Tag Archives: Boston

Her Every Fear: Peter Swanson

I somehow missed Peter Swanson’s blockbuster The Kind Worth Killing; I’ve heard so many positive things about the book that I knew I couldn’t miss Her Every Fear.  After finishing Her Every Fear, I took a look at reviews and the consensus seems to be that The Kind Worth Killing is a better read. That’s reassuring; I liked Her Every Fear but found the book to have problems–more of that later.

So here’s the plot: London-based Kate Priddy agrees to a six-month long apartment swap with her second cousin, Bostonian Corbin Dell. The two have never met, but arrangements are made via e-mail. For Kate, who has always been on the neurotic side and is still recovering from a horrible experience involving an ex-boyfriend, the opportunity to live in Boston for six months allows her to try and put the past behind her.

her-every-fear

Problems for Kate begin almost immediately; she hasn’t even entered the front door of her cousin’s large, lush apartment (“like something out of a Henry James novel,“) when she meets a young woman who is knocking frantically on the front door of the next apartment, looking for a neighbour who is apparently missing. The neighbour is, or should I say, was Audrey Marshall, and she’s been murdered and mutilated inside the apartment right next to Kate.

Enter two new men in Kate’s life: Alan Cherney, a man whose voyeuristic tendencies led to an obsession with Audrey, and Jack who claims to be Audrey’s ex-boyfriend. Soon Kate is communicating with Corbin via e-mail, and he claims he barely knew Audrey. Yet according to Alan, who constantly observed Audrey from afar, Corbin and Audrey had a sexual relationship…..

The first part of the book, with the action focusing on Kate’s perspective, was compulsively readable, and the plot moves along at a terrific, nail-biting pace, but then the plot slows when it switches to Corbin and his past.

The plot requires the reader to wrestle a bit with plausibility. Kate is already badly damaged by her past when she lands in the middle of a murder in Boston. How likely is it that she would open herself up to a strange man knowing that there’s a killer on the loose? I struggled with this, but then decided to accept Kate’s actions as she has a history of being a psycho magnet. The plot makes it clear that Kate isn’t the most stable woman on the planet–she forgets where she’s put her medication, and she forgets, or thinks she forgets or misplaces, several other things at crucial moments. And here’s a plot element I struggled with: I don’t know about you, but if I had a door going from my apartment to the basement, I’d go buy a hammer and nail that sucker shut, but Kate, who has a history of panic attacks,  manages to live with it…..

I had a more difficult time, for reasons I cannot extrapolate, with the character of Corbin. Those of you who’ve read the book may know what I mean….

Anyway, Her Every Fear is a good beach, plane or train read. You could even be stuck in the middle of a doctor’s office with half a dozen annoying conversations flying over your head, and the plot will keep your attention. This Female in Peril novel, with its emphasis on slimy, creepy voyeurism, is flawed but entertaining.

Review copy

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Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him by T.J. English

“Was the Bulger story about one very crafty psychopath who had corrupted the system? Or was it about a preexisting corrupt system into which one very wily gangster insinuated himself and then played it for all it was worth?”

Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him, a non-fiction book from T. J. English explores the trial of Boston’s notorious criminal and asks some tough questions about how Bulger continued his criminal operations for so many years. English, a journalist and screenwriter is the perfect author for this book. With The Westies: Inside New York’s Irish Mob and Paddywhacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster to his credit, T.J English is well-versed in the American organized crime scene. It should come as no surprise that English’s reputation preceded him, and doors that would have remained closed to others, opened for this author.

With the recent release of the film  Black Mass which stars Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger, many film watchers will turn with curiosity to a book on the subject. Where the Bodies Were Buried is not for the Bulger novice, for English examines Bulger’s trial and crimes, so anyone coming to this book had better already have an idea of what Whitey Bulger was all about and also have knowledge of the major players in this story of just how organized crime flourished in Boston for decades.

where the bodies were buriedT.J. English worked hard for this book, attending the trial, driving through Boston neighbourhoods and interviewing Bulger’s former associates and families of Bulger’s victims and alleged victims. The title refers not just to Bulger’s many victims, a number of whom ended up buried in the basement of a house in Boston but also refers to the many skeletons in the cupboards of this astounding story of how Bulger ran his criminal world. Bulger squashed and murdered rivals with the support of his handler, former, now incarcerated, FBI agent John Connelly and allegedly, according to the defense, with the nod from other figures in the U.S Attorney’s office and the Department of Justice.

