BOOK REVIEW / An incoherent godfather destroyed by cliches: The war against the Mafia - Tim Shawcross: Mainstream, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
THIS account of the FBI's fight against the Mafia shows the shift from old-style, non-drugs Mafia alliances under Paul Castellano to the rise and demise of the 'Teflon Don' John Gotti. If you're tempted by 'a world of money, mayhem and murder', then read on, but otherwise it is an unedifying insight into mob mores.

A book begged to be written about Gotti and the 'Mafia tapes' - hours of conversations recorded by FBI bugs inside the cars and clubs of various bosses - but Shawcross is too undiscriminating with his sources. To relate the ramblings of psychopaths in such detail is to award them a status they do not deserve. Clearly the tapes gave a unique insight into the daily workings of the Mafia for the unlucky FBI agents who had to translate this mass of obscenities, non sequiturs and threats into a concrete indictment. But only dedicated policemen could want to wade through so many endless promises to sever people's heads.

It is astonishing that a man as incoherent as Gotti managed to organise even the simplest crime: 'If we cut it, we'll do it, and that's the end of it. Ya know? It's not, not a thing ya gotta ask ya to.' A few examples of this stuff would have given the generally unappetising flavour.

Shawcross starts his preface with words from Gotti's trial - 'This is not a media event. This is not a movie' - and then moves right into the comic-strip gangster genre by opening the first chapter with a one-line hook-'em-in paragraph: 'John Gotti was a compulsive gambler.' Prepare to meet the 'emissary of death' and the 'bloodthirsty executioner' who emanates 'ruthless charisma'. Books need to be written about the Mafia, since it was not so long ago that top government figures were still denying its existence, but this thriller style tends to confuse the seriousness of the phenomenon. With such a subject the facts alone have sufficient dramatic impact to make compelling reading.

Shawcross does have plenty of facts here, gathered from FBI records, trial documents, interviews with two key Sicilian Mafia witnesses and with top lawyers. And he has some good points to make, for example that current events in Italy, where Mafia links have been exposed up to the highest levels, should be a 'salutary lesson' for the United States.

There is some interesting information about the 'interlocking nature' of the American and Sicilian Mafia, and Shawcross examines how loyalties can differ between the two countries. The Sicilian initiation rite has a quasi-religious format which tends to make it more binding than the secularised American version. As a result, some American bosses import hoods from Sicily for their discipline. As one witness said: 'These Sicilian mafiosi will run into a wall, put their head in a bucket of acid for you if they're told to.'

With remarks like this coming from the inside, it is difficult to know where to lay the blame for the perennial regeneration of the Mafia myth. To give Shawcross his due, Gotti played to the media gallery for all he was worth, taking care to visit his hairdresser every day. He'd probably love this gangster portrayal, a 'playful smile' flitting across his 'heavily jowled face'. As the author points out, 'who is copying whom gets confusing', which can neatly be illustrated by the fact that two weeks ago an Italian mayor found a severed horse's head on his doorstep. This is a world of circular identities, locked into its own cliches.