Review: This account of the mafia makes for grim, compelling reading

A waxwork of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Picture: Shutterstock
A waxwork of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Picture: Shutterstock
  • Mafioso, by Colin McLaren. Hachette, $32.99.

This year, the 50th anniversary of the classic Mafia film The Godfather should have provoked interest in establishing how much of the tale was fact, how much fiction. Apparently, with The Godfather, life did imitate art. Mafiosi picked up mannerisms, aphorisms and techniques as a back-handed tribute to the movie. To balance that point, MacLaren found that the denizens of Corleone disdained the gangster family as created by Francis Ford Coppola.

In McLaren's view, the Mafia comprises "a disease, a plague, a criminal revolution and a way of life".

Colin MacLaren, an Australian ex-undercover cop who has also written about the Kennedy assassination, provides a fairly comprehensive account of the Mafia's segment of organised crime, through the decades and across the world.

His publicity blurb claims that MacLaren seeks out "hidden sources to find the indisputable facts to tell the undeniable truth". Who could ask for more?

In my experience, Italy's anti-Mafia investigators are deeply committed, heavily armed and quietly resolute. In MacLaren's account, all that may be true, but the odds remain stacked against the forces of law and order. In his view, the Mafia comprises "a disease, a plague, a criminal revolution and a way of life".

MacLaren traces the Mafia back to locals' engagement in the battle of Calatafimi during the re-unification of Italy. One contemporary described them like theatrical extras, as "heavily armed highlanders with certain rotten faces, and certain eyes that look like gun mouths".

Grim as it is, that description might well be applied to their descendants several generations removed.

Mafioso benefits from the inclusion of dry, apt Sicilian proverbs at the start of each chapter. One sums up MacLaren's working methods. "Ogni ficateddu di musca sustanza", or "every part of a fly's liver is food", fairly represents the author's dedication to digging deep into archives and pursuing leads. MacLaren has a flair for dramatic language.

This is the only place where the magical slow-burn of The Leopard has been characterised as "swashbuckling". Cane toads "the size of Volkswagens" also make an early appearance. For a more restrained, puzzled account of fighting the Mafia, readers might binge on the two seasons of Cacciatore.

In addition, MacLaren rightly inserts himself into this narrative. After all, few of his readers would have risked their lives every day for three years to entrap the local Mafia for importing drugs. That story is gathered up in MacLaren's wider narrative about the perfidy of the Mafia. He is especially despondent about "their tenacity in getting ordinary people to do extraordinarily bad things".

The range of MacLaren's history expands as the Mafia extended its tentacles from Sicily to Italy, then across to the United States and onwards to Australia. This is compelling, chilling reading.

If only Giovanni Falcone had been spared to write a memoir as well.

This story Mafia makes for chilling reading first appeared on The Canberra Times.