Tag Archives: crime families

Malavita by Tonino Benacquista

How much is one man worth? What price a human life? To know what one is worth is like knowing the date of one’s death. I’m worth twenty million dollars. It’s a lot. But much less than I thought. I must be one of the most expensive men in the world. To be so valuable and to live a life as shitty as mine–that’s the worst misery. If I had that twenty million dollars, I know what I’d do with it. I’d give the whole thing away in exchange for going back to my previous life, before I was worth that much. The man who blows my head off, what will he do with the money? He’ll put it in property and go off to hang out in Barbados for the rest of his life. They all do that. 

These are the thoughts running through the head of former top mafia figure, hitman turned informer for the government, Giovanni Manzoni, now Frederick Blake living with his wife Maggie (Livia) and two children 17-year-old Belle and 14-year-old Warren. Under the watchful eyes of the Witness Protection Programme, they’ve been living in France for 5 years. They’ve had several moves and now they’ve washed up in Normandy, along with their dog Malavita, in the small town of Cholong-sur Avre. The family must integrate and not draw too much attention to themselves–after all Giovanni was a top government witness in a case that busted the Mafia wide open and generated long prison sentences for some very pissed off men. The FBI team members who babysit the family know that the Mafia back in New Jersey have not forgotten Giovanni, and if he’s ever found, he’s a dead man.

malavitaThe attempts to blend in with the locals by the four family members are really very funny, and the best part of the book. There’s Frederick, who’s become depressed since the trial, and who spends his days unshaven and “trailing around in his slippers all day,”  feeling useless. After finding an old typewriter, “obsessed with the idea of telling his version of the truth,”  he decides to write his memoirs–something of course the FBI isn’t too happy about, and his new profession as a writer, gives him the perfect excuse to lounge around on the balcony all day and reminisce about the good old days. Meanwhile Maggie/Livia also think of the good old days when she was a top Mafia wife, “dizzy” with power and feeling like “the First lady of the whole area,”  a woman who could get whatever she wanted with a snap of her fingers. Now she’s decided to do penance by throwing herself into charity and volunteer work.

As for the children, well they speak excellent French. Belle has grown into a beautiful young girl who’s not as vulnerable and naïve as some of her schoolmates think, and Warren’s ambition is to become the godfather of his school–a lofty goal he achieves within days of arriving. An admirer and student of Capone and Lucky Luciano, Warren’s motto is “Give them what they need the most.”

It was just a question of time and organization. In order to achieve synergy and increase complementarity, all he needed to do was to know how to listen, discover each person’s limits, spot the gaps in their lives, and decide how much to charge for filling them. The more solid the base he could build up, the quicker he would rise to power. The pyramid would build itself and raise him to the stars.

Some of the book’s humour comes from the culture clash generated from Americans living in France, but of course, these are not ordinary Americans–this is a crass, violent and dangerous Mafia family who don’t take ill-treatment and insults well. One incident occurs when Maggie asks for peanut butter in the local shop and then overhears the shop owner bitching about Americans to some locals:

I’ve got nothing against them, but they certainly make themselves at home wherever they are.”

“Of course, there were the landings. But we’ve been invaded ever since!”

“In our day, and for our generation, it was nylon stockings and chewing gum, but what about our children?”

“Mine dresses like them. Enjoys the same things, listens to the same music.”

“The worst thing is the food they eat. I cook something they like, and all they can think of is to leave the table as quick as they can and rush off to McDonalds.”

Maggie is “hurt” by the exchange, but what happens next illustrates how the family won’t take insults lightly. We see each family member attempting to integrate with mixed results: an opportunistic plumber finds that his usual sales pitch doesn’t work, and a BBQ (in which the typical American menu of steak, steak or steak is discussed) for some of the locals almost ends in violence. The emphasis is on humour–with the locals oblivious about exactly what they’re dealing with, and Giovanni/Frederick using all his willpower not to exact vengeance against those who insult his BBQ skills. These scenes are all very funny, but some of the other humour, when stone-cold killer Fred, who’s slotted into the life of a harmless writer, imagines his past crimes grates uncomfortably with the humour.

