Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.
“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”
This column’s theme: Crime! Stories of people doing bad things, and nearly (or not so nearly) getting away with it.
Criminals occupy their own space in society, and, as countless books, movies and TV series have shown, always make for good storytelling, because the rules don’t really apply to them (or do they?) Whether it is a brazen stunt, an exquisitely executed operation, or something so phenomenally stupid you just can’t believe it, illegal activity is a guaranteed attention getter…and getting my attention this month are three real life tales of those who broke the rules, and paid the price (or did they?)
So if you like:
Young adult appropriate reading
Bite sized bits of historic heists
Knowing the real reason the Mona Lisa was stolen
You might like
Thieves!, by Andreas Schroeder
Ten stories of people taking famous things, or being famous for taking things, and it’s the only book on this list that is young adult appropriate.
The man proposed that Perugia steal the Mona Lisa—and he had the plan all worked out.
It was the Signore (as Perugia called him—the man had been careful never to disclose his name) who had gotten him the smocks, the duplicate key, the location of the hidden storeroom. He had spread a blueprint of the Louvre on Perugia’s bed, showing him exactly where he would begin, where he would carry the painting, and how he would get it out. All Perugia had to do was arrange for the help of the Lancelotti brothers and steal the portrait.
For this, the Signore had agreed to pay Perugia a sum equivalent to about five years’ income as a first installment—with the promise of a second installment in the same amount when “everything succeeded.” (The Lancelotti brothers, he said, would only receive a first installment.) And the Signore had indeed paid everyone as agreed, on the day after the theft, when Perugia had met him to hand over the portrait. But to Perugia’s astonishment, the Signore hadn’t taken the portrait away. He’d merely admired it for a short while, then rewrapped it in its linen cloth and instructed Perugia to keep it hidden in his apartment “until it was required.”
Perugia had assumed the Signore intended to ransom the portrait, selling it back to the Louvre for a hefty sum. But as the months passed by, there was no sign that any negotiations were taking place. The newspapers continued to deplore the loss of France’s most beloved national treasure. The police kept up their relentless dragnet efforts to find the painting. And the Louvre—well, the Louvre had rather cleverly managed to turn its disaster into quite an advantage. More people were now visiting the museum to see the place where the famous portrait wasn’t, than had ever come to see it when it was. Even two years after her disappearance, people were still laying so many flowers and wreaths beneath the Mona Lisa’s empty wall space in the Salle Carré that they had to be cleared away twice a day.
Meanwhile, Vincenzo Perugia was broke once again, and still waiting for his second instalment. He was also getting the distinct impression that he had somehow been made a fool.
There’s something compelling about watching people doing bad things fail, and Schroeder captures that in a clear, conversational tone that sounds like a good friend telling you about their crazy weekend. At any point in these stories it would be totally appropriate to interrupt with ‘and then what happened?’… and he’d tell you. It’s compelling, is what I’m saying. Like popcorn, you start with one or two stories and then suddenly the whole thing is done. It’s a great quick read for the kleptocurious.
Or if you like:
International Criminal Syndicates
An antagonist who is both Doctor No and Doctor Evil
Watching yearlong investigations on fast forward
You might like
The Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal, by Evan Ratliff
A true story of how a computer programmer and wannabe Bond villain built a criminal empire and attracted the attention of a whole lot of government agencies.
The deal Jack brokered was complex enough that, when I meet him years later, I need him to walk me through it several times. The Colombians, who deal primarily in the cocaine produced in their own country, are looking to expand into methamphetamine, which they want to manufacture in Liberia and distribute to the United States and Europe. Paul, a computer programmer who heads his own kind of cartel based in the Philippines, will provide the materials to build the Colombians’ meth labs: precursor chemicals, formulas for cooking them into meth, and a “clean room” in which to synthesize it all. While the labs are being built, Paul has agreed to also sell Pepe his own stash of meth, in exchange for an equivalent amount of cocaine at market rates.
After months of back-and-forth, Jack has urged Paul to travel to Liberia and meet his new associate “boss to boss” to finalize the deal.
“So where do you want to start?” Pepe says. “First of all is the clean room.”
Paul tells him that the parts needed to build it are already en route by boat. “If you have any problem, I’ll send guys here to assemble it like that.” He snaps his fingers.
Pepe turns to the second part of the deal: the trade of his Colombian cocaine for Paul’s methamphetamine, a sample of which Paul has shipped to him from his base in the Philippines. “Let me ask you a question,” Pepe says.
“You are not Filipino, why the Philippines?”
“Same reason you are in Liberia. Basically, as far as Asia goes, it’s the best sh*thole we can find, which gives us the ability to ship anywhere. It’s the best position in Asia. And it’s also a poor place. Not as bad as here, but we can still solve problems.”
What do government agents tracking small online pharmacies that were prescribing literally tons of pills, the murder of a real estate agent in the Philippines, e-mail spam, the recruitment of mercenaries, a land grab in Zimbabwe, a fish processing plant in Somalia, and open-source encryption software have in common? A man named Paul LeRoux who masterminded a criminal empire, and depending on how you’re looking at it, was either James Bond’s Doctor No, or Austin Powers’ Doctor Evil (who would have been fine if he’d just stuck to quasi-legal enterprises.) The sheer diversity of things this guy was involved in is amazing, and Ratliff does a skillful job of putting the pieces of the puzzle together in a way that’s straightforward for the reader to understand. If Olympic level true crime is your thing, you really have to read this.
Or if you like
The Italian Mafia
Small time 50’s gangsters
You might like
A historical researcher turns his eye to his own family and tries to get the real story about his grandfather, who was a small-time mobster.
The Paganos ran a book back in the day. They had their territory. I had it on my list to track down and talk to someone who could tell me about it. I had a theory, or an idea anyway, which related to the murder of Pippy diFalco. It seemed too farfetched to think Little Joe would have had Pippy killed for skipping on his payments, but it was possible that Joe or Russ had told someone—maybe Rip—to put pressure on Pippy, and that things had gone too far. It was possible, in other words, that my grandfather had had a hand in the murder that sat near the center of this story. (My feelings on this question seemed to teeter both ways. On the one hand, I wanted to exonerate my namesake. On the other, were he involved in the deed, even indirectly and inadvertently, it would be pretty badass, and there was something thrilling in that, as if I might be able to convince myself that some of that had transferred to me.)
In tracing his family’s history in Pennsylvania, from his great grandfather’s birth in 1800’s Sicily to the effect the family legacy had on his father, Shorto touches on the immigrant experience in turn of the century America (which has a number of disturbing parallels to current events, causing the reader to ponder if we have actually learned anything), and how the roaring twenties and World War Two provided opportunities for immigrants, even if those opportunities weren’t entirely legal. With that as a background he acts as both storyteller and participant in the story, painting a picture of his discoveries while reflecting on what that means for his family and his relationship with his father. In the end he wraps it up by doing an excellent job of using what he’s learned about the past to understand his family better. It’s an interesting angle on organized crime, told not by the participants or the prosecutors, but by the relatives.
So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.