Welcome to midsummer, everyone. I hope you all had a very enjoyable Fourth. I spent several hours comforting a trembling dog in the midst of a horrendous barrage of illegal ordnance, which gave me plenty of time to read — and you will now reap the benefits! (Bear is fine and currently sacked out on our backyard picnic table.) — SDB
I have made near-endless sport of Selwyn Raab over the lifetime of The Blotter, but the fact that he’s seemingly in every single New York Mafia-adjacent television property isn’t really a strike against Raab himself. First of all, there isn’t really anyone else who has the goods in terms of chronological breadth of knowledge about New York’s Five Families — well, besides one Rudolph Giuliani, and before he lost his goddamn mind, Rudy was actually a pretty interesting talking-head in these things; pity he didn’t stay in that lane. Anyway, second of all, Raab really does have the goods, and Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires makes it clear why he’s invited onto any tabloid docuseries with “mob” or “gang” in the title. Billed by its own jacket copy as “the vivid story of the rise and fall of New York’s premier dons, from Lucky Luciano to Paul Castellano to John Gotti and others,” Five Families starts all the way back in Italy with the Napolitan’ origins of the Black Hand, wends its way through Godfather II territory, and takes “the reader right up to the possible resurgence of the Mafia as the FBI and local law-enforcement agencies turn their attention to homeland security and away from organized crime.” So, it’s comprehensive (the audiobook clocks in at a discouraging 33 hours)…
…with all that that implies for the reader/listener, namely that not every consumer is interested to the same degree in every era of NYC-Mafia history. I’ve read and sat through a fair number of these properties, and after a certain point, Lucky Luciano’s ruthless amassing of power is not that interesting, or even useful as foundational information for what comes after. Having lived, over the course of my life, in New Jersey; Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; and steps away from the final resting places of Boss Tweed and “Crazy” Joe Gallo, I’m here for mid-century specifics — about NYPD corruption, shoot-outs in Little Italy, and who inspired which Sopranos character.
Five Families isn’t bad for that, don’t get me wrong. Raab is a good writer who doesn’t strain for effect (good enough, I was reminded today, to score an Edgar back in the day for his coverage of the Career Girl murders — that then led to Raab himself basically being turned into Kojak), and while some Goodreads users complained that the book doesn’t go enough in depth on certain capos and tall tales, here in 2020 I think readers can put the book down and Google if they want more information on, say, Gallo’s post-incarceration friendship with Jerry Orbach and his wife. (Orbach is pictured above in a poster for a 1969 flick apparently based on the Gallo crew, which I’ve never seen; recommendations in either direction welcome. Yes, that’s De Niro down front. Yes, that guy on the right does look just like Oliver Platt, but is not.) And that’s in fact the best approach to Five Families, IMHO: grazing, versus reading straight through. Paul Costanzo’s narration of the audiobook is fine, not distracting, but it’s one of those subjects that fares better for consumers when it’s sliced down thinner, and a version that you physically read lets you jump around to Gallo or Gotti or “the Oddfather,” then hop on a search engine for a deeper dive if you like. It’s encyclopedic…but we’re not meant to read those straight through either.
For a linear read-through, I can’t really recommend Five Families, but if you see it for a few bucks at a stoop sale, absolutely grab it and shelve it with your reference books. It’s very good; it just took some adjusting to how it should really be used. — SDB
No rest for the wicked, as the saying goes, and that’s doubly true for True-Crime Buttholes. Today in felonious fuckery:
Nine of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers were awarded a settlement last week, but the number seems a bit low, at least to me — and some of the reps of the (alleged, but: come on) victims agree that it sells those victims out: “Attorneys Douglas H. Wigdor and Kevin Mintzer, who represent some of the accusers in lawsuits … described it as ‘deeply unfair,’ complaining that Weinstein himself will not be putting up any money toward the nearly $19 million sum.” [Vanity Fair]
You probably heard that Jeffrey Epstein’s (alleged…ugh) procurer, Ghislaine Maxwell, finally got pinched (no thanks to the Keystone FBI, who almost blew its own cover by irritating neighbors near Maxwell’s New Hampshire hideout with “spy planes buzzing overhead,” then telling the locals they were from the New England Aerial Map Society…except one of said locals is a map expert). Maxwell is cooling her heels in the Merrimack County Jail at present and is expected to face arraignment on Friday, but if you simply can’t wait to barf, here’s a snap of Maxwell and (alleged, WHATEVER) predator Kevin Spacey posing on thrones at Buckingham Palace in 2002. (Prince Andrew seems pretty close to barfing in the photo accompanying this piece, which notes that he cancelled an annual golf outing following Maxwell’s arrest.) [CNN]
…And the Broken: Jeffrey Epstein podcast dropped a special report on Maxwell’s arrest, if you want to take these updates to go.
