If you have any interest in the gangland genre – and let’s face it, you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t – then, at the very least, you’ve probably read a book or two on the subject. Whether based on fact or fiction, these chronicles often give access to a secretive lifestyle that most would never experience otherwise.
So we were curious. If you could recommend just one book that you’ve read, what would it be? We posed the question on our social media channels and this countdown is the result of your answers. We added up votes for what was originally only meant to be a ‘Best 10’. We got such a great response that we doubled that!
The list is fairly eclectic and, in some cases, surprising. Your choices range from Prohibition-era mobsters to modern-day drug cartels, with a dash of what we believe to be fiction thrown in along the way. Some of these books are almost textbook-like with cited facts (many that I personally use for research), whilst others are more casual, fascinating stories that are written from an eyewitness standpoint.
The list is a count down from from number 20, all the way through to the book with the most votes at number one. A sincere thank you to everyone who gave feedback on this, we appreciate you sharing your personal recommendations with us.
20. ‘Deal With the Devil’ by Peter Lance
A fact-based book exploring the relationship between the FBI and one-time Colombo crime family capo Greg Scarpa.
In Deal with the Devil, five-time Emmy Award–winning investigative reporter Peter Lance draws on three decades of once-secret FBI files to tell the definitive story of Greg Scarpa Sr., a Mafia capo who “stopped counting” after fifty murders, while secretly betraying the Colombo crime family as a Top Echelon FBI informant.
Lance traces Scarpa’s shadowy relationship with the FBI all the way back to 1960, when his debriefings went straight to J. Edgar Hoover. In forty-two years of murder and racketeering, Scarpa served only thirty days in jail thanks to his secret relationship with the Feds.
This is the untold story that will rewrite Mafia history as we know it —a page-turning work of journalism that reads like a Scorsese film. Deal with the Devil includes more than 130 illustrations, crime scene photos, and never-before-seen FBI documents.
19. ‘Ride a Tiger’ by Harold Livingston
An excellent fictional gangster saga which is also fairly rare and sought-after – as the selling price reflects. It spans seventy years in the life of Leo Gorodetsky, and his rise in the Mob, from lowly beginnings to the big time. The book is in a similar vein to The Godfather
Chronicles the story of poor Jewish boy Leo Gorodetsky’s rise from poverty on New York’s Lower East Side to the highest levels of the Mafia.
18. ‘Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System’ by Roberto Saviano
This factual account served as the basis for the TV series ‘Gomorrah‘ (Sundance). The English version of the book is translated from the original Italian.
A groundbreaking, unprecedented bestseller in Italy, Roberto Saviano’s insider account traces the decline of the city of Naples under the rule of the Camorra, an organized crime network more powerful and violent than the Mafia. The Camorra is an elaborate, international system dealing in drugs, high fashion, construction, and toxic waste, and its influence has entirely transformed life in Campania, the province surrounding Naples.
Since seeing his first murder victim, at thirteen, Roberto Saviano has watched the changes in his home city. For Gomorrah, he disappeared into the Camorra and witnessed up close the drug cartel’s audacious, sophisticated, and far-reaching corruption that has paralyzed his home city and introduced the world to a new breed of organized crime.
17. ‘The Luparelli Tapes: The true story of the Mafia hitman who contracted to kill both Joey Gallo and his own wife’ by Paul Meskil
An interesting non-fiction account of Joseph ‘Joe Fish’ Luparelli – the guy who supposedly alerted members of the Colombo Family to Joe Gallo’s whereabouts on the night of Crazy Joe’s assassination.
This is the bloddcurdling story of the Gallo crime family told through the eyes of one of his soldiers; Joe Luparelli tells all-how he functioned as a hitman for various Dons, and how he took on the contract to whack Joey Gallo.
16. ‘Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend’ by Deirdre Bair
A definitive biography of one of the most famous gangsters of all. This is a brilliantly researched book which corrects many of the myths surrounding Capone and replaces them with hard facts.
At the height of Prohibition, Al Capone loomed large as Public Enemy Number One: his multimillion-dollar Chicago Outfit dominated organized crime, and law enforcement was powerless to stop him. But then came the fall: a legal noose tightened by the FBI, a conviction on tax evasion, a stint in Alcatraz. After his release, he returned to his family in Miami a much diminished man, living quietly until the ravages of his neurosyphilis took their final toll.
Our shared fascination with Capone endures in countless novels and movies, but the man behind the legend has remained a mystery. Now, through rigorous research and exclusive access to Capone’s family, National Book Award–winning biographer Deirdre Bair cuts through the mythology, uncovering a complex character who was flawed and cruel but also capable of nobility. At once intimate and iconoclastic, Al Capone gives us the definitive account of a quintessentially American figure.
15. ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’ by Charles Brandt
An account of Frank Sheeran’s ties with the Mob, and the deathbed confession to top all confessions; that ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran killed Jimmy Hoffa. There are many disputes regarding the credibility of several of Frank Sheeran’s claims in this book, as much of the evidence does not stand up when it’s researched further. It was, however, the inspiration for the movie ‘The Irishman‘, starring Robert De Niro as Sheeran, Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, and Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino.
“I heard you paint houses” are the first words Jimmy Hoffa ever spoke to Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran. To paint a house is to kill a man. The paint is the blood that splatters on the walls and floors. In the course of nearly five years of recorded interviews, Frank Sheeran confessed to Charles Brandt that he handled more than twenty-five hits for the mob, and for his friend Hoffa. He also provided intriguing information about the Mafia’s role in the murder of JFK.
Sheeran learned to kill in the US Army, where he saw an astonishing 411 days of active combat duty in Italy during World War II. After returning home he became a hustler and hit man, working for legendary crime boss Russell Bufalino. Eventually Sheeran would rise to a position of such prominence that in a RICO suit the US government would name him as one of only two non-Italians in conspiracy with the Commission of La Cosa Nostra, alongside the likes of Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano and Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno.
When Bufalino ordered Sheeran to kill Hoffa, the Irishman did the deed, knowing that if he had refused he would have been killed himself. Charles Brandt’s page-turner has become a true crime classic.
14. ‘The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano’ by Martin A. Gosch & Richard Hammer
This is a much sought-after classic, said to be based on conversations with the man himself, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. The book was originally released in 1975, and is no longer in print. Consequently, you can expect to pay big bucks for the pleasure of adding this one to your bookshelf.
Expose of organized crime families in New York, based on information provided by Charles “Lucky” Luciano and others associated with alleged Mafia activities.
13. ‘The Power of the Dog’ by Don Winslow
This is Book One of three in the ‘Power of the Dog’ series – a thrilling, fictional account of the drug trade.
Set about ten years prior to The Cartel, this gritty novel introduces a brilliant cast of characters. Art Keller is an obsessive DEA agent. The Barrera brothers are heirs to a drug empire. Nora Hayden is a jaded teenager who becomes a high-class hooker. Father Parada is a powerful and incorruptible Catholic priest. Callan is an Irish kid from Hell’s kitchen who grows up to be a merciless hit man. And they are all trapped in the world of the Mexican drug Federación. From the streets of New York City to Mexico City and Tijuana to the jungles of Central America, this is the war on drugs like you’ve never seen it.
12. ‘Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano’s Story of Life in the Mafia’ by Peter Maas
Once riding high in the Gambino family, second only to boss John Gotti, Sammy Gravano’s decision to defect put a lot of guys behind bars. This is his story, from his childhood on the streets of Bensonhurst all the way through to the Witness Protection Program.
In March of 1992, the highest-ranking member of the Mafia in America ever to defect broke his blood oath of silence and testified against his boss, John Gotti. He is Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano, second-in-command of the Gambino organized-crime family, the most powerful in the nation. As a direct consequence of Gravano’s testimony, Cosa Nostra – the Mafia’s true name – is in shambles. In Underboss, based on dozens of hours of interviews with Gravano, much of it written in Sammy the Bull’s own voice, we are ushered as never before into the uppermost secret inner sanctums of Cosa Nostra – an underworld of power, lust, greed, betrayal, deception, sometimes even honor, with the specter of violent death always poised in the wings. Gravano’s is a story about starting out on the street, about killing and being killed, revealing the truth behind a quarter-century of shocking headlines. It is also a tragic story of a wasted life, of unalterable choices and the web of lies, weakness, and treachery that underlie the so-called Honored Society.
11. ‘The Mob and the City: The Hidden History of How the Mafia Captured New York’ by C. Alexander Hortis
This is another excellently researched book about the rise and history of the Mafia in the U.S. and one that I often use for reference. I would personally class this as essential reading!
Forget what you think you know about the Mafia. After reading this book, even life-long mob aficionados will have a new perspective on organized crime.Informative, authoritative, and eye-opening, this is the first full-length book devoted exclusively to uncovering the hidden history of how the Mafia came to dominate organized crime in New York City during the 1930s through 1950s. Based on exhaustive research of archives and secret files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, author and attorney C. Alexander Hortis draws on the deepest collection of primary sources, many newly discovered, of any history of the modern mob.Shattering myths, Hortis reveals how Cosa Nostra actually obtained power at the inception. The author goes beyond conventional who-shot-who mob stories, providing answers to fresh questions such as: * Why did the Sicilian gangs come out on top of the criminal underworld? * Can economics explain how the Mafia families operated? * What was the Mafia’s real role in the drug trade? * Why was Cosa Nostra involved in gay bars in New York since the 1930s? Drawing on an unprecedented array of primary sources, The Mob and the City is the most thorough and authentic history of the Mafia’s rise to power in the early-to-mid twentieth century.
