By Christopher B. Daly
It’s a busy season in Boston media circles for works about the city’s most notorious gangster, Whitey Bulger.
The Boston Globe has a special page devoted to all things Whitey. Amazon can fill a page with Whitey books. Bulger, who is accused of 19 murders and other crimes, is in prison in Massachusetts awaiting his trial in U.S. District Court in Boston, due to start this spring, but he must be the most written-about gangster since Capone.
Right now, the Globe is throwing its institutional support behind the new hardcover Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice. It is written by two Globe reporters, Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, with long years of experience covering cops, courts, and criminals.
Next up (due out next week) is a book by two former Globe reporters — my friend and Boston University colleague Dick Lehr and veteran courts reporter Gerard O’Neill (who also teaches part-time at BU). Their book, titled Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss, is expected to be the definitive biography of Bulger, featuring lots of new material about his childhood and his years in the federal prison system. Lehr and O’Neill are old Bulger hands, having written the landmark Black Mass in 2000, the book that grew out of their reporting while on the staff at the Globe. That was the book that first definitively ripped back the curtain and revealed the corrupt relationship between Bulger and his FBI “handler” John Connolly.
For hard-core Whitey fans, today’s Globe also offers a column by Kevin Cullen about Whitey’s views on politics. No surprise: Whitey is a Reagan Democrat, sort of. Here’s the column.
For the sake of comprehensiveness, the Globe also has a review today of the Cullen-Murphy book. The review is written by Sean Flynn, a former reporter at the Boston Herald and Boston magazine who now writes for GQ.
An excerpt from the review:
There was a time, long ago, when the legend of Whitey Bulger seemed nearly Shakespearean. His was the story of two brothers who rose from the Old Harbor housing project to rule the city, Billy its politics and Whitey its rackets. It was the story, too, of that neighborhood, where the greatest sin was disloyalty, and how that sense of allegiance entangled a third son of Old Harbor — FBI special agent John Connolly — who recruited Whitey as an informant, then protected him beyond the bounds of good sense or the law. The saga was often cast by Whitey’s loyalists and enablers in a haze of noir romance.
It was never that simple or that majestic, of course, and history and voluminous testimony have revealed as much. But Whitey is a product of a particular time and place, and he cannot be understood apart from either. Cullen and Murphy know this, and they reveal the complicated man amid the swirls and crosscurrents of Boston’s peculiar past.
Still to come: the movies. In Boston, it’s fun to speculate about who would make the better Whitey — Johnny Depp (pirate) or Matt Damon (homey).
If you can’t get enough, here’s a reading list to help you feel more knowledgable about all things Bulger and Boston:
—The Brothers Bulger (2006), by Herald political columnist Howie Carr.
–A literary curio: While the Music Lasts (1996), a memoir by Whitey’s brother Billy Bulger, the conservative Democrat who dominated the Massachusetts Senate during the 1980s and 1990s. (Fun fact: Billy’s memoir is “A Richard Todd Book” — one of the tonier imprints in American publishing.)
–There is also a shelf of books written by former Whitey confederates, starting with Brutal (2007), by former Bulger henchman Kevin Weeks and the writer Phyllis Karas (who also teaches at BU.)
–Then there are the first-hand accounts by law enforcement veterans who had a hand in stopping or capturing Bulger. You can start with Most Wanted (2012) by Thomas J. Foley, a former colonel in the Mass. State Police, who kept trying to bust Whitey only to be thwarted by corrupt FBI agents. Foley’s book is co-written (which means in all likelihood, actually written) by John Sedgwick, a real writer.
–Finally, it’s worth putting all this in some kind of historical context, and there are two places to start:
The Rascal King (1992), by Jack Beatty, about the life and times of Boston mayor James Michael Curley, and The Boston Irish: A Political History, (1995) by the late Boston College historian Thomas H. O’Connor.
And, from the fiction shelf, two great novels: The Last Hurrah (1956) by Edwin O’Connor and the the marvelous The Given Day (2008) by novelist Dennis Lehane.
Just remembered: if you want to know how to talk like Whitey, it’s always a good idea to brush up on the noir masterpiece The Friends of Eddie Coyle, (1970) by the late George V. Higgins (who also used to teach at BU!).