Friday, June 10, 2016

Booknote: Black Mass, plus some thoughts on the film

Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil's DealNew York: Public Affairs, 2015.  ISBN: 9781610395533.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: true crime, mob stories
Format: trade paperback
Source: Berea branch of the Madison County (KY) Public Library


In the 1970s, James "Whitey" Bulger was an up and coming Irish gangster in Boston. He then got the opportunity of a lifetime to eliminate his major competitor: the Boston Italian Mafia. He did it by making a deal with the FBI to become an informant for the agency about the Mafia. John Connolly, an ambitious up and coming FBI agent, made the deal and protected "Whitey" and his partner Stephen Flemmi. What mattered to the FBI was taking down the Italian Mafia. As a result, the FBI either turned a blind eye or outright helped Bulger become the premier gangster in Boston. In a town where outsiders are despised, Connolly was able to make the deal where others failed because he was a local boy and Bulger's childhood friend.

This is a story that on the one hand can be hard to believe. On the other hand, it is a story that is easy to believe given the reputation of law enforcement of often breaking rules they are supposed to enforce and making deals with criminals of dubious value. Sure, taking down the Boston Mafia was a noble goal, but the FBI basically sold its soul to Bulger and enabled his own rise to control organized crime in Boston. Add to this a serious lack of accountability, the FBI's own internal corruption, and a parade of barely competent FBI supervisors, and you get a recipe for a disaster the FBI will be trying to amend for years to come.

The book is nonfiction, but it reads like a good crime procedural and thriller. The authors do include a lot of detail on the workings of the deal between Bulger and the FBI. We also get a good narrative of the Boston crime scene from the 1970s all the way through today as the drug wars rose to prominence. Still, despite a lot of minutiae at times, the book offers a pretty riveting narrative that keeps you reading. Part of the reason you keep reading is you wonder how much will Whitey get away with. Turns out the FBI was willing to basically give Whitey the kingdom, which also gave Connolly a lot of prestige and benefit inside the agency.

At the time I read the book, I had not seen the film, but I could see then how this book had appeal for Hollywood to make a film. It has a riveting story with lots of intrigue plus very dark characters. The book has a good, solid pace. Additionally, the authors took care to offer plenty of documentation with a list of sources and a section with notes. The edition I read is the updated paperback edition published in 2012; the story first came out in 2000. The story continues to draw interest.

For readers of true crime and/or mob stories, this is a recommended reading. In terms of appeal factors, similar books may include:

  • Nicholas Pileggi's Wiseguy. This is the basis for the film GoodFellas.  I have not read it yet, but I have seen the film, and it is one of my favorites in the genre. As soon as I read the book, you can count on seeing a review here on the blog. Also, if you like mob biographies, Casino, again basis of another movie, may also be of interest.
  • Arms and the Dudes. The link here goes to my review. I hear this one is getting made into a movie too. 
  • Betrayal: the Crisis in the Catholic Church. The link goes to my review. I list this one mostly because it is also investigative reporting from the Boston Globe (where the two reporters who wrote Black Mass worked) and it is about the Boston diocese and corruption. 
I am rating the book 4 out of 5 stars.

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Additional reading notes:

The FBI deal really was bad:

"What if the FBI takes down the informant's enemies and the informant then rises to the top of the underworld.

. . .

What if murders pile up, unsolved? If working folks are threatened and extorted, with no recourse?

. . .

This could never happen, right? . . .
But it did" (xvi).

Bulger also had in his favor the fact he was extremely intelligent, probably way more so than the FBI, and very well read. He also learned from his mistakes and early arrests:

"No, the second time around he would stay in control and behind the scenes. Those years of reading in prison libraries had sharpened his instincts, and his mind had become an encyclopedia of law enforcement tactics and past mobster mistakes. Like a chessmaster, Bulger was confident that he knew the moves, that he could watch your opening and lead you straight to checkmate" (31).

The FBI treated Bulger and Flemmi like royalty, even socializing with them and protecting them from other police agencies:

"There were indeed people stalking Bulger and Flemmi-- like state troopers. Years later the irony was not lost on investigators from other police agencies: the gangsters had shaken the troopers tailing them by finding safe haven and a hot meal in the homes of FBI agents" (137).

In fact, the FBI even punished those Bulger threatened and extorted, like the Rakes family who lost their liquor store to Bulger's extortion. Mr. Rakes got called in to a grand jury, but he never really gave up Bulger. The FBI then took things out on Rakes:

"Rakes was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice, and in 1998 he was convicted of both iin U.S. federal district court. For Rakes it was the ultimate double jeopardy-- the government that did not protect him went after him, while Whitey walked away. But was a fate Stephen Rakes had come to prefer to facing Bulger" (177).

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Some additional thoughts about the film

I saw that my public library had the film, so I put it on hold (it was checked out that the time). By the time I finished reading the book, the film arrived for me to check out. The film stays pretty close to the book; however, it does leave a lot of things out from the book. That's the usual Hollywood machine making narrative decisions to keep the movie on track and not make it too long. Unless someone reads the book to check, or maybe reads one or two of various articles that have pointed out the differences, the average movie viewer will not really care.  It is a pretty good film overall. 

  • Johnny Depp really captures the character of James "Whitey" Bulger. In terms of casting, I found the choice of Benedict Cumberbatch to portray Whitey's brother, state politician Billy Bulger, an interesting one. Cumberbatch does capture how Billy could portray himself as respectable yet be extremely ruthless.
  • The movie does not quite get right how Whitey meets Connolly to set the deal. Flemmi's role as an informant himself is greatly diminished in the film. Flemmi was the one working as an informant before Whitey came on board. This is probably done for dramatic effect, to keep Depp's character front and center, etc. 
  • The movie does compress a lot of the book, but it still gets the feel of it. Events in the film do move quite fast. 
  • The parts of Whitey and the son are not very prominent in the book. Yes, that did happen, but as I said, not really in the book. 
  • The Kevin Bacon character is not real. He is a mash-up of some of the FBI supervisors that were part of the story. 
  • This is a very dark film. It will get comparisons to The Godfather and more likely GoodFellas, but the themes differ from the classic films. There is no real sense of honor like in the classic mobster films (Puzo's work is fiction; Pileggi's is nonfiction). Also, it is a bit more procedural in the sense of getting a glimpse at how the FBI does things. However, it is only a glimpse. The book really goes in depth about the FBI's corruption, obstruction, and deal making.


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This book qualifies for the following 2016 Reading Challenges:



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