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BOOK REVIEW / The alternative society that rules by the goat: Men of Honour: The Truth about the Mafia - Giovanni Falcone: Fourth Estate pounds 13.99

GIOVANNI FALCONE would have been proud. His methods of painstaking sleuthing were posthumously vindicated the weekend before last, with the arrest of the Mafia boss Giuseppe Madonia.

The Italian press has described Madonia as the number two in commission of ruling families at the head of Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia. He would have therefore shared in the decision taken by the commission to order two recent killings - first of Falcone himself on 23 May, and then of his friend and close associate, Paolo Borsellino, on 19 July.

Judge Falcone was an investigating magistrate who trusted less in telephone intercepts - the Mafia were too clever to be caught out - than on human resources. He was able to persuade mafiosi to turn state witness, although he fought until his death to secure lifetime protection for those who finally broke with the Mafia. And it was a supergrass who decided after Falcone's death that he'd had enough, and came forward with the information which led to Madonia's arrest.

Like Kipling's Strickland, who 'held the extraordinary theory that a policeman in India should try to know as much about the natives as the natives themselves', Falcone saw that the key to confronting Cosa Nostra lay in knowing as much as possible about the organisation and its members. But he never tried to pass himself off as anything other than what he was. He went once to Germany to interview a Mafia boss who addressed him as 'Mr Falcone'. He stood up and hit back. 'No wait, you are Mr So-and-So, I am Judge Falcone.'

As he put it, 'my message hit its target and the boss apologised. He knew all too well why I was refusing the title of Mister, which, by not recognising my role, reduced me to insignificance.'

He was a Sicilian, born and brought up in Palermo, who had played table tennis as a boy with schoolmates who became Mafia bosses. He knew their language and their hidden meanings, the warnings concealed in the inflection of their voices. 'The interpretation of signs, of gestures, of messages and silences is one of the principal activities of the man of honour,' he writes. 'And consequently of the magistrate who investigates him.'

He neither underestimated nor romanticised the Mafia. His studies showed that the method they chose to kill an opponent was dictated solely by one principle, 'the shortest and least dangerous path'. There was incaprettamento or 'goat strangling', for instance, where the wrists and ankles are tied behind the back and at the same time round the neck of the victim, so that in attempting to break free he strangles himself. Falcone dismissed speculation that this was a punishment reserved for the most cowardly traitors. 'The reason for using this method is in fact much more banal: it is that the neatly packaged corpse can be transported more easily in the boot of a car.'

Falcone stressed that Cosa Nostra is not anti-state, but rather a parallel organisation that seeks to profit from illegal economic activity. Nor is it a social service that operates for the benefit of all, but rather an exclusive association which acts against all society for the sole benefit of its members. Nor, on the other hand, should the Mafia be demonised. 'If we want to fight the Mafia organisation efficiently, we must not transform it into a monster or think of it as an octopus. We must recognise that it resembles us.'

This book talks about the way the Mafia is organised. It is the most complete guide that exists to the mentality of the mafioso; Falcone reckoned there were more than 5,000 men of honour who had been enrolled into the organisation in Sicily. He does not provide a history of the Mafia, but rather analyses it within the context of a largely compliant Sicilian society and a state whose commitment to fighting it is at best sporadic. Yet he himself remained undaunted right up to his death.

'There's no doubt that we will have to fight the Mafia for a long time to come,' he said. 'For a long time, but not for eternity. Because the Mafia is a human phenomenon, and like all such human phenomena, it has a beginning, an evolution, and will also therefore have an end.'