I always joke that I missed my calling as a mafiosa; since I can remember, I have been obsessed with the gangsters of the 1920s through ’40s. I was so pumped to find out in my 20s that my great-great-uncle (Nonamous McBrayer—yes, that was his real-ass name) was a bootlegger in North Carolina. He is legit smiling in his mug shot, y’all. When we checked into our hotel in Havana, I pointed out to my boyfriend they were playing The Godfather‘s theme song. I’m a little obsessed.

Anyway, the first time I went to New York City (I’m from the South), the thing I most wanted to see was the independent Museum of the American Gangster—and it REALLY delivered. I introduce this place because I need y’all to know that the docent at that museum taught me SO much about the culture of the mob, and I want to be sure to give credit where credit is due. For example, Al Capone’s famous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929—which is the real reason to remember February 14—FAILED. Kind of. Why? The target (Bugs Moran) wasn’t at the garage where he was supposed to be: he was getting a shave and a haircut for a hot date that night. (Granted, this massacre did establish Scarface as the boss of Chicago without him ever getting called to trial, so it wasn’t a total bust.)

My favorite period of gangsters started—of course—as a product of Prohibition. In New York and Chicago, from what I understand, it was illegal to SELL alcohol, but it wasn’t illegal to DRINK alcohol. So, gangsters saw a hole in the economy: there was a demand and no supply. This started the speakeasy concept. If you bought a “membership” it was all-you-could-drink. (Last pitch for the museum, probably-maybe: it’s IN a former speakeasy! I literally walked past it twice.)

What I think so often gets romanticized about gangsters is their ability to bootstrap themselves into success despite open prejudice against them. Although we would consider many of the ethnicities of gangsters “white” by today’s standards, their contemporaries would not have done so. So, while you’re reading this selection, keep in mind that during the 1920s–’40s gangs functioned in part as both a form of either vigilante justice (and God knows I’m a sucker for a vigilante beatdown), or an economy boost for those who otherwise could not even enter the economy.

You undoubtedly know of these two best-movies-of-all-time and the third that we have chosen as a culture to forget, but have you read the book The Godfather by Mario Puzo? Better yet, give it a listen—all the characters are portrayed by different actors, and it’s a lot like watching the extended cut of the film in your brain.

Although this choice probably seems somewhat obvious, the reason why it’s so famous embodies, I think, some significant reasons why our culture is so obsessed with gangsters as a whole. We see traditions of the old world in the new world that requires immigrants to assimilate and stay at the bottom of the economy if they want to be in America, and yet the Corleones do just the opposite. They make their own economy, and they earn trust by providing protection…from America’s law enforcement itself. And these are not old issues. We see them happening on a daily basis, even modern-day.

Honor Thy Father by Gay Talese is arguably about the literal family on whom the Corleones were based, the Bonannos. This book is nonfiction, and its author is one who interviewed the famous mafioso, Joseph Bonanno. What I loved about this book was that Talese does not write himself out of the story, the way many journalists and nonfiction writers choose to do. Rather, he acknowledges that his presence changes the story somewhat.

Another of my favorite scenes from this book happens when Joseph Bonanno watches Francis Ford Coppola’s film, The Godfather, and he admits something like, “Yeah, that’s pretty accurate.”

Another classic of the 1920s, most people forget that the titular character of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is, in fact, a bootlegger. That’s how he made his millions! That’s how he rose to the economic status that Daisy needed in order to justify being with him!

Plus, you have the scene at the party with Meier Wolfsheim in which Gatsby tells Nick, “That’s the man that fixed the 1919 World Series.” Which brings me to my next point…

tough jews rich cohen book cover4. TOUGH JEWS BY RICH COHEN
Most of the gangsters we see in films are Italian, usually Sicilian, and occasionally they’re Irish. The first gangsters, however, were often Jewish. Many fled Europe and the horrors of Adolf Hitler to immigrate to America. Tough Jews by Rich Cohen documents the facts of the Jewish gangsters of the era.

Similarly to the two books above, Tough Jews  by Rachel Rubin discusses fictional representation of Jewish gangsters throughout modern literature, “specifically on the Russian writer Isaac Babel and Americans Mike Gold, Samuel Ornitz, and Daniel Fuchs, but also taking in cartoons, movies, and modernist paintings.” (Description from Amazon.)

If you liked the movie Goodfellas by Martin Scorsese, you’ll like this book, which he used as a reference. Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi is a book of journalistic nonfiction about the working class Brooklyn kid, Henry Hill, who was eventually responsible in part for the Lufthansa heist. (Fun fact: Henry Hill is one of the only known  people to be kicked out of the Witness Protection Program; from what I understand, he really liked to brag about that heist.)

