Wednesday, July 30, 2008

John Dickie - Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia

When you're interested in the Mafia, there's a lot of sensationalist non-fiction to be avoided. I've been looking for a while for a decent history, and this work definitely fits the bill. Cosa Nostra is compulsively readable and never dry, but also a work of serious history, written by a senior lecturer in Italian history and exhaustively sourced.

The book follows the history of Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia (as opposed to other Mafia-like groups such as the Neapolitan Camorra and the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta), from its roots in the nineteenth century through to the present day, including a new chapter bringing us up to the present-day Berlusconi period and the 2006 arrest of Bernardo Provenzano, the 'boss of bosses'. Dickie also deals with the connections with the American Mafia, and the significant differences between the two organisations. In the process, some myths are squashed (such as that of a 'golden age' of Mafia honour preceding the bloody, drug-drenched second half of the twentieth century) and other beliefs are confirmed (the role of the post-WWII American occupation in entrenching the Mafia as a consequence of their anti-communism).

Issues which Dickie turns his attention to include the ambience of Italian secret societies (such as the Carbonari and Freemasons) in which the Mafia emerged, and which continue to be seen in shadowy groups such as Propaganda Due, implicated in attempts to bring down and reform the state in the '70s and '80s;
the entrenched links between the Mafia and Italian politics, and therefore of the whole political destiny of Italy itself;
following from this, the reasons for the tolerance by the Italian people of Mafia involvement in and corruption of public affairs, which at times can seem inexplicable, and the practice of 'behind-ology,' the common reading of shadowy nefarious interests into the surface of public actions, which has so much basis in fact and yet can create gauzy layers of complication and paranoia which serve to divert action;
the way in which the very landscape of Italy has been shaped (chiefly in terms of the destruction of historical buildings and the erection of hideous and unsafe concrete monstrosities) through Mafia control of the construction and concrete industries;
the often vexed relationship between Palermo (Sicily's capital) and the rural areas, as well as the continuities and discontinuities between Northern and Southern Italy;
the decision of the Mafia to 'go public' in the '60s, as internecine wars exploded and the phenomenon of 'pentiti', Mafia stool pigeons who broke the code of silence, emerged, while at the same time unprecedented killings of judges, politicians, priests and others whose actions ran contrary to Mafia interests;
and the connection between Mafia, religion and the Catholic church.

Particularly moving are the stories of Giovanni Falcone, Paolo Borsellino and the other assassinated anti-Mafia judges and campaigners of the later decades of the twentieth century, who went courageously to their deaths in the attempt to 'clean up' their country.

This is an impressive, compelling and often chilling work, which makes a good companion piece to others such as Peter Robb's Midnight In Sicily (1996) or Marco Turco's documentary film Excellent Cadavers (1995). It'll make you think twice about glamourised or humorous depictions of the Mafia in popular culture, as well as providing a counter- or shadow-history of modern Italy and to ponder the culture. Finally, caught by the behind-ology bug, I started to wonder whether non-Italian readers can comfortably relegate these Mafia tales to 'another country' or whether we should also be wondering about what similar things might be going on behind closed doors closer to home.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Juan Antonio Bayona - El Orfanato (The Orphanage) (2008)

I like films in which a house is a major character, and El Orfanato fits the bill precisely. Laura, with her husband and her adopted, seriously ill child, Simon, returns to the crumbling mansion, on a cliff above the sea, where she was raised as an orphan; her aim is to run it as a loving home for disabled children whose parents are in need of respite. But there seems to be something strange in the house… and then her son disappears…

El Orfanato is Bayona's first feature-length film, but it is 'presented' (whatever that means) by Guillermo Del Toro, of Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy and The Devil's Backbone (among others). I liked EO a lot more than del Toro’s most recent film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which seemed to me through its magical realist treatment to trivialise a very serious subject, the Spanish Civil War. This film dealt with the personal rather than the political, (hence) much more successfully. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s visually beautiful. The atmosphere is very well done; there are genuinely frightening moments, but it isn’t a typical modern day thriller in which we’re constantly kept on the edge of our seats through hackneyed chase scenes, ‘jump’ moments and screeching violins. Both atmospherically and in terms of subject matter, it reminded me of other films which I have a lot of time for like The Others or Haunted. Finally, it goes beyond the typical haunted house genre in that the intentions of the ‘ghost,’ and the way in which the narrative resolves itself, are by no means predictable.

