Call them Camorra, ’Ndrangheta or Mafia: All of these “honored societies” emerged from the dirty politics of Italian unification. Dickie’s (Italian Studies/Univ. College, London; Delizia! The Epic History of Italians and Their Food, 2007, etc.) absorbing history of the Italian mob makes The Godfather look like a fairy tale.
Three independent organizations were born in the prisons of Southern Italy in the 19th century, and daily life among the prisoners served as the root of the societies, which were based on omertà—submission and a code of silence. The Camorra of Naples was a well-known, flashy group, while the Cosa Nostra, or Mafia, of Sicily proved to be much more mysterious. ’Ndragheta, the latecomer, sprang fully formed from Calabrian prisons, and they controlled illegal tobacco and protection, followed by post–World War II construction, kidnapping and their biggest prize, heroin. Even up until the mid-1980s, officials denied that there was one organization; it was just the Sicilian way of settling things outside of official channels. As the author writes, it wasn’t just lawless; it was a research institute for perfecting criminal business models. Dickie’s knowledge of the structure and procedures comes from years of research and a “slobland of documents and testimonies.” The control of politics through intimidation, gifts and murder ensured that laws would be accommodating, and trials would often be thrown out due to lack of evidence. One particular boss spent his entire adult life running his organization from prison. The author doesn’t even try to cover the American branches of these societies; Southern Italy is more than enough for one book, and it’s a riveting one at that. The bestiality of their vengeful bombings, murders and mutilations makes for difficult reading, but it’s the reality of the institution.
These “men of honor” and “lads with attitude” created their own myths. Until Dickie’s revelatory book, most believed them.