Another book adapted by Scorsese (which includes nearly every man I’ve ever loved in its cast), Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Asbury details the turn of the century. This book is another work of journalistic nonfiction which details the Bowery and Five Points and its numerous gangs of the time—including but not limited to Hell Cat Maggie, who traded human ears (her trophies) for drinks.

Part of what makes the gangsters of the 1920s different from what the gangsters we know today is that their trade, in modern perspective, is mostly innocuous. They were hustling a substance that is now legal, alcohol. However, I’d be stupid not to at least mention that modern gangsters don’t hustle alcohol, they hustle drugs, or in the case of Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim, he hustled sex. As you may have noticed from the title, this is a memoir that details the psychology and capitalism of a pimp from his own perspective, of Chicago during the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. It is truly chilling.

You’ve likely seen the motion picture starring Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, but Molly’s Game by Molly Bloom, the book, is what made that possible. The book details Molly Bloom’s rise to “Hollywood’s poker princess,” and her fearless hosting of exclusive high-stakes private poker games, first of celebrity royalty and eventually of the Russian and Italian mobs. This book also details her gradual slide into the illegal aspects of running the game.

Though this book falls out of the category of gangsters from the 1920s–’40s, I’d be remiss not to mention Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson. In this book of gonzo journalism, Thomson—somewhat like Talese—involves himself in the plot itself. The motorcycle gang of the 1960s and ’70s is a different sort of gang than those that we have seen so far, but nonetheless, they live by a strict moral code outside of the law. One of my favorite quotes from this whole book is from Sonny Barger, the leader of the Hells Angels: “You treat me good, I treat you better. You treat me bad, I treat you worse.”

This one may also come from off the radar, but No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy is the story of how gangs evolved in the American West during the 1980s. Our main antagonist, Anton Chigurh, is a lone wolf, but there are so many people on so many sides of the same fight that it’s hard not to see how gangsters are involved in this one! (It’s also, IMHO, one of the best novels about gangsters ever written.)

Chris Rosales Word is Bone cover gangster valentine's12. WORD IS BONE BY CHRISTOPHER DAVID ROSALES
Though not, at first glance, directly about gangs or gangsters per se, the novel Word is Bone by Christopher David Rosales (who is my actual friend, omg) portrays the neighborhood of Clearwater, California. Here, everyone is involved in crime out of necessity—which is the main reason, I think, the gangster of the 1920s is so romanticized. We don’t love them for being criminals: we love them for their triumph over laws that were clearly written to keep them from triumph. This novel undertakes many of those instances, whether it comes from a loyal daughter sabotaging her mother’s competing sex worker upstairs, the welterweight pimp who defends his neighborhood, or the elderly woman who slanders a potential gangbanger because she thinks he’s trying to seduce a young girl. If you like gangsters and what they stand for, you’ll love this novel.

I always find nonfictional accounts of gangsters fascinating—but even more so when they’re not written by the gangsters themselves. I like to hear the stories from people who knew them. After all, what gangster will ever give you a straight story? Answer: no one. It’s part of the whole deal. But when someone close to them gives the story, well, they may only have some of the facts, but they are more likely facts. Pablo Escobar: My Father by Juan Pablo Escobar, is clearly written by the kingpin’s son. The writeup on Amazon.com says: “This is not the story of a child seeking redemption for his father, but a shocking look at the consequences of violence and the overwhelming need for peace and forgiveness.”

Hot damn. Among the film adaptations of these movies, none cast so many actors with whom I’ve been in love as American Gangster. But the original account, the book Original Gangster by Frank Lucas, touches basically every gangster you’ve ever heard of. Protege to Bumpy Johnson, Frank Lucas is responsible for nosing in on the Italian families who ran the drug game in New York in the 1960s. He cut out the middle men by smuggling heroin from Asia through the U.S. military. This book details his life, and is not to be missed.

That’s my list of dope gangster books for you to celebrate Valentines’ Day with, but I’m always looking for more—particularly about women. Do you have some to add to my list? Or were they too slick to reveal themselves? Anything about Stephanie St. Clair? Let me know what I need to add to my list by writing in the comments!

And happy Valentine’s Day.

By , February 1

Works of Nonfiction to Rival Any Great Thriller Novel

Who doesn’t love a good thriller? Whether a tale of murder and mayhem, a page-turning whodunit, dangerous family secrets, or a bit of good old fashioned espionage – there’s nothing quite like a great page-turner. Occasionally, however, life can prove stranger – and more thrilling – than fiction. Some of the best thrillers just happen to lurk in the pages of the nonfiction world. What better way to change up your usual suspenseful binge than to dive into the pages of a larger-than-life, stranger-than-fiction tale? Here are a few of our favorites.

In Cold Blood Book Cover PictureIn Cold Blood
Truman Capote’s true crime masterpiece is a classic for good reason. It is largely credited with igniting the trend of narrative nonfiction, particularly in true crime, and is lifted by Capote’s skillful storytelling. What truly makes In Cold Blood such a compulsive thriller, however, is Capote’s clear fascination with murderer Perry Smith.

