live-blogged his reading of a book about the case. Yes, I read both the book and every word of Harnisch’s in-real-time critique. I recommend the latter, at least until Harnisch finishes his own long-awaited book on the case.

[3] Turkus, Burton B. and Feder, Sid, 1951, Murder, Inc.: The Story of the Syndicate (second De Capo Press edition, 2003). Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press, pg. xi.

[4] Ibid., pg. 50.

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