The book covers the trial of Whitey Bulger who was finally captured in 2011 after going on the run in 1995 following a tip from Connelly about an impending indictment, but unofficially on trial here is the entire Top Echelon Informant programme, run by the FBI with the Justice Department responsible for oversight.

While ostensibly it makes sense to recruit informers from within (since civilians aren’t going to know anything about the mafia or organized crime), the realities of the programme stir some very muddy waters regarding the collusion of criminals and law enforcement. English scatters FBI memos and interviews with Bulger associates against coverage of the trial.  Bulger was indicted on thirty-two counts of racketeering and nineteen murders. He was “the last of a certain type of old-school gangster, with a criminal lineage that stretched back at least to the 1950s.”

English argues that the historic precedent for Whitey Bulger can be found in the case of Joseph “Animal” Barboza, a “renowned mob hit man” who testified in the murder trial of Edward “Teddy” Deegan. Deegan’s killer was Vincent, “Jimmy the Bear” Flemmi, an FBI informant, and thanks to Barboza’s fabricated testimony, other men were framed for the crime with the “acquiescence of many people in the criminal justice system, including field agents, prosecutors and supervisors–all the way up to J. Edgar Hoover.” And here I’m going to quote a 1965 memo regarding Jimmy Flemmi from an FBI field agent to Hoover:

“[Flemmi] is going to continue to commit murder, but informant’s potential outweighs the risk involved.”

One of the men framed for Deegan’s murder was Joe Salvati, who suffered “one of the most outrageous miscarriages of justice in the history of the United States” and served 30 years for a murder he did not commit. Interestingly, “the same FBI agents who originally recruited Bulger and Flemmi had played a role in framing Joe Salvati and his codefendants back in 1967.” Stephen Flemmi (brother of “Jimmy the Bear,“) was “Whitey’s criminal partner for twenty years.” and part of Flemmi’s defense at his trial was :

he could not be prosecuted for crimes that he had committed, because he and Bulger had been given immunity from prosecution in exchange for their serving as informants in the DOJ’s war against the mafia. 

The account of the trial is fascinating–not only for what’s said but also for what’s left buried. Law enforcement witnesses expressed frustration at attempts to investigate Whitey which were “sabotaged by the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office,” while Bulger’s defense argued that he was never “an informant for John Connolly.” Yet before the trial, Bulger argued that he’d been given immunity from prosecution for his crimes by a now-deceased federal prosecutor. Were Bulger and Connolly friends, “a corrupt team,” with Connolly “creating a fictional informant file to justify his relationship with Whitey,” or was being a Top Echelon Informant a great gig for Bulger and the Winter Hill gang? The biggest and toughest question this book tackles is just how far the Justice Department was involved in giving Whitey Bulger carte blanche when it came to his criminal activities. Was John Connelly, now in prison, some sort of rogue FBI agent who accepted “thousands of dollars in bribes,” or was the Boston office uniquely corruptible? Or is the Whitey Bulger case just part of a bigger picture of how the Top Echelon Informant programme, in a culture of collusion, really works in an ends-justifies-the-means approach:

There would no longer be good guys and bad guys, just one big criminal underworld in which cops and the criminals were all merely co-conspirators in an ongoing effort to manipulate the universe to suit their needs and the needs of their overseers.

If you’re not a cynical person, then Where The Bodies Were Buried will shock you. If you’re already cynical, then like me, you’ll know that Whitey Bulger’s trial isn’t the end of this ongoing story. Recruiting informants from within criminal organizations is problematic. It doesn’t take brilliance to understand that an FBI informer will commit further crimes as an informant. How can they inform unless they are privy to or a participant in crimes? As one of the interviewees, Pat Nee tells English:

“You do things you don’t want to sometimes because it’s all part of the life you’ve chosen. It’s not always possible to just say no and walk away. People get killed when they try to walk away from a situation like that.”

Where should the Justice Department draw a line? What sort of moral imperative gives a nod to wiping out one criminal crew by allowing another to continue operations? How far should the FBI/Justice Department go when handling informants? What is acceptable ‘collateral damage’?