El Orfanato is not a wildly original film, or one which leaves you thinking; but it’s a very aesthetically satisfying experience, which does what it does very well.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Edith Wharton - The House of Mirth (1905)

I must confess that I haven't previously read any Wharton. However, as a fan of Victoriana (okay, we're talking America, not Britain, and publication a few years after Victoria's death, but let's not quibble) and particularly the Victorian novel of social mores (good ol' Wikipedia describes THOM as one of the first American novels of manners), this work fell right into my demographic, so to speak.

There is, of course, a resemblance to the works of Henry James, though Wharton does not have James' love-hate relationship with all things English; nor does Wharton possess James' subtlety as a stylist. But in comparison to James' works set in the American milieu (well, Washington Square, which is the one I've read) I preferred THOM. The story, realist with touches of melodrama, follows Lily Bart, a poor but lovely socialite, as she attempts to find a wealthy husband, but slowly sinks into a disrespectable and ultimately destitute state through th self-sabotage of her own quest. I was driven by the narrative, which is moving and tragic.

Ultimately, the novel is a sharply biting satire of the hypocritical social world of the American upper classes in this period. The work was first published in serial form, and was not expected to be hugely successful given that it was not a traditional romance as such, but it became a massive hit, perhaps because of the depiction and criticism of this upper-class world, fascinating both for those who belonged to it and those who did not. Lily Bart's quest for extensive wealth and a place in society at the cost of her own happiness is at times frustrating in its seemingly reasonless monomania, but this, I think, is the view of a modern-day reader who does not exist in such a social world.

The major characters are well and intimately drawn, although some of the minor characters are not so original or deeply sketched. But a major point of interest here is the intersection of privileged and underprivileged groups and their intersection with the (separated) spheres of social class and wealth. Lily's position as an upper-class woman makes 'good' marriage a financial necessity, and the difference between her possibilities and that of a man's in a similar class and financial situation is a theme which fascinates and angers in its inequity. The intersection between class and money, though well-explored in Victorian literature, also holds a great deal of interest in a period in which, particularly in America (even as opposed to Britain), a great deal of money was being made very quickly (in comparison to previous eras), by individuals who would not necessarily have previously had the opportunities they did, and effecting the old class system in ways which were still in the process of working themselves out. Finally, and in this light, ethnicity is also a problematic factor - one of Lily's marriage possibilities is to Simon Rosedale, a financially up-and-coming Jewish man, and there is a fair amount of nasty (authorial) antisemitism here, while at the same time a realistic depiction of the same sentiment in the New York social milieu, and an unexpected sympathetic glimpse into Rosedale's character.

I was somewhat disappointed by the ending, inasmuch as Lily's fate seems inevitable (though realistic), even fatalistic, in the same way as the typical homosexual narrative in fiction. However, ultimately THOM provides not only a fascinating and emotionally involving narrative, and a glimpse into a social milieu which is relatively under-represented in fiction, but also a fascinating dissection of the intersection of money, class, gender, and ethnicity in a fast-changing world.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Matt Reeves – Cloverfield (2008)

If I said to you, imagine a cross between Godzilla, Eight Legged Freaks and The Blair Witch Project, that wouldn't be a film you'd be running to see, right? That's why I'm not going to say that about Cloverfield.

I was skeptical. But although I'm generally far from a fan of the 'hand held camera=extra, arty, reality' style that became so prevalent after BWP, it really works in this film (as it has in others, such as Series Seven). The conceit is that the film, recovered by the Department of Defense, was the digital camerawork of 'Hud' Platt, filming a friend's going-away party when monster/alien disaster strikes New York. The action is intercut with previous sequences involving the group of friends and their relationships.

This isn't at all a typical monster film, however - although towards the end it comes closer to what we'd expect from the genre, with a strong narrative pull, and does so very effectively in genre terms, without overplaying its hand. In terms of atmosphere, it reminded me more of works like Cube where the psychology of a pressure situation is the focus and the event is the framing device in which it occurs. Again, I didn't initially feel sympathy for the main characters as a fairly film-standard bunch of young, rich, vacuous New Yorkers, but this really changed over the course of the work.

