Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review: Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi

Article first published as Book Review: Wiseguy: Life In a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi on Blogcritics.

One of the largest heists in American history occurred in December of 1978 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York when an informant, Louis Werner, tipped off Martin Krugman, a bookmaker and member of the Lucchese crime organization to whom Werner owed a large sum, that millions of dollars in cash and jewels were due to arrive on a Lufthansa flight and would be stored over a weekend in a particular vault on the grounds of JFK. Jimmy Burke’s mob, a sub-organization of Lucchese’s took an estimated $6,000,000 in cash and jewels.

Goodfellas movie poster
The Lufthansa heist has been the subject of three films, including two made-for-tv movies, The 10 Million Dollar Get-Away and The Big Heist, and one major motion picture, Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas which had an all-star “bad guy” cast of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Ray Liotta.

Wiseguy, a book written in 1985 by journalist Nicholas Pileggi was the primary source material Mug shot of Henry Hillfor the movie GoodFellasWiseguy traces the history of Henry Hill beginning in his youthful days as an errand runner at mobster Paul Viori’s cabstand in Brooklyn through his tumultuous days as a chief operative in Jimmy Burke’s organization.

Born into an Irish working class family, young Henry Hill was tantalized by the glamour of the criminal world which he observed at Viori’s place of business. As a dependable foot soldier, Hill was quickly given adult responsibilities, including parking mob limousines though he could not see over the steering wheel without the aid of a telephone directory for a booster seat. As he grew older, Hill participated in countless criminal enterprises including illegal cigarette sales, loan sharking, arson, and point-shaving schemes involving Boston College basketball center Rick Kuhn and some of his teammates.

It was the Lufthansa heist however that eventually forced Henry Hill’s destiny. As the case unfolded, a law enforcement informant put the finger on a number of Burke’s gang of characters, including Hill. Many of the crime’s participants were whacked by Burke’s men before the FBI could arrest them. Henry Hill was the lucky one.

Convinced that he was within only a few hours of becoming Burke’s next victim, Hill entered the witness protection program with his wife and children. For several years Henry Hill became a major informant to the government, successfully bringing many of his former friends to justice, including his old mentors Paul Vario and Jimmy Burke.

Wiseguy is a story told in the language of the insiders, primarily Hill, his wife Karen, and Hill’s girlfriend. It is quick-paced and detailed, giving readers a microscopic view into the criminal world of contrasts: of loyalty and betrayal, of steel-eyed determination and impassioned rage.

Coming in September is the new Amazon release of Wiseguy in Kindle format which can be pre-ordered for $12.99.

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