I’d been meaning to read Malavita (aka Badfellas) for some time, and the knowledge that the book’s been made into the Luc Besson  film The Family made picking up the book mandatory. After reading the book, however, I’m not sure that the film will ‘work’ quite as well as the book, but I’ll try it anyway. The book’s alternate title: Badfellas refers to the film Goodfellas, and there’s one wonderful scene in the book when Frederick attends a film night and provides commentary on Goodfellas.

Fred knew the film almost by heart, and he hated it for a thousand reasons. In it gangsters were reduced to what they really were: scum, whose only aim in life was to park in forbidden places, give the biggest fur coat to their wife and, above all, never have to live the lives of those millions of idiots who get up each morning to earn a miserable crust, instead of sleeping in a gold-plated bed. That was all a Mafioso was, and Goodfellas told it like it was. Without the myth, all that was left was stupidity and cruelty.

Review copy

11 Comments

Filed under Benacquista Tonino, Fiction

Stonemouth by Iain Banks

I’m standing fifty metres above the firth of Stoun, in the middle of the road bridge, at the summit of the long, shallow trajectory it describes above the waters. Below, wind-stroked lines of breakers track up the firth, ragged creases of thin foam moving east to west under the steady push of the breeze; each wave forming, breaking, widening, then collapsing again before the new crests start to rise amongst their pale, streaked remains, the whole doomed army of them vanishing like ghosts into the upriver blur. Traffic moves on the northbound carriageway behind me; cars tearing, trucks rumbling and thumping over the expansion joints on the road surface. About half the cars and most of the trucks have their lights on as the evening, and the mist close in. I look up at the north tower of the suspension bridge, a double H shape rising another hundred metres into the murk, its grey flank stitched with little steady red lights. At the top there’s a single aircraft beacon producing sharp bursts the blue-white of a camera flash. The mist smears each pulse across a whole grey tract of sky.

In the beginning of the slow-burn, moody novel Stonemouth from Iain Banks, Stewart Gilmour, a young man in his mid 20s, stands on the suspension bridge on the outside of town. He’s about to gain permission to return to his Scottish hometown, the place he fled from 5 years earlier, to attend a funeral. It’s symbolic that Stewart, the novel’s narrator, should wait for the decision on the bridge–after all it’s a spot with some history. It’s a popular site for suicides, and at least one of those suicides is mired in controversy. On the surface, Stonemouth seems to be a dull-as-dishwater town where nothing much happens, but that’s mainly because outsiders have no idea how the town is controlled by two rival crime families, the Murstons and the MacAvetts. And  five years before, Stewart Gilmour was stupid enough to get in the middle.

Mike MacAvett is the other daddy in town. Though when Al–my dad–says ‘his boys’ he doesn’t mean either of Mike Mac’s sons. On the other hand, he doesn’t mean proper, full-on, tooled-up, Mafia-style gangsters, either. We’re not at that point here, not yet, anyway. All a bit more subtle and low-key than that. The Murstons and the Mike Mac run their businesses with the minimum of fuss, and no guns. They have the weaponry, but they’ve broken it out only twice in the last fifteen year, as far as I know, when a couple of gangs from Aberdeen and Glasgow thought they might muscle their way in towards what they mistakenly thought looked like easy pickings amongst us hicks up here.

Joe Murston, the patriarch of the Murston clan, once a man Stewart admired and could even claim a friendship of sorts, is dead. Stewart’s back to ‘pay his respects.’ The situation is delicate and tentative at best. Although Stewart is staying with his parents, he must first get clearance that it’s ok for him to return to Murston territory. He’s told by Powell an “overstuffed, upgraded bouncer,” Donald Murston’s thug-of-choice, and once a schoolmate of Stewart’s, that he’s “clear to land.” The funeral is on a Monday and Stewart is to get out of Dodge by Tuesday.

stonemouthThinking he’s got an all-clear, a pass through town, Stewart returns, but things immediately begin to go wrong. His presence in town is, at best, tolerated, but several ramped-up henchmen wouldn’t mind gaining points for making Stewart’s stay unpleasant and painful. His movements are monitored and he’s constantly threatened by various thugs. Stewart knows he’s walking a fine line, but that doesn’t stop him from seeking answers to past events.

