Tag: Organised Crime

Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson

Posted April 25, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 0 Comments

Boardwalk Empire by Nelson JohnsonTitle: Boardwalk Empire (Goodreads)
Author: Nelson Johnson
Narrator: Joe Mantegna
Published: Plexus Publishing, 2002
Pages: 312
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Audiobook

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Atlantic City has quite a history, from the rocky beginnings to its colourful characters like Louis “Commodore” Kuehnle and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson (subtitle: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City) tells the history of this US city. While this book inspired the current HBO series of the same name, this is not a reason to read this. The HBO show tells the story of a fictional character based on Nucky Johnson (called Nucky Thompson in the show). If you were to base a show on this non-fiction book it would turn out more like House of Cards.

There was a big chapter of Boardwalk Empire devoted to Nucky Johnson, who was an interesting guy. If you know the plot of the HBO series you might be aware of the type of character Nucky was, despite being only loosely based on him. His rise to power came thanks to the Volstead Act, but he wasn’t just a mob boss, he was a political powerhouse. Corruption never seemed so complex and scary; using the Republican Party to control the city all the while using extortion to fund the party. This technique helped control Atlantic City, keeping it corrupt well into the modern era.

While the history of Atlantic City is fascinating, it is sad to see just how big of an impact organised crime had on a growing city. I have an interest in the Volstead Act and how prohibition helped organised crime get a foothold in America. Boardwalk Empire shed some interesting insights into the cultural impact it had on a large scale.

I have started a new phase in my reading life where I’ve become very interested in non-fiction. While Boardwalk Empire wasn’t the greatest book, there was a lot to learn about politics and organised crime. This period of time interests me and I plan to read a whole lot more reading on the Volstead Act and organised crime, so I need recommendations. If you know good non-fiction books on these topics let me know.

The Hot Kid by Elmore Leonard

Posted September 12, 2013 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Crime / 0 Comments

The Hot Kid by Elmore LeonardTitle: The Hot Kid (Goodreads)
Author: Elmore Leonard
Series: Carl Webster #1
Published: Harper Collins, 2005
Pages: 320
Genres: Crime
My Copy: Library Book

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Carl Webster was fifteen when he witnessed his first murder. Now he is the hot kid in the Marshall services; polite, respectful and can shoot a man driving away from 400 yards. He is on his way to being the most famous lawman of the 1930s. Jack Belmont wants to rob banks, become the most notorious outlaw and show his millionaire father he can live his own life. In the time of the Volstead Act comes The Hot Kid, a fast paced crime novel from a master of his craft; Elmore Leonard.

I love the Volstead Act; without it there may never have been organised crime in America and that makes for some interesting reading. Of course, love is the wrong word to describe the Volstead Act but I do have a huge interest in the era. For those who don’t know about the Volstead Act, it was the National Prohibition Act that became the Eighteenth Amendment, which established prohibition in the United States in 1919. This led to a surge in bootlegging and organised crime and made for some great stories for me to enjoy, from Boardwalk Empire (wonder if there are books that are like this show) to The Hot Kid.

I was saddened to hear about the recent loss of Elmore Leonard; though I hadn’t read anything by this crime master it really affected me. The very next day I reserved The Hot Kid from the library. I didn’t know where to start with this legend; he has written so many novels and they all looked good but a book set in the 1930s was right up my alley. Researching Elmore Leonard I realised that he was more successful that I thought. If you measure a writer’s success in adaptations (which I really don’t want to do) then you can’t go past some of his best adaptions like Jackie Brown, 3:10 to Yuma, Get Shorty, Killshot, Out of Sight and the TV show Justified.

The Hot Kid was a fast paced crime novel that I ended up reading in two sittings which is a big surprise because I feel like I’m a slow reader. I really enjoyed the way Leonard writes; it was so well plotted that he makes writing look so easy which I’m sure is very difficult to do. He is a prolific author with novels set in western times all the way up to the modern era. But I enjoy a time when organised crime reigns and tend to enjoy crime novels set there.

The only major issue I had with this book was that it never really felt like it was set in the time of speakeasies, tommy guns and organised crime. Every now and then I get a reference to the Volstead or a Thompson that pulls me back into the correct era. For the majority of the book I felt like Carl Webster was far too similar to Raylan Givens (from the TV show Justified) and that threw me off a little but didn’t really effect the overall enjoyment of the book.