10. ‘The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins’ by John Pearson
This classic account of the life of the Kray twins was originally published in 1972, and the book is the inspiration behind the film ‘Legend‘ starring Tom Hardy as both Ron and Reg Kray.
Reggie and Ronnie Kray ruled London’s gangland during the 60s with a ruthlessness and viciousness that shocks even now. Building an empire of organised crime that has never been matched, the brothers swindled, extorted and terrorised – while enjoying a glittering celebrity status at the heart of the swinging 60s scene, until their downfall and imprisonment for life.
9. ‘The Butcher: Anatomy of a Mafia Psychopath’ by Philip Carlo
The fascinating, often shocking, story of much-feared Bonanno family hitter Tommy ‘Karate’ Pitera. It explores the childhood bullying he endured, his interest and excellence in martial arts, his entry into the Mob and his eventual arrest and conviction.
Tommy “Karate” Pitera was not like other mafiosi. A capo in the notorious Bonanno family—a deadly martial artist highly skilled with knives and other lethal weapons—Pitera murdered his way to becoming one of the premier assassins in the New York mafia during the 1980s. He didn’t just whack people; he diabolically made them disappear forever. In hushed whispers people spoke of Pitera’s secret burial grounds and the grotesque things he did to his victim’s bodies. If the Mafia had a Jeffrey Dahmer, it was surely Tommy Pitera.
Offering the first-ever look at the life and crimes of Tommy Pitera, New York Times bestselling author Philip Carlo exposes the man behind some of the most horrific murders in Mafia history—and tells the story of the heroic investigator who brought him down. Cloaked in the bloody history of La Cosa Nostra, The Butcher is Carlo’s most frightening portrayal yet of the depraved depths within a psychopath’s mind.
8. ‘Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member’ by Sanyika Shakur
This is a thoroughly engrossing account of Kody Scott’s time in the Crips, following his initiation at the age of twelve.
Written in solitary confinement, Kody Scott’s memoir of sixteen years as a gangbanger in Los Angeles was a searing best-seller and became a classic, published in ten languages, with more than 300,000 copies in print in the United States alone. After pumping eight blasts from a sawed-off shotgun at a group of rival gang members, twelve-year-old Kody Scott was initiated into the L.A. gang the Crips. He quickly matured into one of the most formidable Crip combat soldiers, earning the name “Monster” for committing acts of brutality and violence that repulsed even his fellow gang members. When the inevitable jail term confined him to a maximum-security cell, a complete political and personal transformation followed: from Monster to Sanyika Shakur, black nationalist, member of the New Afrikan Independence Movement, and crusader against the causes of gangsterism. In a document that has been compared to The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Shakur makes palpable the despair and decay of America’s inner cities and gives eloquent voice to one aspect of the black ghetto experience today.
7. ‘The Godfather’ by Mario Puzo
The classic saga of The Corleone family, originally published in 1969. It was turned into a movie three years later, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
With its brilliant and brutal portrayal of the Corleone family, The Godfather burned its way into our national consciousness. This unforgettable saga of crime and corruption, passion and loyalty continues to stand the test of time, as the definitive novel of the Mafia underworld.
A #1 New York Times bestseller in 1969, Mario Puzo’s epic was turned into the incomparable film of the same name, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It is the original classic that has been often imitated, but never matched. A tale of family and society, law and order, obedience and rebellion, it reveals the dark passions of human nature played out against a backdrop of the American dream.
6. ‘The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer’ by Philip Carlo
As a work of fiction this is a great book. Unfortunately it’s marketed as ‘true crime, which I heartily disagree with. There are some undertones of truth here, obviously, as the guy was no angel, but following much research I’ve come to see him as an extreme fantasist. That’s just my personal opinion, but for further questions and facts on Richard Kuklinski the article HERE is second to none. Just reading the blurb on the back cover of the book has me cringing….
Philip Carlo’s The Ice Man spent over six weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. Top Mob Hitman. Devoted Family Man. Doting Father. For thirty years, Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski led a shocking double life, becoming the most notorious professional assassin in American history while happily hosting neighborhood barbecues in suburban New Jersey.
Richard Kuklinski was Sammy the Bull Gravano’s partner in the killing of Paul Castellano, then head of the Gambino crime family, at Sparks Steakhouse. Mob boss John Gotti hired him to torture and kill the neighbor who accidentally ran over his child. For an additional price, Kuklinski would make his victims suffer; he conducted this sadistic business with coldhearted intensity and shocking efficiency, never disappointing his customers. By his own estimate, he killed over two hundred men, taking enormous pride in his variety and ferocity of technique.