Stewart is now based in London and is quite successful. In fact being tossed out of Stonemouth may have worked in his favour, but right from the start we know that Stewart won’t be able to avoid meeting his past–in fact he wants some sort of closure to the events that led to him running for his life. Gradually as Stewart reconnects with various people from his past, memories of the events that took place 5 years before are pieced together, and he realises that there are more questions than answers.

Stonemouth builds slowly with a gathering sense of menace. For this reader, the novel’s strength lies in the descriptions of the town and the characters rather than the plot. A large early chunk of the novel lays the groundwork for the later action as Stewart reminisces about his childhood and the brutal death of a playmate. Clearly the present cannot be separated from the past, and gradually we learn just what a now matured Stewart did to be run out-of-town. Several scenes show Stewart being as obsequious as possible-he practically bows, scrapes and licks the floor in order to be allowed to stay in town, and while he  wrestles with this sort of humiliation, he takes it. Does he feel as though he needs to make some sort of penance?

While I really enjoyed the descriptions of the landscape, the drabness of small town life, the various believable characters, and the dynamics of the two crime families, Stewart continuing to carry a torch for a woman five years after the event is problematic, and I wasn’t entirely convinced. Stewart lives in London, he’s moderately successful, and he’s put his past behind him, and yet he takes his life in his hands to return and sort out the unresolved situation he has with a woman from his past. As the story unfolds, we gradually learn just what Stewart did to get kicked out-of-town, and somehow, for this reader, while the revelation raised some intriguing possibilities regarding those events, I found Stewart’s quixotic desire to return less plausible. I also disliked the ending which seemed out of step with the rest of the novel, but that criticism aside, I hope someone turns this into a film.

Review copy

12 Comments

Filed under Banks Iain, Fiction

The Matriarch: The Kathy Pettingill Story by Adrian Tame Part II

The other day I urged someone to watch the film, Animal Kingdom. He was concerned that the film might be too violent. Actually, given the subject matter, the film doesn’t show a great deal of violence, but there’s a sense of menace pulsing throughout the film. Anyway, the point I want to make is that whatever you see happen in the film, isn’t a tenth of what really went on in Dennis Allen’s Richmond, Melbourne empire.

To recap: In my last post (part I), I noted that the Pettingill family seemed more like a tribe. They had their own rules of conduct, their own belief system, and definite dos and don’ts, and none of these things had anything to do with societal expectations, societal norms, or legality. Another point I made was that the book, The Matriarch: The Kathy Pettingill Story, presents an incredible picture of crime running amok in Melbourne, and as I read the book, I was astounded (no exaggeration here) at the tales of drug-use, rampant crime, and police corruption. This is a story in which the excesses of De Palma’s  Scarface mesh with the deeply embedded police corruption of Scorsese’s The Departed. But the shocking thing here is that truth is not only stranger than fiction: it’s also much worse.

The book charts Dennis Allen’s criminal career, and I obviously can’t detail his life in its entirety, but here’s a few significant markers: In 1973,  22-year-old Dennis Allen along with his younger brother, Peter and two accomplices were involved in a murder-for-hire scheme. They’d been paid $500 to kill the operator of a massage parlour. When the target didn’t show up as expected at a flat, violence exploded instead on the flat occupants. Dennis was later convicted of rape with a 10 year sentence. Peter received 14 years for his role in the crime and a two-day rampage which included shooting several people and attempting to shoot police officers.

Dennis Allan was released in 1977 and he moved to Richmond. According to the author, the years 1977-1982 “were marked by a further decline into violence and lawlessness.”   He was involved in a number of fights and confrontations which resulted in short jail sentences.  In 1981, he was sent to Pentridge Gaol.

