Book Review: Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires by Selwyn Raab

There is this great old joke that I learned. It goes like this:

Jimmy, a Greek-American, gets no respect. So he gets the bright idea that to get respect he needs to join the mob. The only problem is that as a Greek-American he knows nothing about the mob or anyone in the mob. Every time he asks his Italian-American friends about the mob, they keep telling him: There is no such thing as the Mafia.

Jimmy, being an enterprising young lad decides to go to Italy to find someone who knows something about the mob. After two years of trying and getting nowhere he finally returns to the USA.

Back in Astoria, his friends ask him: So Jimmy, what did you learn about the Mafia? Jimmy responds: There is no such thing as the Mafia. And with that his friends started to accord him every kind of respect.

The funny part of this story is that the FBI and the police were no better for about 50 years. Starting in the 1930’s when the Mafia transformed itself from a street gang to a real powerful organization and ending in the late 70’s, the Mafiosi worked with impunity. No one knew of their existence. No one knew who their leaders were. No one tried to arrest them. The laws that were required to arrest them (RICO) did not even exist making a made man a criminal that could never be put behind bars. The Feds in the 1980’s when they actually started to take the mob seriously ended up arresting the wrong Capo of the Genovese three times.

This is a book of the history of the Mob. The author, Selwyn Raab, is a journalist and not a historian so the book suffers from all of the flaws a history book written by a journalist suffers. It’s breathless, opinionated, dependent on first person accounts, full of conjectures and questionable assertions. However, like all great journalism it creates a sense of immediacy. This is not a scholarly treatment of the Mob.

What is interesting is that Mr. Raab is extremely frustrated with the media and how the media treats the Mob. He finds them to be a despicable organization of vultures and parasites that prey on the weak. To Mr. Raab, the notion that there is something romantic about the mob is abhorrent. A significant chunk of the text is devoted to this rant against the media.

Where the book is weak is in the history of the period starting in 1900 and ending in 1980. Where the book is strongest is in the period beginning in 1980 and ending with the present day. This is the period that Mr. Raab covered as a reporter and a significant chunk of the book reads like a re-capitulation of his notes from trials and from conversations with insiders.

I liked the book. What I found most interesting was how powerful and how invisible the mob really was. And how the notion that there are vast powerful conspiracies of men that we don’t know about is not that absurd, given how little we as a country knew about the power of the mob. Maybe the black helicopters and the tri-lateral commission really do exist …

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