This book has been propping up the pile for some time in my mistaken belief that it would be a piece of suitable frippery for rebooting my addled brain amid the welter of “serious” books I get through. I always keep a pile of inbetweeners for this purpose, often the only time I can stomach a bit of fiction. I admit now, in this case, I got the whole thing arse about face. I owe Tim Newark a very deep apology because this book is the real deal.
A book that links some of the most famous names of organised crime with World War II should, on the face of it, be very enticing, so you might wonder why I didn’t rush to it. I have mulled that one over several times myself. They are all here: Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Joe Bonnano… the list is endless.
The story shifts with ease from pre-war Sicily to the USA and back and forth as things hot up and then the Allies are ashore and the politics and the crime and the black markets and rackets and rivalries just get tangled up in a barbed wire bolognaise of nastiness.
The joy of it is that Tim Newark steers you through it all with clarity and aplomb with a satnav voiced by the calming tones of James Earl Jones. He knows where he’s going. He is calm while others are losing their heads, some literally it might seem.
I love the way he brings strands of Sicilian bandits, wise guys, London bobbies, Maltese spivs, Mussolini, the OSS, all those other wannabe spooks, noble lords, idiots and a cast of thousands under one roof. They all had an interest. Bit part warriors or major players, he makes them relevant. Somewhere amidst all this there was a war on.
You get the oxymoron; naval intelligence, and other jokes. We have American agencies shafting each other and especially the British who they saw as the enemy, never mind the communists! They came later. Don’t even start me on the Italians or the Sicilians, of which there is a huge difference. What a bunch! They know how to do vengeance and Omerta. It is omnipresent.
Of the Mafia, inevitably the Americans are the big draw. Some of them were making big bucks out of the war and some were intensely patriotic regardless of that fact. Why do we try to like them? I do not know. Is it the Robin Hood thing? They certainly played on it in Sicily. They were ruthless criminals after all. I found myself having a grudging respect for the Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky, he took on the Nazis in pre-war America. Not for money, but for his people. You have to admire him for it.
The big issues are did the Allies do a deal with the Mafia to facilitate the invasion of Sicily? The answer is maybe and maybe not. Did the United States do a deal with the Mafia to control the New York docks to monitor pro fascist and Nazi elements? Read the book. It really is worth it. There is colour, there is violence and above all there is greed, human nature and all that stuff. It sounds like politics. Duh!
Tim Newark has done something special. He’s merged Mario Puzo with Stephen Ambrose and it all makes sense. Capiche?
THE MAFIA AT WAR
The Shocking True Story of America’s Wartime Pact With Organised Crime
By Tim Newark
Published in softback by Frontline Books £14.99
ISBN: 978 1 84832 679 8