The Theranos-trial witness list is shaping up as a who’s-who of easily led old-white-dude peen, “including former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger … Another former Defense Secretary, William Perry, is also on the list, as are former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, former U.S. Senators Sam Nunn and William Frist, as well as Robert Shapiro” — and Rupert Murdoch. [San Jose Mercury News]
Alec MacGillis’s investigation into “The Dollar-Store Deaths” — not just the high incidence of gun violence and gun-related deaths at Dollar Generals and Family Dollars, but the metaphorical community deaths that the arrival of those chains either heralds, or helps bring about — is bleakly outstanding. (And not just because it’s co-published with Pro Publica, which means you can read it without a bunch of incognito-window rigmarole. Figure your cookie shit out, Condé pubs!) MacGillis provides a capsule history of Dollar General, as well as a quick primer on the evolution of food deserts, before running down the grim stats on violent crime at the chains…with that extra-shitty 2020 twist:
Since the beginning of 2017, employees have been wounded in shootings or pistol-whippings in at least 31 robberies; in at least seven other incidents, employees have been killed. The violence has not let up in recent months, when requirements for customers to wear masks have made it harder for clerks to detect shoppers who are bent on robbery. In early May, a worker at a Family Dollar in Flint, Michigan, was fatally shot after refusing entry to a customer without a mask.
If you’re not a subscriber, you might want to grab a hard copy of this July 6 & 13 issue from the newsstand, as Jeffrey Toobin’s crisp breakdown of “why the Mueller investigation was a failure” is equally readable…and equally maddening. — SDB
No new podcast episode this week, but for next week, I’m talking with Stephanie Green about Athlete A and American Greed S13E06. If you need a break from the darkness of today’s newsletter, may I highly recommend Stephanie’s story “Fourteen Meals”? No one dies except some Chardonnay (hee). If a Bachelor contestant wrote a memoir that was actually good, this is what it would be.
We tell each other knock-knock jokes. Mine are better, but I laugh at his, while still trying to look pretty. It’s difficult to laugh out loud and not look a little ugly, a little wild. The trick is to keep your eyes open, and gently scrunch your nose, but not open your mouth too wide, so as not to expose your gums.
Also, I can no longer look at an asparagus stalk without thinking of it as “cowering.”
Speaking of read-alongs, I keep forgetting to mention that the bonus book review for July is of Peter Graham’s Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century. Thanks so much for picking this one for me; I may “have to” do a Heavenly Creatures rewatch to prepare. — SDB
Showtime’s five-part docuseries on the Greg Kelley case, Outcry, has finally arrived. Originally slated for an April release, the series got pushed because of the pandemic, but Showtime premiered the first episode (for free) yesterday.
You Showtime subscribers should have access to all five episodes via the network’s streaming platforms, though episodes will air each Sunday as well. It’s difficult going — rising football star Greg Kelley was convicted of molesting a four-year-old, and the series’ granular examination of “influenced interrogations” of little kids is tough to take, even in abstract research terms — but director Pat Kondelis has a proven track record in sports-adjacent docs, and through three episodes I hadn’t Googled a thing. …Well, okay, I did look up one name, and I shouldn’t have, because this one’s well worth single-screening, as I noted for Primetimer:
Kondelis managed to glue my butt to the seat for difficult and maddening episodes that clock in at around an hour each, and induce me to avoid Googling the outcome. "I didn't look anything up on my phone" might not sound like high praise, but I've mentioned the Google-Proof Quotient before, and in this line of work, it's rare that a property holds my attention that well. Outcry isn't just like watching a car wreck happen in real time; it's like watching the wreckage smolder, for years on end …
It’s the kind of lightning-rod property that’s already gotten me well-actually’d via Twitter DM more than once, so I do have to wonder if coronavirus scheduling upheaval was the real reason the series got pushed, or if that was just a convenient excuse. In any case, give it a look if you feel like you can. — SDB
Tuesday on Best Evidence: What’s next in true crime from NPR podcasts and the Smithsonian Channel. Don’t miss a thing; subscribe today!
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