Maybe this wasn’t the best place to start when exploring Elmore Leonard’s craft but I have no regrets. I will read the next book in the Carl Webster series but I think I might like to try something else by this crime master first. The problem I often face is the fact that I want to continue with an author but have so many other books I want to read and more often than not I never return to a writer I enjoy. But I’ve only been reading for a short time and I’m sure Elmore Leonard and the Carl Webster series will be read sometime in the near future.

Gangster Squad by Paul Lieberman

Posted March 19, 2013 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 0 Comments

Gangster Squad by Paul LiebermanTitle: Gangster Squad (Goodreads)
Author: Paul Lieberman
Published: St. Martin's Griffin, 2012
Pages: 560
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Personal Copy

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Gangster Squad chronicles the true story of the secret police unit that was assembled to wage war against Mickey Cohen and any other hoodlums in Los Angeles. In 1946 the LAPD created this squad to take down Cohen and clean up the streets by any means necessary. Lasting about four years this war lead to an aftermath that shocks both the LA mob and the police department but ultimately ensuring the mob will never have a foot hold on this city ever again.

I recently saw the very loosely based movie adaptation of this true crime novel and it left me curious to know more about this squad and the life of Mickey Cohen. So I went out and read the book; while it was very story driven, the novel did get rather dry about half way through. I love books about organised crime and I was happy to learn more about the infamous Jewish mobster and his downfall.

I’m not too sure how accurate this book is; I took it was a huge grain of salt but I found out afterwards this was compiled but interviews of the gangster squad and others involved in this operation, so maybe there is some truth to it. But with all true crime and non-fiction books, I remain sceptical of the research. I always read these books and wonder just how much is researched and how much is just pure speculation, I think in this aspect I prefer the fictionalised novels of true events; that way I know for sure it is just their take on the events.

I loved the movie; it was an enjoyable Hollywood butchering of what really happened and I’m fine with that, it was entertaining. As for the book, it read like a novel at the beginning but then I think the author realised we was writing True Crime and tried to over correct himself because it became really dry and clinical. I wish he didn’t shift gears because when he tried to stick to the facts I found myself getting lost with all the people mentioned; I wasn’t sure if I’m meant to know who they all where but the cast was big and there was no point of reference for them all.

It starts off with a pulp feel to it but then it changes so drastically, I’m very interested in learning more about organised crime in America through true crime and novels but this book didn’t really teach me anything. I think the book just got so jammed pack with names that I was confused and I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know. Finally verdict; watch the movie, it’s very entertaining and will give you some idea of what actually happened. As for the book, it didn’t really work, I like how they explored all aspects, including their failed operations but in the end Gangster Squad didn’t work as well as I was hoping.

Guest Post: Brief Overview of Pulp Fiction – Part 1 (1930’s and 1940’s)

Posted November 25, 2012 by Guest Post in Guest Posts, Literature, Pulp / 11 Comments

In 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes and the success of his great detective spawned an entire genre of detective fiction that imitates to some degree or another to this date. The light-hearted and relatively straightforward approach towards solving crime reached its pinnacle in what has become known as The Golden Age of crime fiction, the 1920s and 1930s. The large majority of the authors writing in this popular style of fiction were British and this was reflected in the settings and general sense of manners contained within.

The inter-war years were a difficult time both socially and politically and this change in society saw crime fiction edge towards what was a more realistic, and more depressing tone with content that would almost certainly shock the characters found within an Agatha Christie novel. The pioneers for this movement towards realism were, perhaps unsurprisingly, Americans and this style became known as hard-boiled.

Taking its name from the style of preparing eggs that leaves the hard shell intact and the yolk fully solidified, the protagonists of hard-boiled fiction are tough skinned, street wise, sharp tongued and ready to solve a mystery with violence if necessary (and it almost always is.)

These are cops, private detectives, ordinary citizens coming up against prohibition gangsters, organised crime, crooked cops, and looking to stand up for what is morally correct. One lone man against an entire system; grown cynical and expecting the worst of people but hoping for the best, he’s the kind of guy who’s seen every horror and will surely see worse before he solves this case.
Hard-boiled is a naturalistic style of writing combined with a cynical, world-weary attitude. This evolved in to Noir fiction, a genre that is if anything even darker; it’s protagonists are usually morally suspect at best and at worst are degenerates, psychopaths and cold blooded murderers.

