‘Murder, Inc.’ Revisted BOOK REVIEW by Roy Vallis

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Roy Vallis is a lecturer in the UCSB Writing Program

October 14th, 2012 Nonfiction

MURDER, INC.

By Burton B. Turkus and Sid Feder

Tenacity Media Books, $23.99

Seventeen years before “The Valachi Papers” was touted as the “first inside account of the Mafia” in America, there was “Murder, Inc.” the “inside story of the syndicate killing machine” responsible for more than 1,000 murders throughout the 1940s. Told by District Attorney Burton B. Turkus —who eventually sent seven major players to the chair —and veteran war correspondent Sid Feder, this work is nothing short of an encyclopedic account of the rampant lawlessness and treachery that gives new meaning to the term “organized” crime. 

The story deals mainly with “The Big Six” —principal boss Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Hollywood glamour boy Bugsy Siegel, “mob accountant” Meyer Lansky, acknowledged “criminal genius” “Lucky” Luciano, millionaire bootlegger Joe Adonis and “Lord High Executioner” Albert Anastasia —who collectively ran Murder Incorporated out of a candy store in the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn with chilling efficiency. There is, though, one colorful “secondary” player worth mentioning: Abe “Kid Twist” Reles (so named for his penchant for strangulation), who became a key informant in the investigation and eventually earned the title “the canary that could sing but couldn’t fly” (his story stands out in a sea of interconnected narratives).

Published in 1951, “Murder, Inc.” became an instant hit, eventually selling more than a million copies. In 1961, Hollywood picked it up as a vehicle for Peter Falk who played Reles, but by 1964, Joe Valachi grabbed national attention with a 1,180-page confession of his 30-year career in organized crime (though the public only got a 256-page secondhand account from interviews conducted by biographer Peter Maas). And although the Valachi spectacle deserved much of the attention it got, it also unfortunately overshadowed “Murder, Inc.”

History is fickle: Mr. Maas introduced his book at the height of “new journalism” (brought to life by writers like Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thompson), which employed dramatic literary techniques and a subjectivity that changed the face of journalism and made “Murder, Inc.” seem dated and quaint, a relic of a bygone era. And true, there is certain Movietone News-style to the prose, and a rather strong dose of moralizing, but it is nonetheless living history and excellent reportage that deserves to be remembered.

And now, indeed, more than 60 years after its initial release, there is a new, updated edition with an informative foreword by five-time Emmy Award-winning correspondent and best-selling author Peter Lance. Mr. Lance helps bridge the gap of time by detailing some of the subsequent history of “Murder, Inc.” through his own tireless work in investigative journalism (he uncovered evidence of the “one-man Mafia successor to Murder, Inc.,” Greg Scarpa Sr.). Mr. Lance proves that Murder, Inc. is as relevant as it ever was.

The new edition preserves the original text right down to the pagination, but adds a series of short biographies and some photographic —emphasis on the graphic —evidence from the period. And to fit it in nicely into the digital age, there is a Kindle edition available. This book is truly a must-read for fans of true crime tales, investigative journalism or just excellent nonfiction storytelling.

email: books@newspress.com

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