On a final note, I’m fairly sure (being sarcastic here) that FBI agents who are handlers of Top Echelon Informants aren’t supposed to be accepting thousands of dollars from their criminal informants, so that aspect of the complex Bulger case muddies the waters even further….

Review copy

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The Tower by Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman

Tower, a hard-boiled, stand-alone crime novel is the collaborative work of Irish author Ken Bruen and American writer Reed Farrel Coleman. Framed with a short prologue and a very brief afterword, the story is divided into two parts: one told by gangster, Nick and the other told by his best friend Todd. Nick is a low-grade criminal, the son of a former policeman, when he is introduced by Todd to “small-time racketeer” Boyle,  and the two friends become part of Boyle’s crew. Boyle is into “cards, hot goods, intimidation, muscle,” and although Boyle is violent and unpredictable, he appears to take a “shine” to Nick, offering him more work and better perks. At the same time, Todd seems to separate himself from Boyle, but perhaps there’s an ethnic basis to these loyalties. Todd is Jewish while Nick and Boyle are both Irish extraction. Boyle is third generation Irish, “stage Irish” according to Nick, who because he’s visited there a few times, sports a false brogue and thinks he’s the ‘real’ thing.  On the other hand, Boyle’s main thug, Griffin, from Belfast, is the real deal, and it’s rumoured he was a Provo. Boyle, who seems to think it’s all about presentation, is “an ambitious prick who had worked his way up the sewer pipe to the toilet and from the toilet to the gutter.” Boyle is prone to moments of unpredictable violence but sports a false gregarious, even generous veneer which is somewhat theatrically accompanied by bible quotes. Griffin, on the other hand, is impenetrable, shifty and psycho. They make a good pair. Biblical Boyle (as he’s called behind his back) would be easy to underestimate:

My life was crammed with Micks, my family and most of the guys I knew. Boyle was one of the most irritating. Third generation, he’d been to Ireland a few times and had more than once told me to get my arse over there, touch my roots. I assured him it was one of my goals but the only place I wanted to go was Miami. The warehouse had posters of Dublin and Galway, Galway with that Bay, and Boyle wasn’t above singing a few bars of that song, “If I ever go across the sea to Ireland” and he sang like a strangled crow. In his late fifties, he had that barroom tan, the bloated face from too much Jameson, the busted veins along his cheeks. Small eyes that darted like eels and it would be a big mistake to think the booze affected his attention. If anything, the drink seemed to work on him like speed for anyone else, got him cranked.

In spite of their ethnic differences, in many ways Todd and Nick have always been on the same path,  and problems begin when they split up. Todd goes off to do some work for Boyle in Boston, and while he’s gone, Nick, initially the more violent of the two friends, gains more and more favour with Boyle. He’s rewarded with a gold rolex, and then an apartment in Tribeca after persuading Boyle’s faithless girlfriend that it’s in the best interests of her health that she move out. Now.

towerThen Todd returns but he’s not the same; his new-found taste for violence stuns even Nick. Events spiral out of control with Todd seeking vengeance and Nick, snorting Cocaine every chance he gets, caught in a cobweb of conflicting desires and loyalties.

Boyle’s time was at hand. Nick and Todd’s as well. From the second they chose the life, they chose their deaths. I used to talk to men I guarded about this stuff. A lot of them were not so different than Todd and Nick, guys who, for whatever reason got swept up in the world of violence and easy money. Some were stone killers, Griffin prototypes. They were easier to understand. The guys like Todd and Nick, they never had much to say. It was as if they were at some destination, but vague on how they got there or why they had gone in the first place.

Tower, a tale of alliances, loyalties and revenge unfolds quite cleverly through its two narrators, and while we get a solid sense of just who Nick and Todd are, this is primarily a plot-driven tale. My copy has 172 pages and looking back over the plot, it’s easy to see that there’s very little fat here. Some of the events that occur are seen in overlap through the two different perspectives, and so some unanswered questions are explained by Todd’s version of events in part II. As a hard-boiled crime novel, this is a very dark, sharp, tight tale–bleak and doom-laden with scenes of horrendous violence, so the squeamish need not apply.

