90 CHURCH by Dean Unkefer


Inside America's Notorious First Narcotics Squad
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A grim, fevered memoir of pre–Drug Enforcement Administration anti-drug warriors raising havoc in New York City.

Unkefer argues that the little-known Federal Bureau of Narcotics was crucial in staunching the flow of hard drugs into the country before it was merged with another department in 1968: “The bizarre and cunning way that they fought the Mafia to a standstill made them legendary.” However, because he builds the narrative around disguised characters and dramatic reconstruction, without clear discussion of actual cases, this feels more like pulpy fiction than the history it represents. The colorful first-person voice endeavors to portray a noirish group of rule-breaking tough guys, yet they come off as a strange combination of a drunken fraternity and Nixonian dirty-tricks squad. Unkefer paints the upper-level administrators as pompous and naïve and claims that the real power lay with two agents: Dewey, a goofy, Mickey Rooney type who was also a skilled assassin, and Michael, a master manipulator who observes, “Stop the drugs. That’s all anybody cares about. No one cares about the law, or us….They take all the credit. We do the dirty work.” They plunged the earnest but increasingly damaged (and eventually cocaine-addicted) young Unkefer into undercover work, where he repeatedly stumbled into horrific encounters with killers and junkies: “There was death, misery, and shooting every day. I had tried to ignore it since my first day on the job.” Following a series of increasingly labyrinthine cases against upper-echelon mobsters and their inner-city dealers (which inevitably ended in lethal shootouts), there was an investigation of the author’s squad for their malfeasance. Yet the tale abruptly ends with a cleaned-up Unkefer being offered a promotion prior to the DEA's formation, which he refused. “Today there is little recorded history of 90 Church,” he concludes. “The agents did what had to be done.”

Though entertainingly readable in a grimy sort of way, this is more a tangle of sex, violence, and betrayal than a serious true-crime narrative about this little-discussed era.

Pub Date: June 2nd, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-250-06733-3
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: Picador
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2015


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