This trail of murder lasted over thirty years and took Kuklinski all over America and to the far corners of the earth, Brazil, Africa, and Europe. Along the way, he married, had three children, and put them through Catholic school. His daughter’s medical condition meant regular stays in children’s hospitals, where Kuklinski was remembered, not as a gangster, but as an affectionate father, extremely kind to children. Each Christmas found the Kuklinski home festooned in colorful lights; each summer was a succession of block parties.
His family never suspected a thing.
5. ‘Wiseguy’ by Nicholas Pileggi
This is the non-fiction account of former Lucchese family associate-turned-informant Henry Hill – and is often hailed as the best book ever written on organized crime. It was later used as the basis for the movie ‘Goodfellas‘.
This is the true-crime bestseller that was the basis for Martin Scorsese’s film masterpiece GoodFellas, which brought to life the violence, the excess, the families, the wives and girlfriends, the drugs, the payoffs, the paybacks, the jail time, and the Feds…with Henry Hill’s crackling narration drawn straight out of Wiseguy and overseeing all the unforgettable action. “Nonstop…absolutely engrossing” (The New York Times Book Review).
Read it and experience the secret life inside the mob—from one who’s lived it.
4. ‘Accardo: The Genuine Godfather’ by William F. Roemer Jr
A detailed account of the illustrious career of the former Chicago boss, from the point of view of a former FBI agent.
For forty years Tony Accardo was America’s most dangerous criminal. He cut his teeth on the Chicago mob wars of Capone and Elliot Ness. He got his nickname “Joe Batters” for killing two men with a baseball bat. As the bodies piled up, Capone’s youngest capo murdered and schemed his way to the top.
William Roemer was the first FBI agent to face Tony “The Big Tuna” Accardo. Now, Roemer tells the story that only he could tell: the deals, the hits, the double-crosses, and the power plays that reached from the Windy City to Hollywood and to New York. Drawing on secret wiretaps and inside information, Accardo chronicles bloodshed and mayhem for more than six decades–as Roemer duels against the most powerful don of them all. . .
3. ‘Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia’ by John Dickie
This 400-page tome charts the fascinating, extensive history of Cosa Nostra in Sicily. The book is extremely well-researched and well-written, though can be hard-going at times! It’s worth sticking with it as it’s an information goldmine.
(the blurb) Hailed in Italy as the best book ever written about the mafia in any language, Cosa Nostra is a fascinating, violent, and darkly comic account that reads like fiction and takes us deep into the inner sanctum of this secret society where few have dared to tread.In this gripping history of the Sicilian mafia, John Dickie uses startling new research to reveal the inner workings of this secret society with a murderous record. He explains how the mafia began, how it responds to threats and challenges, and introduces us to the real-life characters that inspired the American imagination for generations, making the mafia an international, larger than life cultural phenomenon. Dickie’s dazzling cast of characters includes Antonio Giammona, the first “boss of bosses”; New York cop Joe Petrosino, who underestimated the Sicilian mafia and paid for it with his life; and Bernard “the Tractor” Provenzano, the current boss of bosses who has been hiding in Sicily since 1963.
2. ‘Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires’ by Selwyn Raab
For many this is classed as a bible on the Mob, and the majority of the book appears to be accurate information. Again, I’ve often used it as a reference point, but it’s also an engrossing and comprehensive read.
For half a century, the American Mafia outwitted, outmaneuvered, and outgunned the FBI and other police agencies, wreaking unparalleled damage on America’s social fabric and business enterprises while emerging as the nation’s most formidable crime empire. The vanguard of this criminal juggernaut is still led by the Mafia’s most potent and largest borgatas: New York’s Five Families.
Five Families is the vivid story of the rise and fall of New York’s premier dons, from Lucky Luciano to Paul Castellano to John Gotti and others. This definitive history brings the reader right up to the possible resurgence of the Mafia as the FBI and local law-enforcement agencies turn their attention to homeland security and away from organized crime.
1. ‘Murder Machine’ by Gene Mustain & Jerry Capeci
And we’ve reached the number one book that is most recommended….Murder Machine. It charts the often dark deeds of the DeMeo Crew, working under capo Nino Gaggi for the Gambino family. A disturbing but gripping read.
They were the DeMeo gang—the most deadly hit men in organized crime. Their Mafia higher-ups came to know, use, and ultimately fear them as the Murder Machine. They killed for profit and for pleasure, following cold-blooded plans and wild whims, from the mean streets of New York to the Florida Gold Coast, and from coast to coast.
Now complete with personal revelations of one of the key players, this is the savage story that leaves no corpse unturned in its terrifying telling.
The classic ‘Murder Machine’ concludes our twenty best gangster books as voted by you. We hope you’ve found this compilation as interesting as we have, and, as ever, we’d love to hear your opinions in the comments. Any books that don’t belong here? Any you’d recommend that didn’t make the cut? Let us know!
We’ll finish with a few that came close to making the grade. Notable mentions are….
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