UNDERCOVER COP by Michael Russell


How I Brought Down the Real-Life Sopranos
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Memoir of infiltration of the New Jersey Mafia, told with bluster and bravado.

In 1982, Russell—who co-authored this book with Picciarelli (co-editor: Bronx Noir, 2007, etc.)—was a state trooper trying to infiltrate organized crime in Newark, when a dispute over a pilfered briefcase led to Mafia associates shooting him in the head. His superiors realized his survival enhanced his undercover credibility, so they directed him toward an ambitious plan: pose as “owner of a small oil-delivery business and try to work my way into the good graces of the Gambino or Genovese crime families.” Having learned that “getting close to the wiseguys required that you be subtle,” he ingratiated himself with a Genovese captain. Known to the gangsters as “Mikey Ga-Ga,” Russell soon began working for “made member” Joe Zarra, “a greedy bastard [who] would want to capitalize on my earning possibilities.” The strict Mafia hierarchy of autonomous “crews” made Russell’s brazen undercover work easier; he even opened an office next to Zarra’s social club, allowing him to record the crew on audio and video. This proximity led to numerous close calls, on top of Russell’s concern that Newark’s mob-connected cops might finger him. The stress actually forced him to resign from the investigation, yet he soon returned as a civilian contract employee, ultimately earning his supervisor’s accolade: “One lone Irishman took down an entire Mafia crew.” The book’s strength is its specificity: Russell details his encounters with many notorious figures in New York’s “Five Families” and provides a good sense of the nitty-gritty tradecraft involved in undercover investigations. Yet, the plausible narrative is undercut by Russell’s braggadocio: He so often portrays the mobsters as stupid, and his own perfidy as overt, that he never really seems to be in danger.

Will satisfy true-crime readers interested in the grimy realities behind Mafia glamour and undercover work.

Pub Date: Aug. 6th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-250-00587-8
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2013


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