Dennis Allan’s peak crime period appears to have extended from 1982-1987– years which, according to the author, were “the period [that] marked the flowering of pure evil within Dennis Bruce Allen.” In 1982, Dennis was released from prison, and he joined his mother who owned and operated the Gaslight Massage Parlour at 108 Stephenson Street. Dennis and Kathy began buying properties in the neighbouring streets–several others on Stephenson Street  while Dennis also owned 41, 43, 45, 47, and 49 Cubitt Street and another house on Chestnut Street. In all, Dennis owned 8 houses while Kathy owned two. Dennis lived in 37 Stephenson Street. His enforcers lived in some of the other houses, and one house was given over for the use of Dennis’s builder (who later was a witness against Dennis in a murder).

Dennis was addicted to speed. With limitless money and connections, Dennis was able to indulge his habit to excess. He “used seven grams of pure speed a day.” Tame states:

His usual method was to inject the drug into his arm, tying a dressing-gown sash around it, as often as every half hour. Sometimes he didn’t bother to remove the sash between hits.

The speed increased Dennis’s paranoia and also resulted in days without sleep. Kathy remembers the longest period without sleep was 14 days, but states that 10 days wasn’t “uncommon.” The book indicates that these periods were extremely difficult for those who lived around Dennis. It seems as though they just waited for the tension to erupt into violence:

In this condition Dennis was every bit as volatile and dangerous as unstable gelignite–primed and ready to explode. You didn’t cross Dennis at times like this. You didn’t go near him if you could possibly avoid it.

Several murders are recalled, including the various versions of the murder of former Hell’s Angel (he’d been “kicked out”),  Anton Kenny. On another occasion Kathy recalls deciding to “drop in” on Dennis one night after working at the Gaslight Massage parlour only to find a wounded youth with a meat cleaver in his head. On another occasion, she was dragged out of bed in the middle of the night to clean up after the murder of Wayne Stanhope.  All of this is quite gruesome reading, so be prepared:

He was going to kill Stanhope right from the start. But I didn’t think he’d shoot him in the house in front of all those people. But that’s Dennis. He shot everybody in front of people. He always wanted an audience. Anyway there was a load of shit written about the clean-up, about dragging the body onto the tile floor. He died in one small square of carpet which the police took up later for forensic reasons. But he’d had my vacuum cleaner which had a tin base. And that’s what he used to vacuum up his brains and that. And then he burnt my bloody vacuum cleaner, which he didn’t have to do because it was tin.

 Kathy asserts that she could not control or influence Dennis & that he was simply too far gone into drugs. Tame describes Kathy’s relationship with her eldest son like this:

 Their relationship had had many aspects–mother and son, brother and sister, partners in crime–but it was always intense and almost claustrophobically close.

As I read the book and the incredible story unfolded, one question repeatedly came to mind. Here’s this volatile career criminal under almost constant police surveillance, and yet nothing happened to him. He seemed untouchable.  Why? Herein lies the crux of the matter.

The police used an abandoned factory for some of their surveillance, and Dennis would, according to Tame, “occasionally pepper the building with gunshots.” Kathy relates an incident that took place the day after Dennis used a machine gun on the factory. She states that the police visited her and told her: “you’ll have to stop him taking pot shots.” An enforcer relates a similar incident in which Dennis “blew out all the [factory] windows” with a .22 automatic and a Colt .45. This resulted in another visit to Kathy by the police with yet another request that she make Dennis stop shooting at the factory they used for surveillance. On another occasion, a police helicopter was circling above, and Dennis ran out and started firing at the helicopter trying to bring it down until the enforcer nervously pointed out that if Dennis succeeded, the helicopter would crash on their heads!

If something about this sounds terribly wrong to you, well it’s all part of the murky relationship which existed between Dennis Allan and the police. Kathy states he was an informer, and that at one point he bragged that he paid $25,000 for the documents pertaining to the so-called Operation Cyclops (the surveillance mounted beginning in 1984). The seven-month long operation did net arrests and drugs, but how did Dennis continue to operate?

