The Valachi Papers (1968) – Joseph Valachi – Book Review

Joseph was the first mobster to testify openly about the existence of La Cosa Nostra at the 1963 McClellan Hearings

The true-crime genre is so niche that it often attracts poor literature. There are stand out books, of course, but by and large, there seem to be a lot of hacks producing poorly researched manuscripts lacking in nuance and good prose. Luckily, Peter Maas is one of those rare, good authors whose dedication to the craft jumps off the page. Indeed, readers were quickly introduced to the hoops the author had to jump through just to get this book written. The Valachi Papers, published in 1968, is a pioneering work in the genre that reads like a fiction novel. I think we sometimes fail to appreciate just how much we know about this thing. It wasn’t even that long ago when the idea of a national crime syndicate was treated like one of Alex Jones’s asinine conspiracies. With Valachi Papers, readers get to hold a paper DeLorean in their hands and travel back to a time when the Mafia was shrouded in mystery, its power not fully comprehended. Who could’ve imagined the magnitude of their control? From their iron grip on organized labour to being the largest drug trafficking organization, who was better to serve as our vessel into this secretive world than a lowly soldier who himself was awed by the seemingly infinite influence it possessed. Only Valachi could express how terrifying La Cosa Nostra must have felt to the ordinary folk and button man as they saw the Mafia’s tentacles engulf everything around them. It is a short but powerful book and I want to talk about some of its praiseworthy qualities, its shortcoming and discusses everyone’s favourite topic: organized crime’s obsessions with gasoline.

The Good

Joseph Valachi was the first mobster I read about that you can feel empathetic towards. I felt horrified at reading about his childhood living conditions. From the constant parental abuse to the bedbugs, and dirt, it was a miserable experience. The lack of opportunities and learning difficulties made him turn to petty thievery just to have a little bit of money, it almost seemed excusable. In a lot of ways, it was due to Peter Maas’s excellent craftsmanship. When a true crime book reads like a fiction novel, with an emphasis on vividly painting Valachi’s world with literary devices and care, you know you’re in for a ride. Even when Valachi’s socio-economic position improved and his criminality was no longer justifiable, the author makes it, so the character is still sympathetic. From the funny descriptions to Valachi’s portrayal as a disgruntled employee complaining about his boss (Tony Bender), it always kept you engaged. That’s not to say Peter is completely biased towards Joe either, he rightfully called him out on certain topics and implied his lingering doubt about the ever-mysterious Buster from Chicago character. It pained me just how hard Peter Maas was screwed over by the government and how handicapped he was in putting this book together. Yet despite all the challenges and hurdles, the author put out a fantastic product and a Mafia classic for the ages.

Another thing going for the book is what we got to see the Mafia, its lifestyle, politics and rackets from the perspective of a foot soldier. Most books about the Mafia were written by former captains and Bosses and so the glamour and earning power can conceal the true realities of “the life”. Through the eyes of Valachi, we could truly appreciate the hustle and bustle lifestyle of the average gangster personifying the hectic life of New York in general. As in most industries, the riches are found only at the top and Mafiosos struggled just to exist. Despite the network advantage, Joe still had to grind daily for his numbers and jukebox rackets. As the numbers racket was the bread and butter of the mob back then, readers were treated with a fantastic explanation of the scheme and Joe’s roller coaster of an experience within it. We got to see the high and low points of his time in the racket, how he got bailed out several times and ultimately his unceremonious exit from his venture. In the most interesting way, Joe’s rackets also reflected the state of society at the time. When times were tough, the public gambled any penny they could scramble on the numbers. But by the time of the late 50s and early 60s, life was getting better for the average American and they started to enjoy eating out at restaurants and dance to the music coming out of the jukeboxes. As such Joe pivoted with the times, always chasing to supply the public’s demand. But most importantly we were treated to some funny stories and met the degenerate gamblers that inhabited the underworld. Joe Valachi didn’t sugar-coat it and showed just how tough life was, even when you were a tenured member of La Cosa Nostra’s biggest Family.

Although some claim the Tradition is an ancient Sicilian way of life, La Cosa Nostra as we know it is a fairly recent phenomenon with its details hammered out in 1931. As such, Valachi Papers is one of our only glimpses into the early formation and shakeout of the Mafia in America. Valachi was recruited by the Maranzano faction into the power struggle that consumed the underworld. He participated, the extent to which is up for interpretation, in some of the major hits such as the slaying of Steve Ferrigno, a key Masseria ally. As a reward for aiding in the murders, Joseph Valachi was made in what was probably the most grandiose making ceremony of all time. Surrounded by forty or fifty legendary Mafiosos such as Joseph Bonanno, Tom Gagliano, Tommy Lucchese and Joe Profaci, Valachi was inducted into the Lucchese Crime Family. The sword and gun were at the table, and so there was plenty of meaning and gravitas to the occasion. The subsequent urban warfare described was intense, the atmosphere chilling, the hearts racing. Walking down a street could mean a death sentence. The Castellammarese War was a gripping event and easily the best part of the book. But what it also highlighted was just how secretive and discrete the organization used to be. Despite hanging out in the heart of Italian Harlem, rubbing shoulders with connected men and keeping an ear to the streets, Joe Valachi had not the faintest clue about the tension between the Italians that was about to erupt or what was even going on. Crime barons like Dutch Schultz, who wielded power over labour unions and the numbers racket, weren’t privy to the inside politics of the Mafia. It truly was a secret society back then that stealthfully maneuvered its way to the top. Joseph Valachi lived through that and could explain that in ways most couldn’t.