There's also another point of interest here, in that in the light of September 11 it seems to me quite a daring choice to make a very 'real' feeling creature feature flick about an attack on New York. Perhaps that also added to the fact that the trauma, poignancy and tragedy really worked, for this viewer at least. I also admired the fact that the film wasn't delivering on our genre expectations of heroism, and on the meaningfulness of action in terms of its resolution.

While there are a lot of similarities with BWP (including a viral marketing campaign, and the release of a 'mix-tape' soundtrack to a film with no musical score, though the tracks are played in the original party sequence), I enjoyed this film more, given that, in comparison to the aforementioned film, the genre/subject Cloverfield was working with is much less adapted to the mood it so successfully created, giving this work a real originality, which, combined with narrative and emotional drive, and the successful use of the genre conventions without exploiting them or simply setting up the cliches and knocking 'em down, made for a film that I have a lot of time for.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Tony Krantz - Sublime (2007)

George Grieves goes into surgery, the day after his fortieth birthday, for a routine colonoscopy. But when he comes round, things have gone wrong. More wrong, even, than a surgery mix-up… He’s having strange hallucinations, or are they? Memories return from his birthday party the night before, which seem to be entwining themselves with his present reality and his anxieties - but why can’t he seem to convince anyone to take him home?

Sublime opens impressively. The surreal, noir-ish mood is very well done, as is the mood of understated, but increasing, disquiet, and the mysterious, fleeting symbolic and physical connections between the disjointed scenes. This is one of those films where the location, in this case, the hospital, is a character in its own right. But, as in many other films of this ilk (Identity), a set-up like this (what’s going on here?) is easy to put into motion, but difficult to resolve in a satisfactory way. In this case, the understated mood goes out the window (and in comes the gore), in the process introducing all kinds of issues, which remain unresolved, around tricky areas like class and race; and finally we’re presented with a completely unsatisfactory, but total, explanation for George’s experience.

An interesting film which is certainly outside of the run of the mill, and superior to, the standard mainstream horror movie, but which ultimately fails spectacularly to deliver on its tantalising initial promise.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Point Pleasant (2005)

Point Pleasant is a plasticky American Fox series about the struggle between Good and Evil (note purposeful capitalisation), involving a great deal of overt Christian material in relation to this struggle. So why did I like it so much?

Everything here is not quite as it seems. The plot follows the character of Christina, a girl who is washed up on the beach in Point Pleasant and who slowly realises that she is - well - the devil's daughter, and is fated to have an intimate role in a coming apocalyptic scenario. The town itself is a fairly typical American TV show realm of beaches and bods, so to speak.

On the one hand, the show holds the same kitschy appeal as the Christian supernatural delvings of daytime soaps. But things here are rather more complicated; it's by no means so simple as Christian equals good guy, though we are at first led to believe that this is the case. Indeed, there's a low-key satirical element (I'm not sure if it's entirely intentional) as regards the tropes of Christianity in popular fiction, a la Left Behind. The complexity (for a mainstream TV show) of the plot development, the concepts involved regarding morality, and the way in which our perception of the heroes and villains of the piece changes, is one of the show's strengths. Unlike many other TV shows and films in a similar vein, the action is never driven by special effects, and neither the conclusion, nor the final actions of the main characters, are predictable.

I also found that the setting of the show really worked for me; call me a sucker for suburban gothic (not to mention Biblical blood and thunder), but, in a similar manner to Desperate Housewives, The Devil's Advocate or The Craft, there's a nice contrast between the shiny, plastic surfaces and the dark, Biblical-melodramatic thematics; one which also allows complexities to develop contrary to our expectations. Finally, though the teens are, for the most part, more looks than substance acting-wise, there's an excellent performance by Grant Show as the villain of the piece, and I also very much enjoyed Dina Meyer, who I loved in Starship Trooopers.

Point Pleasant's executive producer was Marti Noxon, known for his work on Buffy. Though PP definitely has more of a soap-opera quality to it, fans of Buffy - those who appreciate relatively sophisticated supernatural action/melodrama in television - might well find a lot to like here. Unfortunately, it was cancelled after 13 episodes - the final two, which bring the action to a conclusion, are included only on the DVD release. In one sense, it's a shame - but where TV is concerned, being left hungry for more is often a better option than watching a promising, successful series have the life wrung out of it season after season. Better to end, Armageddon-style, with a bang...
“It will, of course, be said that such a scheme as is set forth here is quite impractical, and goes against human nature. This is perfectly true. It is impractical, and it goes against human nature. This is why it is worth carrying out, and that is why one proposes it. For what is a practical scheme? A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish. The conditions will be done away with, and human nature will change. The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it. The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development.”

— Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism (From Ken Knabb's The Joy of Revolution)

Q (V. Vale): So how do you see yourself regarding all this?

A (Lydia Lunch): Merely as the instigator. Merely as the cattle prod. Instigation can be a fine art in itself! I never claimed to have any answers or solutions to the world situation; I merely report on it as I see it. But a common complaint about me is: "offers no solutions." Just because I call what's going on "disintegration" or "apocalypse now," I'm supposed to provide the salvation?!

You answer the fuckin' question... and answer it for yourself. Politicians offer solutions - they never work. My job is just to question the roots of the madness.

- Angry Women, RE/Search, 1991.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Naomi Klein - The Shock Doctrine (2007)

In typical fashion, I didn't read Klein's hugely popular No Logo until a few years after it came out, and then wondered why I hadn't done so earlier. So I was avidly awaiting TSD, and I wasn't disappointed.

In this work, Klein takes 'disaster capitalism' in her sights. Like NL, TSD mixes economic and political theory with often-heartrending personal stories of the human reality of those affected and those who have challenged exploitative power; angers and depresses but also gives hope in presenting those who have successfully challenged the systems it criticises; and is compulsively readable.

Klein's argument is that 'disaster capitalism,' the neoliberal, free-market economics which has Milton Friedman as its godfather (and the word is appropriate), cannot be implemented under democratic conditions because the populace understand the way in which it effects a mass transfer of wealth and power to the top of society, while leaving the rest in extreme suffering; those who would implement such a system have learned that it is only implementable in the shocked aftermath either of natural disasters (such as Hurricane Katrina or the Asian tsunami) or, in even more sinister fashion, in the wake of disasters which are created expressly for, or expressly including, the purpose of implementing such systems (as in the US-backed overthrow of democratic government in South America, or the invasion of Iraq).

Klein convincingly relates this economic 'shock treatment' to the psychological kind developed by the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s, in which the aim was to completely wipe an individual's mind clean so that an entirely new and desirable structure could take its place. Not only do these two resemble each other metaphorically, writes Klein, but the psychological techniques are used to destroy those who oppose the economic program, from Argentina to Abu Ghraib.

One of the interesting things about this work is the demonstration of the way in which the ideology of neoliberal capitalism becomes unchallengeable, and is understood by its proponents as a universal good (in the same way that, for example, state communism or state fascism demanded the deaths of millions 'for the good of all'). For this reason (among others), the ideology has been adopted by all sides of politics in the two-party systems which go under the name of democracy, so that the old parties of labour are also part of the neoliberal consensus. At the same time, economics itself is completely postmodern inasmuch as wealth and poverty rely entirely on perception; so, for example, a political leader who gives any public sign of failing to follow this ideological consensus will immediately see their national wealth shrink dramatically as 'the global market' responds.

The biggest strength of the book from my own perspective, however, was to give an informative perspective on economics in the world order. As someone with left-liberal politics (and I suspect I'm not alone in this), economics as a subject turns me off. I start to yawn as soon as I see the jargon. But at the same time, I know that economic theory and ideology is a driving force behind the nature of modern states, the global system and the workings of power. This work explained, for example, why 'global aid' and 'reconstruction' has in fact been counterproductive in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and the tsunami-affected countries: the Western 'free market' left to its own devices, will charge the highest price for the lowest level of service as provided by its own cronies (this much is already familiar), transferring wealth out of the affected area and leaving the people who are victims of these events with no role in the reconstruction and reshaping of their own society, let alone the concomitant financial support which such work would provide.

In some ways, then, this book is also a wideranging global economic history of the post-WWII period. Once you've read it, you'll see the fingerprints of this system everywhere... and in itself this knowledge is power.

Christopher Nolan - The Dark Knight (2008)

As a massive fan of the Tim Burton Batman films, I wasn't particularly overwhelmed by the first of the new Christian Bale series, though it certainly didn't approach the monumental awfulness of the Val Kilmer and George Clooney films which had appeared in the interim. Fortunately, however, The Dark Knight had a lot more to offer than Batman Begins.