Five Days at Memorial Book Cover PictureFive Days at Memorial
Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink spent six years investigating precisely what went on in a New Orleans hospital ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and the desperate bid for survival amid the chaos within. Following the devastation of the hurricane, hospital power failed, temperatures soared, and floodwaters rose. Caregivers were forced to determine the order of patients for evacuation. Months later, several faced charges of injecting patients with drugs to speed their deaths. With Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink reconstructs the events with haunting precision.

The Looming Tower (Movie Tie-in) Book Cover PictureThe Looming Tower 
With a narrative spanning five decades, The Looming Tower breaks down the rise of Al-Qaeda and the disturbing failures in U.S. Intelligence in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks. Lawrence Wright earned a Pulitzer Prize for his work and it remains the most in-depth account of the myriad events that led to the most deadly terrorist attack ever perpetrated on U.S. soil. It is the definitive history.

Thunderstruck Book Cover PictureThunderstruck
Set against the backdrops of Edwardian London and the coasts of Cornwall, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, Erik Larson interweaves the tales of two men — one is creator of a revolutionary means of wireless communication, the other nearly commits the perfect murder. How their stories intersect is a tragic tale of love and betrayal and a suspenseful chase across the North Atlantic. Thunderstruck is Erik Larson at his best.

The Skies Belong to Us Book Cover PictureThe Skies Belong to Us
In an America torn apart by the Vietnam War and the demise of ’60s idealism, airplane hijackings were astonishingly routine. Over a five-year period starting in 1968, the desperate and disillusioned seized commercial jets nearly once a week, using guns, bombs, and jars of acid. Their criminal exploits mesmerized the country, never more so than when shattered Army veteran Roger Holder and mischievous party girl Cathy Kerkow managred to comandeer Western Airlines Flight 701 and flee across an ocean with a half-million dollars in ransom—a heist that remains the longest-distance hijacking in American history.

The Girls of Murder City Book Cover PictureThe Girls of Murder City
With a thrilling, fast-paced narrative, award-winning journalist Douglas Perry vividly captures the sensationalized circus atmosphere that gave rise to the concept of the celebrity criminal- and gave Chicago its most famous story. The Girls of Murder Cityrecounts two scandalous, sex-fueled murder cases and how an intrepid “girl reporter” named Maurine Watkins turned the beautiful, media-savvy suspects-“Stylish Belva” and “Beautiful Beulah”-into the talk of the town.

My Dark Places Book Cover PictureMy Dark Places
In 1958 Jean Ellroy was murdered, her body dumped on a roadway in a seedy L.A. suburb.  Her killer was never found, and the police dismissed her as a casualty of a cheap Saturday night. James Ellroy was ten when his mother died, and he spent the next thirty-six years running from her ghost and attempting to exorcize it through crime fiction. In My Dark Places, our most uncompromising crime writer tells what happened when he teamed up with a brilliant homicide cop to investigate a murder that everyone else had forgotten–and reclaim the mother he had despised, desired, but never dared to love. What ensues is a epic of loss, fixation, and redemption, a memoir that is also a history of the American way of violence.

Killers of the Flower Moon Book Cover PictureKillers of the Flower Moon
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe. Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. One of her relatives was shot. Another was poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more Osage were dying under mysterious circumstances, and many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered.

The Brothers Book Cover PictureThe Brothers
On April 15, 2013, two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston marathon, killing three people and wounding more than 264 others. In the ensuing manhunt, Tamerlan Tsarnaev died, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, was captured and brought to trial. Yet even after the guilty verdict and the death sentence, what we didn’t know was why. Why did the American Dream go so wrong for two immigrants? How did such a nightmare come to pass?

The Wicked Boy Book Cover PictureThe Wicked Boy
In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London — for ten days in July, they ate out at coffee houses and took trips to the seaside and the theater. The boys told neighbors they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When she eventually forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Kate Summerscale recreates this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man’s capacity to overcome the past.

By Keith Rice, August 17, 2018, first appearing on Signature Reads

10 Best True Crime Books for Thriller Lovers to Take to the Beach

A breezy beach and an umbrella; crashing waves and a good thriller — they are classic pairings, and the perfect way to spend a few lazy vacation days. As much as we love a bit of fictional suspense, true life, and true crime in particular, can often be stranger than fiction. History, recent and otherwise, is full of salacious murders, cold-hearted killers, and nerve-rattling investigations. So, next time you find yourself on the beach and in need of a literary distraction to while away those sunny hours, check out these nonfiction page-turners.

