If you’re looking for the melding of best true crime books with historical organized crime, you’re in the right place. Here are eight books that take a close look at organized crime, from Donnie Brasco to a former violent extremist who now leads a project that helps people disengage from hate groups. Plus a heist—and so much more! So, there’s plenty of history throughout different decades, sadly, plenty of violence, and tons to learn here.
John Connolly and James “Whitey” Bulger may have grown up together in South Boston, but their lives took very different paths: by the mid-1970s, Connolly worked in the FBI’s Boston office, and Whitey was the Irish mob godfather. But a childhood connection wasn’t enough to pull off Connolly’s plan of getting Bulger to make a deal with the FBI—instead we get the true story of a deal that went sideways, including drug dealing, racketeering, and murder. Bonus: when you’re finished reading, there’s a 2015 film adaptation starring Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, and Dakota Johnson.
Stephen L. Carter
This is more a biography about a prosecutor, Eunice Hunton Carter, written by her grandson. But—and this is why it’s on this list—Eunice Hunton Carter is responsible for the strategy that convicted Mafia boss Lucky Luciano. This is the story of a granddaughter of slaves, graduate of Smith College, and prosecutor who was one of twenty lawyers—the only one who wasn't a white man—tasked with cleaning up New York’s underworld in the 1930s.
FBI again, but this time the agent is undercover and the crime is money laundering. Not only did these money launderers run public companies that were really multibillion-dollar drug-trafficking empires, but these dirty bankers and businessmen were creating power around the world. This is Mazur’s story of how he infiltrated the bankers behind the Medellín cartel, which led to 40 high-ranking criminals ending up in prison.
“Crazy” Phil Leonetti was “Little” Nicky Scarfo's underboss and nephew during Scarfo’s reign as the boss of the Philly family in the 1980s. At the age of 31, Leonetti, the youngest underboss, ended up turning state's evidence against his family and helping to bring down about the end of the Mafia's violent final heyday--taking down men like John Gotti and Vincent Gigante with his testimony.
(Yes, that Joan Jett wrote the foreword.) In high school, Christian Picciolini was recruited by a white power skinhead into their movement, and later took over as leader when his recruiter was sentenced to prison. Picciolini thrived in growing an army of extremists until growing up, meeting people different from him, and experiencing a racially violent incident made him realize he’d only been causing harm. Unable to change the past, he became an anti-hate activist and helps people leave terrorist and hate groups.
Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno
While many believe that when Pablo Escobar died in the early ‘90s the reign of terror and corruption fueled by the drug trade and cartel ended, but it in fact did not. It was instead followed by a period during which right-wing paramilitary groups tied to the cocaine business created a new wave of terror and massacre. Here, you learn about three Colombians who risked their lives to expose the tie between the new mafia and the country's military and political establishment.
So, yes, you’ve probably already heard of Donnie Brasco and the film starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino, but did you know that the first book written about him, 1988's Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, had to withhold a bunch of information because the trials were still pending? In this follow-up book, Pistone was finally able to reveal all the information from when he was an FBI Special Agent who infiltrated New York's Bonanno crime family in 1975—including the violence he witnessed and participated in.
And finally a book for fans of Ocean’s Eleven—if Brad Pitt and George Clooney were replaced by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. You see, this is the story of the 2015 Hatton Garden Heist in which the "Diamond Geezers" (career criminals now in retirement-age) decided to rob a London jewelry vault. Find out how this last hurrah, which became the biggest burglary in UK history, didn’t go quite as planned.
Here’s to your next great crime read!
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Jamie Canavés is a Book Riot contributing editor and Tailored Book Recommendations coordinator. She writes the Unusual Suspects mystery newsletter, never says no to chocolate or ‘80s nostalgia, and can hold a conversation using only gifs. Tweets: @Oh_Dinky.