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Book Review - Black Mass

Rajiv Ramaratnam

Two brothers, one a powerful government official and another a merciless gangster. This is not the plot of a cheesy Bollywood flick, but a true story of one of New England’s most enigmatic and well-known families, the Bulgers. As William Bulger rose to become President of the Massachusetts Senate, his brother Whitey rose up the ranks to head the mob in Southern Boston.

  Black Mass is a journalistic masterpiece, that tells the saga of Whitey Bulger and his deal with the FBI which he masterfully turned to his advantage. It leaves out the fat, packing only lean muscle but is surprisingly riveting. At no point does this book turn into a dull narrative of just facts. There are places in the book where William does make a ‘cameo’ appearance.

 The book begins with FBI agent John Connolly waiting to sign a devil’s deal on Wollaston beach (,a locale, less than a stone’s throw from my previous residence in Quincy). As the CIA is busy making alliances with La Cosa Nostra, the Italian Mafia,  plotting the assignation of Castro in Cuba, this FBI agent is on a mission to bring down the Mafia by striking a deal with Whitey Bulger and Steve Flemmi, two gangsters with connections to the Italian mob. The deal: Connolly gives Flemmi and Bulger some leeway with their activities, while the gangsters feed him, Connolly with incriminating information on the Mafia.

 Little does Connolly realize the graveness of this deal.  The very people he attempts to manipulate turn the tables on him and his supervisor, John Morris. The two gangsters, Whitey and Steve use this deal and the fall of leadership the Winter Hill Gang, an Irish gang in South Boston to rise as leaders in the criminal underworld.

 As the two FBI officials, Connolly and Morris are pulled into the web of Flemmi and Whitey, the line between good and evil becomes slimmer and slimmer. Whitey would own the streets, indulging in extortion, race fixing, gang style shootings and selling arms to the IRA. The agents, seduced by ‘gifts’ offered by the gangsters keep the latter informed about all investigations in the police department. The two FBI agents cover up all crimes committed by Whitey and Steve. Connolly would even concoct fictitious ‘tips’ that he would claim Bulger and Flemmi gave him about the Mafia.

 Though some information given by Steve Flemmi ultimately helps build a case against the Mafia and finally leads to the arrest of the La Cosa Nostra leadership, the deal made with the criminal duo would turn out to be too much of a price to pay. It would end the careers of both Morris and Connolly. The words of John le Carre (quoted in this book) sum up the plot of this book:

“Some things are necessary evils,

some things are more evil than necessary.”

 Then comes Fred Wyshak, an attorney from New York. He would help spearhead a case against the gangsters that would be the turning point in Boston’s crime history. It would force Bulger to run from the law and lead to Flemmi’s arrest. This case and its shocking revelations form the final chapters of Black Mass.

 Black Mass serves as a prologue to several recent news events like Billy Bulger’s resignation from the position of President of the University of Massachusetts and Whitey sightings around the world. Most recently a news source reported that Whitey is currently striking a deal with the law for his surrender. The South Boston of today is a vastly different place from the South Boston of only a decade ago.

 This book is a prime example of great journalistic investigation at its best. It will appeal to any lover of crime books, particularly one familiar with Boston and its suburbs. It proves that truth is oftentimes stranger and surely more interesting than fiction.



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