Heath Ledger really made this film. The role of a psychotic madman is very hard to play in any kind of original or interesting way, but he certainly succeeds here. Neither Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhaal nor Gary Oldman really had a lot to work with as such in terms of characterisation (though Michael Caine continues to amuse, even if I haven't quite figured out why the butler has a working-class English accent). As with the first film, visually this work is gorgeous, though I preferred the gothicism of Burton's Gotham to the gleaming tower blocks of Nolan's.

However, there are a number of serious flaws. The film sprawls over two and a half hours or so, and both the storyline and the moral issues which are being explored become amorphous and unsatisfactory. A number of scenes simply finish unresolved and hasten us on to the next. Anyone with a low tolerance for long car-chase scenes will exit with a headache (though I've seen worse in terms of interminable action - we're not talking Peter Jackson's King Kong here). Ultimately, however, the largest issue lies in the film's take on morality. An attempt is made to seriously problematise the standard morality of the (super)hero, and in itself this is laudable; it also means that the film carries its own gravitas rather heavily. However, some serious intellectual rigour is required in order to resolve the attempt to complexify something which is usually oversimplified, and it's that which is missing here; the follow-through, in other words. An interesting work, but one which sets its sights too high for the effort made in pursuit of their resolution.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Errol Morris - Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

I'm not sure what it is about Errol Morris. I'd previously been disappointed in his doco Mr. Death, on US execution technician and Holocaust denier Fred Leuchter, because it was so filmic that it destroyed any sense of reality regarding some very serious events - execution in the United States, and the Shoah. I had the same disappointment with SOP, his documentary on the American torturers at Abu Ghraib. It's very slickly made, but it doesn't really tell us very much in the end, while the technique distances us from the reality of events. As an audience, we're so used to slick filmmaking that, to my mind, in order to have some impact a different technique is necessary. At one point, when one of the soldiers involved was telling of the way in which Iraqi prisoners hated pop music more than hiphop or metal (blasted at deafening volume continuously into their cells) the audience started laughing. And this is an audience who presumably were already sensitive enough to the issue of torture and prisoner abuse to come and see the film in the first place.

There are a number of important issues floating around the film, but none of them really got an in-depth exploration.

The film itself consists mainly of interviews with the soldiers who appear in the notorious photos, as well as with Janis Karpinski, the prison commander of Abu Ghraib at the time of the scandals, since demoted. However, there are no interviews with the two men who seem to have been at the very centre of the abuses, Charles Graner and Ivan 'Chip' Frederick; nor any interviews with the Iraqis themselves. Apparently, Morris attempted to, but could not find any to give testimony to their experiences; but this is simply never mentioned in the film, thereby once again 'disappearing' them as people. This means that, rather than the viewer realising that anyone might act this way in such a situation and that it is created purposefully by a system involving much higher powers, it is still possible to think that these two were sadistic monsters, at least to some extent; and to have no sense of the actual suffering involved in such abuses as 'stress positions,' sexual abuse, drowning short of death, and so forth.

The fact that the abuse situation was purposefully created by higher powers, up to the very top level of the US administration, is certainly foregrounded; but despite the title, the structure of the military, and the involvement of non-military bodies including the CIA and private contractors (that is, 'outsourced' civilian torturers) is not explored in any detail. Nor is there any real investigation of the nature of the military as an institution, the dehumanisation that soldiers themselves go through in order to be able to do what is demanded of them, the fact that the US army recruits from the poor and uneducated because it's the only way these people might have an economic chance in the current state of American class affairs.

What the soldiers themselves have to say is initially interesting; in my view, because of the fact that they have been punished, they have been able to create a narrative which ignores the entirety of their culpability and the human impact of their actions on their victims, given that higher-ups have gone unpunished, as if it must be the responsibility of one or the other only, a narrative in which they themselves are pitiable victims. But they are not particularly articulate or reflective, and after half an hour we have essentially heard what they have to say about the events beyond describing particular incidents, leaving an hour and a half or so which becomes quite repetitive.

Finally, there's an interesting issue about photographs themselves which could be explored. The given narrative about photography is that it has an aura of authenticity, but in fact what it shows is not real. This is the line the participants themselves keep putting to the viewer, unconvincingly. But I came out thinking that what I had seen in the Abu Ghraib photos, unlike many photographs, did in fact truly capture the essence of what had happened; there were no imagic illusions here to be disabused of. The point is made, and it's well-taken, that for reality to exist there must be images; if these images had not existed, then the scandal would not necessarily have been such (think of the relatively low profile of the illegal US 'ghost prisons' in Europe and elsewhere), and those involved were being punished, essentially, not for the actions which took place, but for the existence of the photos and particularly for appearing in them.