To call Dennis an informer is, I think, putting it mildly. Kathy describes an occasion when Dennis arranged to meet a drug courier who flew in from Asia with a stomach full of smack-stuffed condoms. When Dennis met the courier, the police swooped in and arrested both men. Dennis was let go with the smack and the police got the money. On another occasion, the police “supplied their prize informant with an official-issue bullet-proof vest.”

Kathy argues that police are nothing but “gangsters with badges,” and the book certainly paints a murky picture of crime and crime-fighting in Melbourne. Yes, those two things go hand in hand, but the book paints a portrait of a deadly partnership. With the drugs combined with his special status, it’s probably no wonder that Dennis appears to have felt invulnerable and untouchable–so much so that he even arranged to bomb the inquest concerning a death of a prostitute. As Dennis spiralled out of control, it became inevitable he’d burn out, but a lot of people suffered and died along the way. The details here are nothing short of mind-blowing, and when Kathy gives her side of police intimidation and interrogations, by this point the actions of some of the Melbourne police appear to have little credibility. To sum it up, as Tame states, this case &  this book offer  “rare insight into the murky business of what can happen when police are obliged to weigh the merits of an informer against the gravity of the offences he may be committing.” That’s a great line that does indeed raise a lot of questions, but I  think the use of the term informer is wildly understating what took place in Melbourne.

37 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction, Tame Adrian

The Matriarch: The Kathy Pettingill Story by Adrian Tame Part I

The phenomenal Australian crime film Animal Kingdom was one of my favourites of 2010, and it’s a film I first heard about on Whispering Gums. When I found out that it was loosely based on a true story, well, I knew I had to read the raw material. I managed to track down a used copy of The Matriarch: The Kathy Pettingill Story by Adrian Tame. The book is OOP and looking at the cost of used copies, I’d hazard a guess that the book has achieved cult status.

If you’ve seen the film, then you know that it’s about a disaffected young man, Josh,  who, after the death of his mother from a heroin overdose, goes to live with his grandmother. Ok, back to the safety of the family nest?…. No it’s not like that at all. Josh lands head first into a major Melbourne crime family, and he’s expected to take an active role. When he unwittingly plays a role in the killings of two young police officers (known as the Walsh Street Killings), Josh discovers that he’s in over his head.

Ok, that’s the film, and if you haven’t seen it, watch it.

Now the book, and I should start by saying that the film is loosely based on the Pettingill family, so there are some major differences. More of that later.

Author Adrian Tame has known Kathy Pettingill, “the matriarch” of the Melbourne-based family for some time, and they first met when he was a journalist on Melbourne’s Truth newspaper. Over the course of his career, Tame wrote stories about the Pettingills and gradually had a relationship of sorts with Kathy. Tame eventually left journalism but in 1995, after he was contacted by Kathy, he began the book The Matriach: The Kathy Pettingill Story –a story which grew from a series of interviews.  The book is, as the title suggests, Kathy’s story–her version of events. 

The book begins with some riveting information about Kathy’s background and stretches back to Kathy’s mother and grandmother. This isn’t the story of a family–this is the story of a tribe. If Zola were alive, he would be fascinated by Kathy Pettingill’s story and the issues of hereditary. He’d be on the first plane to Australia collecting material for his next series of novels. This series would be called the Pettingill-Allen Cycle or some such thing, and instead of a history of France’s Second Empire, Zola would write a stunning series of novels about Australia told through the various generations of this extended family.

The book begins with substantial material about Kathy’s background, and there’s a family tree included to help see the relationships between the various players. There’s Kathy’s mother Gladys and grandmother Kathleen. All three generations of women were married to men but had “ex-facto” relationships that produced other siblings, so the family tree is quite tangled. Some of the extended branches of the family were eminently respectable while others had long histories of crime and “anti-establishment” views. (Back to that Rougon-Marquart cycle again.) It’s all very complicated, but as the material unfolds, some trends develop. The men come and go (sometimes to jail or war in the case of Kathy’s father), but the women are, as the title infers, the matriarchs of this tribe. Tame relates how Kathy grew up thinking her dad had died during WWII in the Middle East. Years later, it was discovered that he’d committed suicide “because of hate letters he received almost certainly” from his wife, Gladys.  

