Murder, Inc.
Burton B. Turkus & Sid Feder
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Murder, Inc.: The Story of the Syndicate* online

Murder, Inc.: The Story of the Syndicate

Burton B. Turkus and Sid Feder
DaCapo Press
512 pages
July 2003 (reissue)
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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This is a reprint of a book first published in 1951, before the era of television made stories like it a part of the dinner hour and Americans became more or less unshockable. So it might seem, to a modern reader, that it would be a little ho-hum. But be not deceived - it's a fast paced read with colorful characters and the authenticity of its times pulsing through every page.

Turkus was Assistant DA, Feder an AP reporter, when the crimes and criminals enumerated in harsh detail were under investigation. It all started when "Kid Twist" Reles, facing a murder sentence, started to "sing," revealing what the law had suspected but had never been able to substantiate - that behind the many killings and other thuggery associated with gambling, illegal booze, drugs et al, was a sinister kind of organization, almost a board of directors and rules of (dis)order.

Let there be no mistake about it - the men in question were cold-blooded, sometimes sadistic killers who didn't mind getting rid of anyone who might stand in the way of the pursuit of illicit profit.

Take the case of Sholem Bernstein, a "one man finance company" who had gotten his start as a kid being a shill in the carnival. "Things were always happening to friends of Sholem," meaning, things like getting killed after having coffee with the guy. At one point Sholem himself became a target of assassination by the Syndicate, but he was still reluctant to talk to authorities about it, though he sought asylum:

"In this respect, a peculiar thread is woven inexplicably through the mental processes of virtually all of these characters in organized crime. Every one of them understands all too clearly that the Syndicate would seal the lips of any member it deems necessary, with no compunction about personality or past services. Yet, each, in his heart, is sure it can't happen to him." Ultimately, after conferring in jail with Reles, Sholem agreed to "become a rat and tell everything."
There is an engaging chapter about the ladies, if such a word can be used, in the lives of these monster mobsters, and of course the inevitable question, "What have these bums got that gets these dolls?" After a likeable fellow named Tootsie was "murdered and buried in the lime-lined gang graveyard the mob maintained on the banks of the placid Passaic River," Mrs. Tootsie, so called, was surprised to begin receiving envelopes containing fifty dollars, weekly. "The boys liked Tootsie. They felt sorry he had to go."

If all this sounds a little Godfather-ish, it is, though without one central compelling figure. The Syndicate was, by definition, a consortium of crime with no acknowledged leader, especially since even the most clever of the board members might at any time be bumped off, by methods sometimes crude, sometimes devilishly perverse, such as having the victim take the assassins for a ride to the graveyard in his own car, which could then be sold off to another mobster. The killings were done "to protect business interests" -- nothing personal.

Names like Dutch Schultz, Bugsy Seigel and Lucky Luciano jump off the page, part of the lexicon of American crime. Less well-known denizens of the underworld were as nefarious and as effective in corrupting the tranquil world of the fifties. The notorious Louis Buchalter, alias Lepke, ran his own labor unions and controlled

"the leather workers, the milliners, the handbag makers, the shoe trade....he ran the taxicab racket, was a partner in the poultry-market racket, seized the restaurant racket from Dutch Schultz and, with Lucky Luciano, operated the cleaning and dyeing industry." Lepke had ordered at least 30 hits by the time the stool pigeons started to chirp, and "as the investigations crowded closer, Lepke really went kill-crazy."
Lepke died on the same night as two of his Syndicate partners in crime, in the chair at Sing Sing. It was an historic moment for law enforcement - the mob rulers had gone down for ordering people dead, and their reign as long-distance killers was no longer secure.

Murder, Inc/ has it all - the mobsters, the molls, the gore and the glamour of the underworld. The language of this book is straight film noir and will appeal to people who like hardboiled crime and that fifties flavor.

© 2003 by Barbara Bamberger Scott for Curled Up With a Good Book

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