The most succinct and accurate definition of the difference between the two styles is this:

Noir is the world. Hard-boiled is the character. You can have Noir without the Hard-boiled, but not the other way around.

Carroll John Daly is credited with creating the first hard-boiled story for Black Mask magazine in the 1920s and his first hard-boiled novel Snarl of the Beast (1927) marks the first of, what I shall deem, the essentials of the genre. At the time Daly was the most popular author of the genre he essentially started but he has since been unfairly labelled a hack (the writers opinion only) for simply not being of the same quality as the famous authors he inspired.

Hot on the heels of Daly was Dashiell Hammett, the former Pinkerton operative turned author, who between 1929 and 1934 published the only novels he ever wrote. At least two of which are widely considered masterpieces of the genre. Red Harvest (1929) featuring the unnamed detective known as The Continental Op and perhaps his most famous work The Maltese Falcon (1930); it’s PI Sam Spade is credited as being the archetype that all other hard-boiled detectives are based on, with his personal detachment from the case and unflinching devotion to ensuring justice his strongest characteristics.

The man who would follow in his footsteps, Raymond Chandler, said of him:

“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse…He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.”

A more obscure name with an essential of the genre crops up next, Raoul Whitfield; his debut novel Green Ice (1930) was described by Dashiell Hammett as “280 pages of naked action pounded into tough compactness by staccato, hammerlike writing” but he never seemed to live up to his early success and retired from writing fiction only a few years later.

There are three names that everybody mentions when discussing this period of early hard-boiled American fiction. Hammett is the first, his Maltese Falcon regularly winning polls for best hard-boiled novel also, but to his name you will also find added the words Chandler and Cain.

Raymond Chandler decided to try his hand at writing after losing his job during the Depression and in the process seemed to capture America the way that America wants to be remembered. His hero is Philip Marlowe, his beat is L.A., a brave warrior in the Sam Spade mould but with a softer underbelly. In his classic debut The Big Sleep (1939) we find a PI who likes to drink, is handy in a fight and cynically wisecracks his way through most situations but this is also a man who plays chess, reads poetry and has philosophical questions playing on his mind. The generally acknowledge highpoint in Chandler’s (and Marlowe’s) career would come later with The Long Goodbye (1953) and demonstrates the literary nature of the genre, author and character.

James M. Cain on the other hand was largely active in the noir category; in his major works his characters were not detectives but men corrupted by sex and money. Double Indemnity (1943) is the story of an insurance agent who plots against his employers to get a woman and some money. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) features a mixture of sexuality and violence in a love triangle situation.

With the big names out of the way I will share two more important figures in the formative years of this genre that are a lot harder to find and therefore more obscure.

Cornell Woolrich, who also wrote with some success under the pseudonym William Irish, is virtually out of print today but his importance on the development of the genre remains. His work more often that not evoked despair and cynicism in the everyday life scenarios and as was the case with the bleaker examples of the genre was more popular in France than America. If you can find them, I recommend The Bride Wore Black (1940) and The Black Angel (1943) as good starting points.

Dorothy B. Hughes is another essential early noir author that few people have heard of. Her In A Lonely Place (1947) has recently been republished as a Penguin Modern Classic and quite rightly so, is a fine example of her tightly plotted and tense approach towards noir and features a truly heinous protagonist in Dix Steele. Amongst her other work The Blackbirder (1943) is a story of fear, paranoia and dread.

In Part Two I’ll be taking a look at the second generation of authors who worked during the boom in paperback fiction of the 1950s.

This is a guest post by blahblahblahtobyYou can find him discussing books on Goodreads, discussing movies on Letterboxd, tweeting nonsense as blahblahblahtoby and on his blog blahblahblahgay, feel free to say hi.

There are literally dozens of great authors and great novels that could have been suggested as essential reading for this guide. The writer of the article went through agonising decisions over who to leave out and is more than aware that your favourite author probably hasn’t been mentioned but feel free to start a discussion in the comments.

