Why do we find the Sicilian Mafia so fascinating? Calabria's 'Ndrangheta are today more ruthless and successful. The murderous Camorra are largely responsible for the tragedy of Naples. Yet nobody outside Italy cares about these outfits. As Misha Glenny describes in McMafia, organised crime gorged on the spoils of the Cold War and went global. Yet none of those parvenu delinquents from Russia or Serbia can hold a candle to the gangs of Sicily. Their evil charisma is intact.
Hollywood is largely responsible. The warped nostalgia of Coppola, Scorsese and other Italian-Americans for La Patria induced them to cast a mantle of indulgent mystification over the murderous extortioners of Sicily, and the world has been spellbound since. The nostalgia was well rooted in history. If Eastern Europe's mafias represent the energy released when America vanquished the Soviet Union, the collapse of the Axis in Sicily in 1943 left a vacuum into which the mafiosi rushed, cynically deployed by the US to stamp their rule on the island.
The new bonds between the Sicilian gangsters and their American cousins bore copious fruit after the war ended. The Mafia's idea of making Sicily the 51st state was never more than a pipe dream, but the infestation of civil society by gangsters gave not just the island but Italy a headache for which it has yet to find a cure.
John Follain traces the ascent of the Mafia clans from the creepy little town of Corleone, the way these bumpkins wrested power from the high rollers in Palermo by killing everybody who could possibly trouble them, and many who couldn't; the crazy years of the early 1990s when impudent assassinations forced the Italian state to get serious about tackling the Mafia; the arrest of Bernardo Provenzano, the last godfather, within minutes of Berlusconi losing the election of 2006.
There is little fresh reporting here, but more detail and more gruesome colour than in any previous account. The flood of testimony by supergrasses provoked a surge of books and other documents in Italian. Follain musters this material with great skill into a compelling narrative. At the heart of the book are two epic battles. First is the struggle between the heroic investigating judge Giovanni Falcone and the the psychopathic capo di capi Toto Riina, which led to the sending of hundreds of mafiosi to jail for life, but culminated in Falcone's murder by a huge bomb. Then comes the long pursuit of Provenzano by the police investigator Renato Cortese, ending in the gangster's sensational arrest.
Falcone we know about: the photograph of him and his colleague Paolo Borsellino (also murdered) sharing a joke hangs on the wall of Corleone's police station and many prosecutors' offices, mutely rebuking the Italian state for its failure to protect its bravest sons. Cortese's story, however, has not been told in such detail in English before. Provenzano, the stoical, crafty and pious successor to Riina, is a fascinating figure, walled up alone in his miserable hideouts for months. Cortese's success in winkling him out, in a shepherd's hut on the outskirts of Corleone, is an epic of modern police work and Follain brings it vividly to life.
Today Provenzano is in jail but Berlusconi has his old job back. And there is sadly no reason to suppose Italy has turned over a new leaf.