No doubt about it: T.J. English is one of our great gangster chroniclers.
Here he takes on a crime story with an added degree of difficulty: the mob’s role in Cuba’s casinos just as Fidel Castro was ascending to power, changing the island (and, frankly, American politics) forever.
I know next-to-nothing about the Cuban Revolution so take that for what it’s worth; my competency in fact checking English’s work here is not up to a high standard. Still, I felt like English did a great job giving attention to the two stories and how they eventually converged in a catastrophic way for the mob. He doesn’t take digs at Fidel; he’s honest about what was being fought for and how American foreign policy had exploited Cuba for generations. He also doesn’t glamorize Fidel’s revolution; examining that is for a different writer.
But he does do a fantastic job of bringing 1950s Cuba to life in all its decadent glory and how the major movers of the USA mob saw the island as a cash cow through with they could lauder their ill gotten gains. In particular, he brings to life the powerful but mysterious figure of Meyer Lansky. Despite being a Jew, Lansky’s contributions to the world of the Italian Mafia are immeasurable. He along with other survivors of bootlegger wars across the country set up the organization as a criminal cartel that dominated the US underworld for decades. Meyer was the brains behind everything, yet was such a persistently private person that there aren’t as many good works about him as there are about his contemporaries. This may be the best. English gives us a close, well-researched glimpse at the man, his motives, his maneuvers and everything. He bet it all on Cuba and, in his own words: he crapped out. Watching this play out amidst the backdrop of revolution was wild.
An excellent true crime book that doubles as an examination of a specific period in history. Definitely check it out if you’re curious.