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Boss of Bosses by Joseph F. O'brien and Andris Kurins

One of the first books reviewed in ideas and was Donnie Brasco, the incredible true story of an undercover FBI agent who penetrated the New York mafia.  Boss of Bosses is my second mafia book pick, and it begins with a message from the FBI to the Gambino crime family boss, Paul Castellano.  The message concerns Joseph Pistone, a.k.a. Donnie Brasco.  

The five New York crime families had just put out a $500,000 contract for Pistone's assassination and the FBI wanted to be completely clear about one thing - any attack on Pistone or his family would result in an unprecedented assault on organized crime.  Paul Castellano accepted the message with mutual respect for his adversaries.  

So begins our introduction to the colorful men who at one time made up the Gambino crime family.  

At the beginning of the story, the FBI knows little about the Gambinos.  Slowly we follow along as they investigate its members and their activities.  

At the head of the family were three aging mobsters - Boss Paul Castellano, underboss Joseph "Piney" Armone, and consiglieri Joe Gallo - all benevolent grandfather-types who earned fatherly respect even from the FBI.

Serving under these three men were a mix of divided mafia captains, or capos.  Chief among the street-wise capos was John Gotti.  Mafia family life is a tense life, but tensions began to boil over when capos like Gotti saw their influence slip in a new and improved Gambino family, a "legitimate" Gambino family.  Drugs and pornography were leaving some of the tougher capos with less influence among the crime family hierarchy.

The Gambino's problems reached a critical point after the capos learned that the FBI had bugged Paul Castellano's house, possibly revealing all sorts of family secrets.  A federal indictment followed.  

The capos were scared.  What would Paul tell the FBI to save himself?  Probably nothing, but the Gambinos were apparently not going to take that chance.  All of this leads to the grim ending.  On December 16, 1985, Paul Castellano took six bullets from a team of assassins.  It was one of the most spectacular mob hits in years, all in public and outside a posh Manhattan restaurant.  

So much for the basics.  What truly sets apart this story is that the two authors were in fact special agents in the FBI cell that investigated and arrested Paul Castellano.  

The agents' task begins humbly enough with these orders - go out and meet the Gambino consiglieri, Joe Gallo; talk to him, see what he has to say; maybe it will lead to something.  What is even more amazing is that many of the Gambinos were actually willing to talk.  So over the course of the book there is a cordial rivalry between the FBI and the Gambinos.  

The story has its best moments during the one-on-one encounters between the mafia and the government agents, but the highlight of Boss of Bosses comes when the authors break into Big Paul's house and plant the bug.  It is a gold mine of information that eventually leads to Castellano's arrest - and murder.  

Behind all of this are several other stories.  There is Paul's mistress, his Colombian maid - a large point of contention with the cliquish mafia code.  There are also the Gambino soldiers.  Some were "in" with the Boss, others were out, and still others were taking mafia-style bullets to the head.

Underlying the story we keep returning to the FBI's odd sense of respect for their rival.  Our familiarity of Castellano grows as one can almost hear his private conversations over the kitchen counter.  Then Castellano falls before he can face a federal trial.

The murder was unsolved at the time Boss of Bosses was published.  The case is now closed on Castellano's murder, but that's a story for other mafia books.  Read Donnie Brasco and don't stop until you've finished Boss of Bosses.


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Thanks for looking around ideas and  Just don't stop there.  There is much more to see and read.  We have Osama Bin Laden in Thoughts on the News, the ever popular The Parachute on my Back, and the strange mix of our first video picks - Memento, Fall, and Party Girl.

Posted Saturday December 1, 2001.

Updated Sunday June 20, 2004.