How does one write a book in a field that is so big? One of the problems with “mafiological” literature is that it still has to deal with the question: Is the mafia the set of codes of honor and family values we see in a Mascagni opera? Or is it the harsh reality of a criminal group whose only goal is to steal money? The old saying by Giambattista Vico might help: “myths have a public basis in the truth.” Truth, then, is at the heart of the mafia myths that the culture industry has been so eager to pass on to us. To what social needs and fears do mafia myths answer?
There are still a lot of people who aren’t sure how to answer these questions. I’ve put together a list of books, some fact, some myth, and some both, that might help.
Primitive Rebels by Eric Hobsbawm (1959)
Here, social rebels who took from the rich and gave to the poor are shown as examples in this book. Robin Hood in England, Januszk in Poland and Slovakia, Diego Corrientes Mateos in Spain, and the mafia in Sicily are just a few of them. It is a shame that one of the most powerful myths about the Mafia came to life in the pages of one of the most careful and fact-based modern historians. The verdict is unanimous: Hobsbawm is guilty of making up stories about the mafia. In the end, don’t we all want to live in a world where everyone is treated equally and justice is shown? Even a mafioso could do this.
The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia (1961)
A sunburned Sicilian town that looks a lot like Lordsburg in John Ford’s movie Stagecoach. A gunshot is heard as the bus is about to leave the station. A body is found on the ground, and the bus is about to leave. This means that Captain Bellodi, who is in charge of looking into the crime, isn’t John Wayne. Neither is Sciascia. The book is still one of the best and most exciting detective stories about the mafia ever written. If you don’t like messy endings, don’t read it.
The Godfather by Mario Puzo (1969)
Like Christ in Dostoevsky’s story about the Grand Inquisitor, war-won hero Michael Corleone goes back to normal life after the Second World War. For example, does Puzo think that he should fight off the temptation of organized crime, or give in to it for the sake of his family? The Godfather is a temptation of Christ for Nietzschean times. When the Don dies, the will-to-power says “yes” to a life of crime because it wants to be powerful.
Mafia and Mafiosi by Henner Hess (1973)
It was first published in German in 1970, and was reissued in 1998. This is the best sociological work on the mafia that has ever been done. This is what Hess wants to do. He wants to disprove all of the myths about the mafia, including its medieval roots, masonic rituals, and the myth that the mafia is a group of people. Hess’s mafia, on the other hand, is the Sicilian subculture that no Sicilian is apart from. Not surprisingly, Sicily didn’t like the book very much.
Global Mafia by Antonio Nicaso and Lee Lamothe (1995)
Nicaso is on the Advisory Board of the Nathanson Center for Transnational Human Rights, Crime, and Security at York University in Toronto, and he has a personal history with the anti-mafia. This means that he doesn’t have a lot of time for the myth of men of honor. The book Nicaso and Lee Lamothe wrote together is the most important one about how organized crime changed under the “new world order.”
Excellent Cadavers by Alexander Stille (1996)
This book is so well-researched that it almost reads like a story. It would make sense, then, that only a novelist like George R.R. Martin could have imagined the endless saga of grisly murders that happen on almost every page of this book. In this story, mafia boss Salvatore Rina is to blame for the gruesome plot. He made Westeros look like a nice place to go on a vacation.
Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano (2006)
Saviano looks into the global and financial goals of organized crime in the era of neoliberalism. Gomorrah makes it hard to tell the difference between the way today’s mafias think and the way global corporations think. Beautifully written, Gomorrah is an example of the “essay-novel,” which is a type of book written in Naples.
Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb (2007)
As a travel guide, I have given this to people a few times. Sicilian landscapes and cities, such as Palermo, which was “sacked” by mafia-led constructions and land speculation for about 30 years, are described in a way that isn’t even matched by the “roughest” tourist guides.
Mafia Brotherhoods by John Dickie (2014)
It’s good for the reader of this 800-page book because Dickie is a great storyteller. The pages turn quickly, which is good for the reader. It’s one of the few books I know of that tries to go through the history of not just one, but three Italian criminal groups: the ‘ndrangheta, the camorra, and the mafia.
Mafia and Antimafia by Umberto Santino (2015)
While the mafia has been getting a lot of attention, the antimafia, which is as old as the mafia, has a very low profile. Founded and runs the antimafia center in Palermo, Italy, Santino is ready to change all that with this important history.
Lowlife by Luc Sante (1991)
Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is based on Luc Sante’s Lowlife: Lures and Snares of Old New York. It’s a classic book that’s both fascinating and addictive to read. It shows old New York, from its opium dens and tenements to the Five Points neighborhood, where Irish and Italian gangs competed for power. Lowlife is one of the best books about urban life and American mythology. It perfectly captures the proto-Mafia powers that controlled City Hall and fed the public’s desire for gambling, prostitution, and other vices, while giving the reader a vivid sense of an all but forgotten past.