This post is part of a four post series exploring the history of Hard-Boiled and Noir Fiction, for recommendations check out each post;

The 1930’s – 1940’s

The 1950’s

The 1960’s – 1980’s 

The 1990’s – Onwards


11/22/63 by Stephen King

Posted November 21, 2012 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Science Fiction / 5 Comments

11/22/63 by Stephen KingTitle: 11/22/63 (Goodreads)
Author: Stephen King
Published: Scribner, 2011
Pages: 849
Genres: Science Fiction
My Copy: Personal Copy

Buy: AmazonBook Depository (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Jake is a recently divorced high school teacher who finds himself time traveling to 1958. Fascinated by the chance to live his life in what feels like a much simpler time without mobile phones and the internet, Jake decides to live a life that transgresses all the normal rules. He makes his home in 1958, gets a job he enjoys, falls in love with the beautiful librarian and tries to live the ultimate American dream. But he is also obsessed with making the world right, most importantly trying to stop a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald. But does Jake know just how much the world would change if he stops the Kennedy assassination?

I’ll be honest with you, I’ve not read much by Stephen King before, two books in fact (one of those was On Writing). I went into this book expecting a novel about time travel and the effects of changing the past would have. I also expected some weird plot with supernatural or horror elements but that’s just what I expect from King. What I got was something a lot different; this was more of a “what if?” novel. King explores his own thoughts of alternate history and time travel but he doesn’t really stop with that.

Possibly the most unexpected part of this novel was the character building and living life in the late fifties and sixties. King does an interesting job at telling a story of living in the era but in his own unique way by making the protagonist feel out of his element. The whole idea of living life in a time you are not from and finding someone in that time that could possibly be your soul mate. That was not what I thought King would write about but he did a great job building a memorable story around what he wanted to talk about.

Sure, some people are going to want him to skip all the normal life stuff and get to the time travel and alternate history aspects but I found it enjoyable leading up to it. It’s no Mad Men with the characters and life in the sixties but I did enjoy reading it. It’s a huge book and it could have been trimmed but if I was the one to take out elements I probably would have taken out the time travel. Then the book wouldn’t have worked as well.

I’m very interested in that time period, but I would have either preferred a more Mad Men style novel or more noir style with the war on organised crime and those dodgy back door deals made by the FBI. It did end out being a very interesting novel; it definitely surpassed my expectations and turned into a good read. Stephen King is a good story teller but there was not much to love about the prose and style but overall it was worth the read.

Book Review: Live By Night

Posted October 2, 2012 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Crime / 0 Comments

Book Review: Live By NightTitle: Live By Night (Goodreads)
Author: Dennis Lehane
Series: Coughlin #2
Published: William Morrow, 2012
Pages: 416
Genres: Crime
My Copy: ARC from Netgalley

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While Joe Coughlin is the son of a Boston Police Captain, he has long turned his back of being a moral citizen. Joe has graduated into petty crimes to high paying robberies. But when he robs a speakeasy of a Boston mobster things change for him. When the mobster kills Joe’s love, Emma, he becomes obsessed with seeking revenge. Joe works up the ladder of organised crime till he is in the right position to take his revenge. But taking on a rival family is never so simple. This is the basis of Dennis Lehane’s latest crime novel Live by Night.

Most people know I’m a huge fan of pulpish and organised crime novels so I was really interested in checking out this novel. My first attempt of Dennis Lehane with Mystic River didn’t go too well but I was excited to give him another go, simply because the premise of this book sounded really good and the idea of reading a crime novel set in the prohibition era really enthused me. This book started out strong. I really liked Emma the love interestand was very sad to see her get killed off; I was ready to seek revenge too. The revenge aspect and the becoming a powerful mobster were really good but then you get half way through the book and it falls flat. Almost like Dennis Lehane had changed his mind of what type of book this is and switches genre.  Without giving too much away I was disappointed with the change in style and although there are some great crime elements later on it just felt a bit odd.

I loved the characters in this book and this was my biggest worry because with Mystic River I felt they were a bit flat and one dimensional. I think it was interesting to hear that Lehane wrote another book called The Given Day which is based around the same family but focuses on a different character; I believe its Joe Coughlin’s brother. Even if they seem to be connected, Live by Night does a great job of developing the characters without having to read the other book.

I’m a little disappointed that this book had so much potential but the last part of the book fell short. Personally I think this book could have ended a lot earlier or cut out the parts that weren’t working. Lehane was trying to develop the characters a bit more in the sections that weren’t working but in my opinion they didn’t help the novel. There are some great elements in this book and overall it was an enjoyable crime novel. I think I will have to check out The Given Day and some more Dennis Lehane novels based on my experience with this one.