The Bad 

The book’s strength also happens to be its biggest weakness, Joseph Valachi. By refusing to take responsibility for certain crimes and actions he committed, Joe tarnished a bit of his otherwise stellar credibility and opinion. It seems that in an already treacherous world, Joe Valachi had a knack for attracting the worst of it. His Boss tried to screw with him, his captain kept selling him out, partners in every scheme would deceive him. Hell, his own recruit, Joseph Pagano, would keep too much money for himself after collecting from Joe’s jukebox operation. But at some point, you have to start wondering if everyone around you is the problem, or if maybe the problem laid with you. It is obvious that all mobsters seek to improve their public image and be remembered for something better than they were, but at some point, it clouds the narrative and readers have a hard time grasping what the atmosphere was really like at those times. Joe Cago, a lot of the time, just sounds like a resentful employee blaming everything on their manager. Vito Genovese went from being Valachi’s best man at his wedding to giving Joe the “kiss of death”. The readers go through Valachi’s roller coaster of an opinion about Don Vito. When things are going well Don Vito is an okay guy. When things are going bad Don Vito is not a good guy. I don’t know Joe, but I doubt Vito Genovese and Anthony Strollo are to blame for everything.

Of course, then we get to his two federal narcotics cases. Valachi was skittish about discussing it, refusing to elaborate on his “bum” rap and downplaying its significance. It’s weird reading a killer being so embarrassed about dealing drugs. Did his consciousness wake up? Or is the association with narcotics worse than murder? It is an interesting phenomenon though because other mobsters like Al D’Arco, Phil Leonetti, and even Ralph Natale seemed to share the same opinion. Then there is the curious case of “Buster from Chicago”. Buster, Buster, Buster. Was he real? Yes, there were two busters active in New York at the time. One even attended Joseph Bonanno’s wedding in 1931. Was Joe Valachi’s Buster real? I have my doubts. I find the whole situation weird. Joe had no problems discussing his participation in several murder conspiracies, but in instances where he most likely pulled the trigger? He put the blame on another person. It is very peculiar. Peter Maas, in an effort to let the readers know how reliable Joe Valachi was, weaved in police reports detailing and confirming the various murders the mobster discussed. The often-gruesome details noted in the police reports further helped portray the unsavoriness of that life, that it was not to be glorified. I thought that was a brilliant addition on Peter’s part. Yet Buster’s police report is missing. In a time when gangland slayings were very public, the suspicious disappearance of the soldier with the violin case is eyebrow-raising. It sucked that Valachi was ashamed? Deceitful? Deflecting to not sour his public image and reputation? Otherwise, Valachi’s perspective and recounting of the early history of La Cosa Nostra was especially appreciated.

The final issue? The book is just too darn short! My paperback version clocked at less than 280 pages and there was simply not enough space to get all the details and stories I wanted. I understand the government hampered Peter Maas’s ability to write this book, limiting his sources to just the interviews conducted with Joe and public government filings. As a result, there are lingering questions and missing details that are just not answered or addressed. First, there were a couple of big-time skips during the 1940s and 1950s at the height of Valachi’s criminal career. Surely there was interesting encounters, events or stories that the elder Mafioso could have spoken about. The second issue is that there are a lot of instances where I thought clarification or further detail would have benefited the story and the reader’s ability to fully digest the book’s material. For instance, despite being originally initiated into Tommy Gagliano’s Family (later the Lucchese Crime Family) his gombah or Godfather was Joseph Bonanno who proceeded to prick Valachi’s trigger finger. What is the role of a member’s Godfather? Does it not create friction when a member’s Godfather is from another Family? Would one ask their Godfather to intervene on their behalf in times of grievances? Why does Valachi not talk about Joseph Bonanno much after his initiation ceremony, did they not have much of a relationship after that? Why would that be the case? Were most members usually close to their Godfather? Questions like those are, unfortunately, not clarified either for a lack of space or maybe Peter never asked. I just wished the book was a tad longer.

The Original Gas Scheme 

We all heard and read about the Mafia’s infiltration of the gasoline distribution and retailing industry to the point where we don’t want to hear about it anymore. Whether it’s Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso and his extortion of The Organizatsiya or Michael Franzese and his rehearsed speech, most are sick and tired of it. But boy was I excited when I read about Valachi’s ventures in the Gas Stamp business during the height of World War II. Due to the massive, industrialized effort needed to support America’s military, shortages of all kinds of goods developed in the economy. As with Prohibition, ordinary Americans turned to the black market to get their fix for food, clothes, and other items. But what the public also needed was gasoline. Valachi specialized in gasoline stamps and between the middle of 1942 to 1945 he made a cool tax-free sum of about $200,000 (adjusted for inflation, that’s three million in today’s money). Maybe Valachi wasn’t the smartest gangster around, but back then everyone made money. In an essence, businessmen would tell mobsters how many gallons worth of stamps they wanted and how much they would be willing to pay. The mobster would then ask their friend in the stamp business for their price, who get their stamps from breaking into and stealing from local boards of the Office of Price Administration. When the price was right, the exchange happened to net middleman a hefty profit for doing almost nothing. As such Valachi and dozens of other mobsters became wholesalers in this lucrative market. Of course, the mob would take advantage of its power and create a cartel that would regulate the supply and price of stamps to make sure not too much was flooding the market at any given time. Profits were kept high, and everybody was happy, besides the IRS of course. Investigations by the government concluded that at least 2.5 million gallons of gasoline were diverted for illegal use every day throughout the war. That’s a lot of money! The mob’s ingenuity and ability to take advantage of any crisis is just astonishing. You have to sit back and nod your head begrudgingly at their resourcefulness. 

Thank you for reading and I hope to catch you next time when we will read another book written about these times. I am of course talking about Joseph Bonanno’s book!