The cover of the book The Devil in the White CityThe Devil in the White City

Erik Larson

The Chicago World’s Fair, one of the most accomplished and influential architects of the latter 19th Century, and one of U.S. history’s most notorious serial killers — these are the extraordinary elements of Erik Larson’s nonfiction thriller, The Devil in the White City. Beginning in 1890, architect Daniel Hudson Burnham set about the task of transforming Jackson Park for the 1893 World’s Fair. Just west of the Fair’s location, Dr. H.H. Holmes began converting an abandoned lot into what he would bill the “World’s Fair Hotel” but would come to be known as the infamous “Murder Castle” — a labyrinthine house of literal horrors where Holmes tortured and killed as many as two dozen or more victims.


The cover of the book In Cold BloodIn Cold Blood

Truman Capote

While the true crime genre existed before In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s 1965 bestseller laid the narrative groundwork for the modern true crime novel. In Cold Blood is Capote’s in-depth examination of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. However, the book’s most interesting aspect is Capote’s clear fascination with and disturbing portrait of the killers themselves. With his inimitable literary flair, Capote constructed an atmospheric, meticulously researched, and darkly captivating narrative that set the tone for virtually all of the true crime novels that followed in its considerable wake.


239848The I-5 Killer

Ann Rule

You really can’t go wrong with any of Ann Rule’s books. The queen of true crime is best known for her stunning debut, The Stranger Beside Me, which recounts her friendship with Ted Bundy. The I-5 Killer is her investigation of Randall Woodfield, who stalked the Interstate 5 corridor from California to Washington State, raping and murdering multiple victims. While he was convicted of only one murder, he is suspected in an as many as forty-four deaths.


The cover of the book Pizza BomberPizza Bomber

Jerry Clark

Pizza Bomber recounts one of the most bizarre and complex crimes in modern history. Brian Wells was a pizza delivery man forced to rob a bank with a bomb strapped around his neck. After delivering the money to his captors, Wells was given clues to disarm the bomb. However, he was captured by police before finding the clues. The bomb detonated while Wells was custody, killing him. In a truly bizarre twist, investigators eventually found that Wells may not have actually be a victim, but rather an active conspirator in the crime.


The cover of the book Black Dahlia, Red RoseBlack Dahlia, Red Rose

Piu Eatwell

The Black Dahlia murder remains one of the most infamous unsolved murders of the twentieth century. The grisly murder of Elizabeth Short — whose body, mutilated and severed at the waist, was found in a Los Angeles park — gripped the public’s imagination in 1947 and has continued to do so in the decades since. Of all the books, articles, documentaries, and films on the Black Dahlia case, Black Dahlia, Red Rose is largely considered the standard.


The cover of the book Death in the AirDeath in the Air

Kate Winkler Dawson

The Great Smog of London in 1952 is one of the most extraordinary and deadly environmental disasters of the twentieth century. A perfect nexus of conditions — cold weather, virtually no wind, and the ubiquity of coal-fired hearths — blanketed the city in a dense haze of smog that ground the city to a halt and led to 12,000 deaths. In the midst of this week-long nightmare, a serial killer stalked the smog-covered streets, murdering at least six women. Death in the Air is a true crime thriller too strange for fiction.


The cover of the book The Murder of the CenturyThe Murder of the Century

Paul Collins

When pieces of a body began appearing all over New York in 1897 — in a pond on Long Island, a torso on the Lower East side of Manhattan, severed limbs in Harlem — police were baffled and the public was horrified. The murder captured public imagination and spurred a tabloid war that, in many ways, changed the face of journalism in America. The Murder of the Century is a larger-than-life, stranger-than-fiction tale of murder, corruption, and the advent of sensationalist tabloid reporting.


The cover of the book A Season of DarknessA Season of Darkness

Doug Jones

Nine-year-old Marcia Trimble delivered Girl Scout Cookies in Nashville, Tennessee on a February afternoon in 1975. She never returned home. When her body was discovered thirty-three days later, her family expected the case to come to a swift close. It would be more than thirty years before Marcia’s killer was finally brought to justice. A Season of Darkness is the fascinating examination of that long and winding road.


The cover of the book Our Little SecretOur Little Secret

Kevin Flynn

Daniel Paquette was shot and killed in 1985 in a small New Hampshire town. His murder went unsolved for twenty years until Eric Windhurst, a teenager in 1985 and a friend of Paquette’s daughter, pled guilty to the murder. Our Little Secret is a page-turning account of small-town secrets, teenaged passion, violence, and abuse.


The cover of the book The Good NurseThe Good Nurse

Charles Graeber

Following his arrest in 2003, registered nurse Charlie Cullen was implicated in the deaths of as many as three-hundred patients. A trail of death followed Cullen over sixteen years and nine hospitals from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. Based on a decade of research, Charles Graeber took a deep dive into the disturbing story of Charlie Cullen in this unnerving, edge-of-your-seat, true-life thriller.