None of the information is new to anyone who had a passing acquaintance with the case, including the connection of Rumsfeld, the military cover-ups, and other ways in which the scandal was in no way the action of a few 'bad apples at the bottom of the barrel'. The film may demonstrate that the people involved were not sadistic, inhuman monsters as such, but it doesn't get across the vital point (discussed in detail in Philip Zimbardo's book The Lucifer Effect) that almost all of us would behave the same way in the same situation. I tend to think, in any case, that these points are likely accepted by people who choose to see the film in the first case. I can't imagine those who think torture is justified, or who think that the torture was the work of a few psychos with no connection to the military as a system or to the Bush administration, would choose to watch this film. Given all of this, in an overall sense, I'd call this film a massive missed opportunity.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Timothy J. Gilfoyle - A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of 19th-Century New York (2006)

A Pickpocket's Tale is a non-fiction account of the life of George Appo (1858-1930), a small-time pickpocket, opium addict, and confidence man. The tale of Appo's life gives a fascinating picture of the changes which took place between a Victorian and proto-contemporary criminal underworlds, and the changing understanding of and approach taken by the authorities to the 'problem' of 'crime' over this period.

Appo was in many ways an unlikely and atypical character, which may be part of the reason why records of his life (including his autobiography) survive in enough detail for Gilfoyle to produce a book such as this. His father was a Chinese immigrant, who was at first very successful, but would later be imprisoned for murder (Appo and his father would meet for the last time in prison). Appo himself, despite periods of contact with the licit and illicit areas of Chinese culture, would find a home as a 'good fellow,' a crook who practiced by skill rather than through violence and pre-emptive brutality (both of which Appo was often a victim of), and who took prison time rather than betraying even an enemy to the official forces of policing. Finally, however, Appo would be rejected, unjustly (according to the author) by this world after testifying before the Lexow Committee on police corruption, and would attempt, with little success, to 'go straight' in conjunction with various organisation and individuals working for the purpose of reforming criminals.

Gilfoyle weaves a fascinating story. Appo's experience evokes a New York which in part is more familiar through English Victorian imagery, but from which at the same time can be seen the emergence of a more particular American, noir-ish world of corruption.

Appo's experiences chart the 'evolution' of penitentiaries, from Houses of Refuge for boys, to prison ships designed to instil a working ethic into young male criminals, on which same-sex sexual activity was more or less taken for granted; from the festering conditions, murderous brutality and casual torture of Sing Sing, where the lines between the external world and the prison were always highly nebulous, to Eastern Penitentiary where total isolation was practised, intended to reform the prisoner by allowing them to do nothing but reflect upon their wrongdoing.

Gilfoyle's book contains so many interesting facets that it's hard to list them; for example, the emergence of bohemian culture and the way it brought the middle and upper classes into the ambit of crime (though many bohemian opium dens strictly forbade clientele of Asian origin); common confidence tricks, particularly the highly profitable and highly bureaucratised 'green goods game' in which the con man offered to sell forged currency to the mark, before substituting the cash-filled bag; or the casual, monumental inequity of the 'justice' system throughout the period, and the often naive or counter-productive efforts of organised reformers. A particularly memorable episode is Appo's period on the stage, as sensational plays depicting the criminal underworld became huge popular successes.

In terms of flaws, Gilfoyle becomes perhaps a little too sympathetic to his subject, despite the hideous injustices of his life and the fact that, given his social circumstances and the nature of society at that time, he had little opportunity to become anything else. Due to the nature of the sources, gender relations in the period are little explored. Finally, Appo's testimony is more or less accepted as fact by the author (though he notes that it is substantially corroborated wherever other records exist; but this, of course, applies only to major events). Overall, though, this book is a depiction of a fascinating individual, as well as casting light on the nature of criminal subculture and its interactions with the 'licit' social world, the practices of criminal justice and policing, penitentiary systems, illegality and popular culture, as well as giving an engrossing cultural and social portrayal of life in New York for the underclasses, whether criminal or working, in a period of massive social change.