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Filed under Bruen Ken, Coleman Reed Farrel, Fiction

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

“The night,” Joe said. “Tastes too good. You live by day, you play by their rules. So we live by night and play by ours.”

While I watched the film Mystic River and enjoyed it, I’ve always passed on Dennis Lehane novels, but his latest, Live By Night sounded too good to miss. The book, which screams for a film adaptation, is the story of a gangster, Joe Coughlin, the son of a prominent Boston police officer. Just as I finished the book, I read that Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company bought the film rights. I hope that DiCaprio takes the main role as he’d be my pick for Joe Coughlin.

The book begins very strongly and drops us right in the action with Joe about to meet his death:

Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life–good or bad–had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.

Now with an opening like that, how can you not continue?

From this point, the novel goes back in time and the story picks up in 1926, with Joe, a 19-year-old hood who works for bootlegger Tim Hickey, knocking off a speakeasy with the Bartolo brothers. Joe is initially unaware that the joint belongs to Hickey’s arch-enemy Albert White, and he’s also unaware that the cool, unflappable girl who serves the drinks, Emma Gould, is also Albert’s mistress. Joe is too young and too smitten to read the danger signals:

Behind Emma’s pale eyes and pale skin lay something coiled and caged. And not caged in a way that it wanted to come out. Caged in a way that demanded nothing come in.

It’s with the introduction of Emma that we see Joe’s major character traits–both the flaws and the weaknesses as he makes decisions that will come back to haunt him for the rest of his life. Live By Night is the bio of Joe who eventually becomes a major Irish-American gangster–or outlaw as he prefers to be called. Joe’s life is defined by its times, so the backdrop to Joe’s illegal life is the fallout from the 1919 Boston Police Strike which devastated Joe’s family, Prohibition and the Depression. While Joe’s former Boston Police force brothers have been cast adrift by the strike, Joe has taken another path entirely, and at thirteen, he was a ‘juvenile delinquent,’ knocking off newsstands with his partners-in-crime, the Bartolo brothers. Joe makes the choice to “live by night” and doesn’t see too great a difference between supposedly legal and illegal lives, and gradually he builds an empire, an illegal life built in response to the times.

There are a couple of times throughout the novel when it’s not certain whether Joe will survive, and so it’s evidence of the novel’s strengths that the scenes are packed with tension even though that we know on the first page that he has survived at least several decades. The plot, packed with some great scenes, is arguably stronger for about the first half of the novel as Joe struggles to survive through various hostile situations, and as Lehane illustrates, through Joe’s choices, we see that character is fate.

“Someone else–a real good egg of a fella–will stand up for you in the yard or in the mess hall. And after he backs the other man down, he’ll offer you his protection for the length of your sentence. Joe? Listen to me. That’s the man you hurt. You hurt him so he can’t get strong enough to hurt you. You hurt him so he can’t get strong enough again to hurt you. You take his elbow or his kneecap. Or both.”

After the halfway point, for this reader, the novel’s pacing slowed down, and the second half of the novel is dominated by a love story. While I still enjoyed the tale of a gangster’s genesis shaped by the excesses and lucrative vices buried deep in the repressive layers of American culture, and the faithful creation of a flawed man, there’s a tiny bit of moralizing that creeps in here as he faces off not just other gangs but the KKK and religious nutcases, so that Joe becomes an iconic figure, wise, just, and meting out decisions that would have made Solomon wonder if he’d done the right thing. It’s just a bit overdone, and for this reader, Joe’s not a ruthless enough creation. We see Joe, an intelligent character make choices that are not always the smartest but which are pivotal to his character. There’s part of Joe, no matter how succesful he becomes, that’s uncomfortable with the uglier side of his life, but Joe chooses to bury those aspects of his profession, and the author follows suit. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this is undermined by having Joe as the most self-actualized character in the novel, and the result is a dissonance that introduces character credibility issues.  That complaint aside, I can see this will make a brilliant film.

Live by Night is flawed but I’d hazard a guess that the flaws won’t deter Lehane fans, and I would certainly read another novel by this author. Apparently Lehane’s earlier novel The Given Day (called the author’s opus by some of his fans) includes the story of Joe’s family against the backdrop of Boston history, and after finishing Live by Night, I bought the earlier novel.

Review copy

 

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Filed under Fiction, Lehane Dennis