There are a limited number of truly canonical books in the genre of true organized crime. There are even fewer pieces of canonical journalism. TJ English authored works in both. His 1991 book The Westies, is a genre-defining work that ranks among the best crime non-fiction books ever written. And in the early 1990s, English wrote a series of articles for Playboy on emerging organized crime groups, including one of the best efforts on the fall of the Mafia, 1992’s “La Cosa Nostra Takes the Big Hit”.
English’s latest book, Whitey’s Payback collects not only the articles that made up the Playboy series, but thirteen of English’s other writings on crime, corruption, and unbelievable characters that no novelist could ever conjure up. The multi-layered stories are a breeze to read, pulling the reader in without a barrage of facts and numbers, but rather, the real-life experiences. You feel the streets of blue-collar old-ethnic neighborhoods under your feet. You smell the putrid stench of the aftermath of the violence of the Mexican cartels. And you can barely quell the rage at a rogue DEA agent ruined so many innocent lives, yet still walks free. English’s style is immersive. He brings the reader right with him as he walks the street of Juarez, Mexico and talks to Mad Dog Sullivan in a New York prison.
It’s interesting how English’s subjects come full circle. As he tells it in the final few chapters on Whitey Bulger, he never thought in 2011 that he’d again be writing about Irish-American gangsters. But Whitey Bulger was always more than just a gangster and English was able to parse out unique and interesting stories that other, local reporters, could not, including an exclusive interview with John Connolly, the imprisoned and disgraced former FBI agent who was Bulger’s handler for over 25 years.
Whitey’s Payback serves as both a timeline of the morphing of organized crime over the last 25 years and a ripping good collection of top-notch crime writing.