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Best of Howard Schwartz

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Ba-Da-Bing -- New Mafia Books Define Crime, Terminology, History of Mob in America

28 April 2004

Just when you thought there wasn't a new thing to say or analyze about organize crime in America, comes new wave of Mafia books, including one called Mobspeak (The Dictionary of Crime Terms) by Carl Sifakis (272 pages, paperbound, $17.95) and The Last Gangster by George Anastasia (305 pages, hardbound, $25.95).

Sifakis, known for previous reference books such as the Encyclopedia of Gambling and the Mafia Encyclopedia, has his Mobspeak geared to be the definitive guide to the language of the criminal world. Here he explains the words and phrases crooks and felons use to describe themselves, their associates, their victims and crimes. "Some of the terms are in general use by the public, while others are exclusive top specific criminal settings and perpetrators," the book says.

Overall, there are more than 900 phrases and terms, including "fugazy" (jewel thief term for fake gems or those with very little value. Simply, something wiseguys never want to fall for); "planting flags" (where a Mafia boss tries to extend his family's control far beyond its recognized parameters. This usually puts him in conflict with other families); and "chill the beef" (to convince a witness he remembers nothing).

Certainly Mario Puzo (The Godfather author) and Nick Pileggi (Wise Guys) knew many of these terms when they wrote their books and screenplays. Plus, many a law enforcement agent 9including the FBI took more than a crash course in the slang expressions to help understand what their were listening to on wiretaps or in overheard conversations.

With the popularity of the TV series The Sopranos, many a viewer may be puzzled by terms like "drop a dime" (to inform on another mobster) or what a "bubble gum machine" (police car) might mean.

The Last Gangster is about a former New Jersey policeman turned bad. He later became a Mob informant. This is his story and a look at the last days of the Philadelphia mob. Ron Previte, a six-foot 300-pound capo, was mob fixture for more than 30 years.

Anastasia, the author (he also penned Blood and Honor and The Goodfella Tapes), details mob activities in Philadelphia and New Jersey, including Atlantic City through the eyes and memory of Previte, who personally directed a variety of mob scams from drug trafficking and prostitutes to extortion.

As the 1990s arrived, Previte saw himself being nudged aside by younger mob bosses who lacked loyalty and discretion. Previte eventually became the FBI's "secret weapon" in their attack on the Philadelphia mob. He'd record it all, including murder plots, betrayals. The book includes 16 pages of photos, but is not indexed by name or places.

A final Mafia-related arrival is Thomas Reppetto's American Mafia (A History of Its Rise to Power) (318 pages, hardbound, $26). The author, a former Chicago commander of detectives also holds a doctorate degree from Harvard.

The book contains 15 chapters, with 16 pages of photos and a detailed 18-page index. It follows the rise of the Mafia from its earliest days in Sicily to the Italian gangs of New York. Next comes Big Jim Colosimo in Chicago during the 1920s; followed by the impact of Prohibition and how the ban on liquor fueled the rise of organized crime and the career of Al Capone; followed by the impact of Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein. Later the author describes how the mob went national; the political career and impact of Thomas Dewey and his racket-busters.

The development and growth of the FBI is chronicled; followed by the mob extending its tentacles into Hollywood and Detroit. The book picks up momentum when it focuses on "The Prime Minister" of the New York mob Frank Costello and moves to the late 1940s, which the author calls "the apogee of the American Mafia." This chapter includes Bugsy Siegel, Mickey Cohen, Moe Dalitz, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello in Nevada and elsewhere, plus a look at areas like Kansas City, Louisiana and Florida.

The final sections of the book describe Estes Kefauver and his crime commission and the eventual decline of the Mafia in this country.

Although much of Reppetto's work is from numerous other sources, it's a fast-reading, compact look at the rise and fall of the mob - an excellent resource for someone who, in one volume, wants to get a quick look at the subject of organized crime and the key players - good guys and bad guys.

Howard Schwartz
Howard Schwartz, the "librarian for gamblers," was the marketing director for Gambler's Book Club in Las Vegas, a position he held from 1979 to 2010, when he retired. Author of hundreds of articles on gambling, his weekly book reviews appear in numerous publications throughout the gaming industry.

Howard Schwartz Websites:

www.gamblersbook.com
Howard Schwartz
Howard Schwartz, the "librarian for gamblers," was the marketing director for Gambler's Book Club in Las Vegas, a position he held from 1979 to 2010, when he retired. Author of hundreds of articles on gambling, his weekly book reviews appear in numerous publications throughout the gaming industry.

Howard Schwartz Websites:

www.gamblersbook.com