Aren't you afraid that they're going to kill you?" Seven years have passed since I published Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia. It's been quite a ride: over that time I've taken the mafia on tour everywhere from Oslo to Perth. And everywhere I hear the same question.
Strangers squeeze my forearm. They look in my eyes and say how brave I am. One letter pleading with me to take care came from a British reader; the return address was one of Her Majesty's Prisons. When I tell people about my new book, Blood Brotherhoods (a parallel narrative which charts the rise of the other mafias – the Camorra and the 'Ndrangheta – as well as Cosa Nostra), the question is posed with still greater insistence.
Over time, I've stopped blushing. But I still haven't come up with a pat answer. One reason is superstition: I've never been threatened, but it seems hubristic to reply "no". Life is frighteningly cheap for mafiosi, camorristi and 'ndranghetisti.
A much stronger reason is that the question embarrasses me. I have friends who are journalists in the mafia fiefs of Southern Italy and Sicily. Lirio Abbate was the only reporter present in 2006 when Sicilian superboss Bernardo "the Tractor" Provenzano was netted after 43 years on the run. The following year a bomb was found under Lirio's car. Another friend, Peppe Baldessarro, works in Reggio Calabria; he is a walking encyclopaedia of the 'ndrangheta. In 2010 he received several bullets in the post and a warning spelled out in letters cut from a newspaper. Then there is Roberto Saviano, whose bestseller Gomorrah earned him a camorra death sentence. These people really know what it means to pit the pen against the pistol. It would be silly to entertain the suggestion that writing history books requires their kind of courage.
But although historians are not in the firing line of the fight against criminal power in Italy, the people who are have a hunger for news from the coal-face of archival research. Investigating magistrate Michele Prestipino is a case in point. He actually led the successful hunt for "the Tractor". Then he moved to Calabria to turn the screw on the 'ndrangheta. In a vain attempt to put him off, last year the local Honoured Society left a bazooka near his office. On my last trip to Reggio Calabria, I was surprised and rather overawed to find that Prestipino had read Cosa Nostra, and that he was happy to take an hour out of his day to argue with me about the origins of 'Ndrangheta as he filled my flash drive with recent investigations.
That is what I really found scary about researching and writing Cosa Nostra and Blood Brotherhoods. The feeling – which is very odd and rather nerve-jangling for a historian – of being relevant. In its own small way, history is part of the struggle to redeem Italian territory from the grip of gangs of murderers.
The relevance of mafia history is perhaps why it can spook people. Back in the bloody 1980s, when the bodies were piling up on the streets of Palermo, the pioneer of mafia history, Salvatore Lupo, went to the state archive looking for evidence. The archivists bluffed and blustered, or even blankly refused to help. "For your own safety. And ours," came the shame-faced reply.
In Reggio Calabria in 2009 I went to the archive and apprehensively announced that I wanted to solve the mystery of how the 'Ndrangheta began. The archivists did not blink, and even let me down into the bowels of the building to hunt for myself. That they did so is one measure of positive changes in the cultural climate: omertà is no longer the default.
The purest pleasure in any historian's working life comes from a discovery in the archives: nothing compares to the sensation that, as you read through a document, old certainties are liquefying, and new truths about the past are taking shape. But when the secrets of an occult criminal sect seep out from the yellowed papers of a trial – as they did when I found out how the 'Ndrangheta took root – the thrill of discovery mingles with a sense of menace. In mafia history, the musty smell of the archives is still laced with the whiff of sulphur.
For although Italy's hoods today are generally too busy trafficking and murdering to bother with what their forebears were up to, they do care about history. All three mafias have their foundation myths. The Sicilian mafia claims the Beati Paoli as its ancestors: they were a fictional secret brotherhood of hooded avengers. The camorra used to claim that it was descended from the Garduña, another fictional secret society from the 1700s. (Bizarrely, most historians take this hooey for fact.) 'Ndrangheta bosses tell new recruits the most elaborate foundation fable of all. They say three Spanish knights, Osso, Mastrosso and Carcagnosso (or "Bone", "Masterbone" and "Heelbone"), were the ancient founders of the three Honoured Societies: mafia, camorra and 'ndrangheta.
One of the things that marks out mafiosi from mere gangsters is their sense of history – however mythical. The Kray twins never claimed to be the last of Robin Hood's merry men. They were not thinking for the long term, not strategising to hand their power and wealth down through the generations. They had no sense of history, because they had no long-term future.
There is one more reason why I waver when asked if I am in peril. In 1899, a Neapolitan playwright called Edoardo Minichini had a runaway success with The Foundation of the Camorra. The police took a lively interest in the show. As one local officer reported: "Given that the aforementioned theatre is frequented by an audience entirely made up of members of the underworld and men with prison records, the action being performed there is one big lesson at the school of crime."
The narcissistic feedback between mafia art and mafia life – the Get Shorty! loop that sees film stars hanging out with mobsters and mobsters queuing up for jobs as extras in mafia films – is as old as mafia crime itself. And however hard historians try not to glamorise the mafias – and I try with every word I write – they can still get caught in the same loop. Mafiosi are probably as fascinated as they are worried by research into their rise. That much was confirmed to me when the carabinieri raided a Russian crime boss's villa near Rome. Eager for publicity, they released a video. It shows officers in bullet-proof vests, burp guns levelled, as they creep past the topiary in the garden, dash through the entrance, and cagily check each opulent room. The film then cuts to the suspicious items uncovered in the search: weapons, foreign currency, and a copy of my Cosa Nostra in Russian translation. The line between writing a history of the mafia, and providing a handbook for mafiosi, is unnervingly easy to cross.
'Blood Brotherhoods: The Rise of the Italian Mafias' by John Dickie is published by Faber (£20). To order a copy for the special price of £17 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
Triple trouble: Italy's three Mafias
The Sicilian Mafia
Known since the 1960s as Cosa Nostra ("our thing"), Sicily's Honoured Society was looked up to by the other criminal fraternities for a century before it acquired its modern name. It is traditionally the most centralised of the mafias, and the most successful at infiltrating the state. From the get-go, mafia bosses have been men of power and wealth: "middle-class hoodlums", they were termed in the 1870s. Their power and profile explains why the Sicilian word "mafia" has become the umbrella term for criminal organisations in Italy, and worldwide.
The Camorra today is not a unified organisation, but an unstable system of gangs that dominates Naples and the Campania region. Once upon a time, the camorra too was an Honoured Society – a Freemasonry of crime – although with much humbler origins. Camorristi were slum-dwellers rather than "middle-class hoodlums". The Neapolitan Honoured Society was destroyed in 1912 by one of the biggest and most bizarre gangland trials in history.
It was not until 1955 that Italy became aware that for many decades there had been a third mafia lurking in Calabria, the region at the toe of the Italian boot. This mafia had a name so strange that many stumbled over its pronunciation: 'ndrangheta (en-drang-get-ah), which means "manliness" in the Greek dialect of the Aspromonte massif. But the once obscure Calabrian Honoured Society is now big news. Recent investigations have exposed 'ndrangheta colonies right across Northern Italy, in Germany, and in Australia. Canada, the USA and several South American countries also host cells. Fuelled by political corruption, extortion rackets and cocaine trafficking, Italy's third mafia, from the country's poorest region, is now its most feared.