Kathy and her two sisters were raised by their grandmother, Kathleen while Gladys moved on to a series of bigamous relationships “generally with merchant seamen … largely for their pensions.”  Kathy, at age 16, met Dennis James Ryan and bore the first of ten children–this was Dennis Allen, one of the most notorious criminals in Melbourne’s history.  Then came a second son, Peter, but when Kathy was pregnant, Dennis Ryan signed up and was shipped out to the Korean War. Shortly after Peter’s birth, Kathy met Billy Peirce and the couple had six children–three of the six were put up for adoption. At this point, Kathy’s mother, Gladys, who’d mostly disappeared during Kathy’s childhood, reappeared and took over the care of Kathy’s first two children, Dennis and Peter. When Billy Peirce was in prison for burglary, Kathy met Jimmy Pettingill, and she later had two children with Pettingill. So that’s ten in all just in case you are having trouble following the final tally.

One of the things that’s so curious here, and this is where the idea of a tribe, rather than a family comes into play, is that there appears to be no traditional idea of a firm, immutable family unit. Pettingill was married with a family when he met Kathy. In fact Pettingill’s children by Kathy represented his third family. Kathy’s relationship with Billy Peirce was somewhat similar. He married another woman in between Kathy bearing his fifth and sixth child. And, according to the author, these “de facto” relationships also occurred for Kathy’s mother and grandmother.

With men coming and going, Kathy didn’t have an easy time of it. She worked as a prostitute for years, she also later ran a bordello, and she served time in prison. She touches on those “interesting days in the parlours.” One bordello was known as The Black Rose and another was called Vampirella’s. Tame states that “Kathy’s experiences in the seamy world of prostitution and massage parlours led her deeper into the underworld.” Kathy apparently had a “better reputation than most of the madams.” It should come as no surprise that Kathy’s children (excluding the ones that were adopted into other families) grew up with a range of problems. Kathy’s sons were involved in lives of crimes, but it’s Kathy’s eldest son, Dennis whose crimes stand out as the most heinous.

It is fairly easy to judge Kathy, but that’s something the book tackles head-on. Tame argues that Kathy’s reputation as “Granny Evil” is largely rooted in two things: the reputation and crimes of her eldest son, Dennis and the notorious Walsh Street Murders in which two young police officers were lured to their deaths when they responded to an abandoned car call. ( I should add here that the book was published in 1996. In 1989 Wendy Peirce, the “de-facto” partner of Victor Peirce went into witness protection and was prepared to testify against Victor in the Walsh Street Murders. She later refused to testify in court, but in 2005 gave an interview to Australian media in which she admitted Victor’s role in the murders).  The majority of the book addresses Kathy’s relationship with her son Dennis (and hence her culpability) and also her version of the Walsh Street Murders. With the emphasis on those two subjects, Kathy’s relationships with her other children are not much of a point of discussion.

While Tame asks Kathy some pointed questions about her involvement, her honesty, at times, can be disarmingly direct. She readily admits that her sons were involved in certain crimes, but denies others, and she argues that her sons were not responsible for the Walsh Street Murders. At other times some of the versions of events seem foggy at best, and we can speculate all sorts of reasons for that. The controversy about the infamous Walsh Street Murders continues to this day.

The book presents an incredible picture of crime running amok in Melbourne, and as I read the book, I was astounded (no exaggeration here) at the tales of drug-use, rampant crime, and police corruption. The excesses of De Palma’s  Scarface mesh with the deeply embedded police corruption of Scorsese’s The Departed. But the shocking thing here is that truth is not only stranger than fiction: it’s also much worse.

To be continued in Part II

44 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction, Tame Adrian