Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Heard: "Gangster Squad" by Paul Lieberman

Heard: Gangster Squad:Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles by Paul Lieberman, 2012, overdrive.com download.

In 1946 LAPD formed a special unit to fight organized crime. Meaning Jack Dragna and Mickey Cohen. Lieberman follows the story of the central squad members as they follow and eavesdrop on Mickey through Mickey's last conviction in 1961.

Corruption in Los Angeles was endemic from the population boom in the 1920's and World War Two. There were plenty of both homegrown crooks and new imports who were bootleggers, gamblers and pimps. LA County had a decades long history of unsolved mafia murders. From street cart fruit vendors to the disappearance of the local mafia don. Lieberman shows how the Gangster Squad was a reaction to a fear that outside organized crime would move into sunny Southern California.

It's most of the same old story you may have read or seen in several books and films.  The squad used to take out-of-town gangsters into the hills and overdrops of Mulholland Drive, beat them, threaten them with death, and send them out of town. James Ellroy novels just has the cops running them out so the police could run their own criminal operations. Bugsy Siegel, Johnny Stompanato, the Black Dahlia, Jack Webb and other famous Los Angeles names weave in and out of the book's narrative.

The Gangster Squad started without an office and would meet on street corners. Over time new members were added and different mayors and police administrations allowed expansion and gradual evolution into an intelligence unit.

Lieberman spends his time on the Squad's focus on Mickey Cohen. Attention loving Cohen was the opposite of quiet gangster and native Sicilian Jack Dragna. The Squad went after Dragna but only caught him for lewd sex acts when listening devices brought in evidence of oral sex with his mistress.

The Squad's limited success with Cohen was two convictions for tax evasion. The only murder case - and Lieberman spends a lot of time on it - the Squad could connect with Cohen was that of Jack Whalen. Whalen was a physically powerful debt collector for LA bookies and Whalen and Cohen never got along. During Cohen's prison stint Whalen took over some of the book making business. Whalen came to Cohen's restaurant hangout to confront two of Cohen's pals and Whalen was shot in the head.

No great loss, Whalen was a scumbag. They were all scumbags. Thieves, con men, robbers, pimps, liars.  They would put on a shiny, happy face and then punch your face demanding that you owed them $5,000.  "For what?" you'd say back. "Because I fucking said so."

Cohen ran a racket with a fake floral store where people were forced to pay big to have his plastic plants in their business. Cohen would sell stakes in his life story and take "loans" from others to develop his life story.  Whalen's dirtbag father used to run cons across the country as a fake book maker and pool shark.

Of course, whenever any of these people were screwed out of money they would indignantly cry Foul! The cops would often work outside the law with illegal searches and wiretaps to catch people who were dirtbags. When the courts cracked down on warrantless searches the cops griped. Jack Webb was the LAPD's popular mouthpiece on how the police were shackled from doing what "needed" to be done.

OK, enough griping by me. I see on goodreads.com that the book gets middling reviews. Well, after reading and watching plenty of reality based LA crime drama from the '20s - '50s I think it is a pretty neat book. Lieberman and  publisher have a neat interview at the end of the audiobook and Lieberman details how he started writing the story. Lieberman had a story in the Los Angeles Times about LAPD corruption (Rampart? Maybe earlier than that) and a quick section on the Intelligence Division brought Lieberman a call from a former Gangster Squad member. Over several years Lieberman met more and more Officers, crooks, and relatives and went to the original docs to fact check. He wrote a eight part series for the Times and then did the book.

I did not watch the film adaptation, it looks awful.  Too bad because Will Beall wrote the screenplay and his novel L.A. Rex was outstanding.

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