Tag Archives: true crime

Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series by David Pietrusza

Near the end, I finally had to abandon this too-long, too-slow, too-discursive “biography” of Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein, the guy who — as the subtitle (and The Godfather II, and every damn book and article about Rothstein) tells us, fixed the 1919 World Series

Rothstein is a fascinating figure and the times he lived in are amazing, and there are a lot of great anecdotes in this book. But I’m afraid the overall information is too random and all over the place; I have no sense of the bigger picture.

I have read over 100 books on organized crime, so when I read a new one I should have at least a vague sense from the first few chapters where this guy fits into the overall history of organized crime in the US.

I didn’t get that sense, here, and I got the distinct impression that it was because the author doesn’t really know.

In the early parts of this book, there are some great stories and discursive histories of other figures of the time. But it is RARE that I make it 3/4 of the way through a book and then not decide to finish it. There’s too little information about Rothstein, and too many detours along the way. I didn’t even get to his murder, and I’m not sure I care to even look that crap up on Wikipedia, I’m so disgusted by the whole experience.

My next option to learn about Rothstein is The Big Bankroll by Leo Katcher, which is something of a classic, or at least old. But my suspicion is that — as with many of the organized crime figures from early this century — there just isn’t enough info about Rothstein to warrant a full biography. He’s one of those figures who is incredibly important, but nobody’s 100% sure just why he’s important, except maybe the guys sleeping with the fishes.

Or, perhaps, why Rothstein’s important can’t be cooked down into a 3 or 400 page book. Maybe Rothstein’he’s just a force that weaves through the rest of the organized crime histories, especially of Jewish gangsters.

Anyway, a reasonably noble effort, but not much good for me either for entertainment or research.

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The Canary Sang But Couldn’t Fly

The full title and subtitle of this book? The Canary Sang But Couldn’t Fly: The Fatal Fall of Abe Reles, the Mobster Who Shattered Murder, Inc.’s Code of Silence. After typing it, I’m ready for a nap.

The title pretty much sums up the wonkish tone of the offering, which is, even so, one of the best organized crime books I’ve ever read. It may be of primary interest to those who are completely obsessed with the Mob, and particularly with the Mob in the 1930s. Regardless, it’s magnificent.

The Canary Sang But Couldn’t Fly concerns the career, and more specifically the death, of Abe Reles, a government witness against Murder, Incorporated. Murder Inc. was “The Syndicate,” the enforcement wing of the national Mafia organization (though most particularly in the New York area). Reles’s death was a critical moment in the history of the mob, since the case was one of the government’s first real attempts to prosecute the Mafia since the Capone days.

The first part of the book, roughly speaking, relates the events in Reles’s life and in his murder. The whole second half is essentially a deconstruction of the investigative process, in which it is painfully obvious to everyone (including to members of Congress) that there was a major cover-up — but no one can figure out quite what happened.

It’s a bit of a police procedural at times; those tend to leave me cold when they’re fiction, but for some reason here it all comes together. I read it thoroughly engrossed.

Unfortunately, the author, who studied Murder, Incorporated for 10 years, passed away as the book was being prepared for publication. So there won’t be any more awesome books coming from him. Major bummer.

This one is serious essential reading for organized crime scholars.