Five Must-Read Mafia Books

Posted on October 6, 2020

by Michael Cannell

My nonfiction book, A Brotherhood Betrayed: The Man Behind the Rise and Fall of Murder, Inc., takes place in Brooklyn in the 1930s, so I had no chance of interviewing participants or eyewitnesses. Instead, I pored over hundreds of old newspaper clips, FBI files — and books. Lots and lots and lots of books. I walked among the stacks of university libraries and mail-ordered titles consigned to oblivion. Each half-forgotten book I opened brought a small corner of organized crime back to life. Here are five I recommend. 

New York City Gangland by Arthur Nash

Drawing from his personal archive of mob memorabilia, Arthur Nash published a rarely seen collection of photos drawn from private family albums of such notorious figures as Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, and John Gotti. Included as well are lurid crime scene photos, including the body of informant Joe Rosen lying in a pool of his own blood and the burned corpse of mob gofer Puggy Feinstein. 

As High As My Heart: The Sammy Aaronson Story by Al Hirshberg and Sammy Aaronson

For thirty years retired prizefighter Sammy Aaronson operated a gym in Brownsville, Brooklyn — at the time America’s toughest neighborhood — open for free to any underprivileged boy who wanted to learn to box. His objective was to save them from a life of crime by teaching honesty and fair play. His memoir is an intimate excursion through the shadows of pre-war Brooklyn, an underworld populated by loan sharks, toughs and gunmen. 

The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano by Martin A. Gosch and Richard Hammer 

While living out his last years in Naples, Lucky Luciano spoke to a movie producer Martin A. Gosch about making a film based on his life. Luciano suggested Cary Grant for the lead role. Gosch preferred Dean Martin. But Luciano’s underworld friends disapproved of the attention the project would attract. So Luciano and Gosch collaborated instead on a memoir. In thirty interviews Luciano recalled the life of a mob boss presiding over a national sweep of organized crime from a suite in the Waldorf Astoria. He spoke of butchery, jackpots and lies. Luciano’s reminiscences entertain, but can they be believed? 

The Good Rat: A True Story by Jimmy Breslin 

The tabloid columnist Jimmy Breslin covered the New York mafia for decades. He reported so many organized crime stories that he was on a first-name basis with most of its key figures. 

The Good Rat is a pastiche of remembrances mixed with court transcripts, all loosely organized around the story of two detectives on the mafia payroll in the 1980s. 

But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters by Robert A. Rockaway 

For a long stretch of the 1930s members of Jewish assassination squad known as Murder, Inc., based in Brooklyn, thrived alongside their Italian counterpart. As the title suggests, they may have been cold-hearted killers, but they were still devoted sons.

Credit: Michael Weschler

Michael Cannell is the author of Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal ProfilingThe Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit, and I.M. Pei: Mandarin of Modernism. He was an editor at the New York Times for seven years and has written for The New YorkerThe New York Times MagazineSports Illustrated, and many other publications. He lives in New York City.

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