The sad, true, bloody story of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang.
Somewhat similar in tone to Bryan Burroughs’ Public Enemies (2004), this journalistic and encyclopedic history of New England’s vicious mob wars seems almost an artifact in the wake of Whitey Bulger’s recent arrest—and Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy’s excellent Whitey Bulger (2013). Nevertheless, Songini (The Lost Fleet, 2007) makes an admirable attempt to tie together the lies, myths, facts and legends of the 1960s and ’70s war between the Winter Hill Gang and the McLaughlin brothers’ outfit. It’s a difficult story to piece together—as the author admits in his source notes, his principles for storytelling often had to fall back on the question, “What is most likely?” Much of this history has been examined before in books ranging from biographies of Bobby Kennedy to insalubrious portraits of characters like gang leader Buddy McLean and hit man Stevie “The Rifleman” Flemmi. Strangely, Songini chooses to tell his version mostly through the eyes of a relatively minor figure in the organization, albeit a vicious one. The book focuses on Joseph “The Animal” Barboza, a particularly savage killer with scores of successful murders. The author relates the printed details of countless murders, all facts that could have been pulled out of Wikipedia or newspaper archives, and seldom delves into the mechanics of running a syndicate. There are truly absurd moments that surely inspired some cinematic departures—one story finds Flemmi’s brother shooting a victim in the head with a policeman’s revolver. When the officer complained that the bullet was traceable, Flemmi reportedly lopped off the poor guy’s head. It’s a dark corner of American history that deserves to be scrutinized, but it will take more than this surface skim to make sense of the madness of the times.
A by-the-numbers prequel to the rise of Whitey Bulger’s informant-riddled empire.