Show Summary Details

Page of

 PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, CRIMINOLOGY AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Please see applicable Privacy Policy and Legal Notice (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 26 September 2017

Criminal Underworlds

Summary and Keywords

The concept of the criminal underworld has played a powerful role in media representations of serious criminality from the early 20th century. Even before this period, the idea of a subterranean “otherworld” that mirrored and mimicked the more respectable “upperworld” can be identified in published texts across Western Europe and North America, and in the colonial cities of empire. Colorful terms such as the “netherworld,” “deeps,” “stews,” “sinks,” “rookeries,” “dens,” and “dives” described the slums that developed in many 19th-century cities. But by the 19th-century, slum life was increasingly correlated with criminality by the press, social investigators, fiction writers, and penal practitioners in the urban landscape.

Earlier texts that described criminal types and ascribed to them a specific set of practices and values (languages, rituals, secret codes, the places in which they “congregated”) can be found in the 16th and 17th centuries. In England, dramatists such as Thomas Harman, Robert Greene, and Thomas Dekker described such villainy in a new genre that would become known as “rogue literature.” Other European countries also had traditions of rogue literature that became popular in the early modern period. From the 18th century, the emergence of penal reform and new systems of law enforcement in the Western world saw concerns about crime reflected in the expansion of print culture. A demand for crime themed texts, including broadsheets, criminal biographies, and crime novels, further popularized the notion of a distinct criminal underworld. However, it would be in the 20th century that the underworld moved more directly onto political agendas. From the 1920s, events in North American cities would explicitly shape the public awareness of the underworld and organized crime. Within a relatively short time of gang warfare breaking out in cities such as New York and Chicago, the “gangster” and the underworld that he (apparently) inhabited became the subject of a global popular crime culture. Film, cheap fiction, and villain/police memoirs from the early 1930s popularized the “gangster.” Paul Muni memorably evoked the life of Al Capone in his character, Antonio “Tony” Camonte in Scarface (1932). Since then, gangsters have rarely gone out of fashion. In the 21st century, the relationship between the underworld and upperworld continues to be portrayed in popular culture. Television dramas like Boardwalk Empire and Peaky Blinders successfully build on an unacknowledged consensus about the existence of the underworld. Indeed, the press, police, and politicians continue to refer to the criminal underworld in a way that gives it solid form. There are few attempts to critically engage in discussions about the underworld or to provide a more meaningful definition.

Keywords: underworld, organized crime, gangster, true crime, mafia, gang, criminal biography

In 2014 the second season of the BBC drama Peaky Blinders pitted its protagonists, the Shelbys, against the notorious racecourse gangsters, the Sabinis. In a playful editing of the past, the writer, Steven Knight, moved the Birmingham-based Shelbys down south to London, where they fight with the Sabinis over control of the racecourses. In 1947, the Boulting brothers’ film version of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, Brighton Rock, pitted the twisted adolescent Pinky (played with much malevolence by a young Richard Attenborough) against the local, more powerful, race gang leader Colleoni. In 1936, Educated Evans, a horse-racing film based on a novel by the crime writer Edgar Wallace, featured an extra named Massiminio Monte-Colombo, a real-life racing “crook” who was murdered at Wandsworth Greyhound Track in September of that year. These three examples of media interaction with the world of racecourse crime provide a rich exemplar of the way in which media has consumed, constructed, and collected stories from the underworld.

This chapter will explore the ways in which historical forms of media have both presented underworld narratives, but also how they have influenced and shaped public perceptions of organized criminality. “Public” here encompasses not only audience, but also politicians, law enforcers, and the subjects of such media, criminals. It will be argued that historically, organized crime and media, in its various forms, has always shared a stage. Indeed, as Robert Reiner has stated, “there is a complex interplay between media representations of crime, criminal behavior, and criminal justice” (2007, p. 327). This complexity has been the subject of significant debate amongst criminologists, including those whose work is historically informed. For example, in his most recent work, Dick Hobbs has convincingly argued that (British) organized crime “should be understood within the context of political change, particularly in forms of global governance, post-industrialization, unrestrained consumerism, and the intensity of contemporary illegal trading relationships” (2013, p. 2). As he suggests, organized crime needs to be understood as part of a widespread community of practice; this is in marked contrast to the ways in which the government and the police have presented organized crime as “a distinctly contemporary phenomenon, a malady of modernity, and the consequence of recent human activity” (2013, p. 13). American criminologists, including Alan Block and William Chambliss, have also been influential in problematizing the concept, offering an essentially skeptical critique of the conventional view of organized crime (1981). As we will see below, the prevailing concept in post-war America was dominated by Donald Cressey’s work on the Mafia, and the syndicate model of organized crime (1969). This approach saw organized crime as an “alien conspiracy”; imported into the United States by Sicilian immigrants, it became embedded in the social and political fabric of modernizing America from the early 20th century. However, Block and Chambliss demonstrate how forms of organized crime practice could be identified in earlier American society. For example, Block’s work on organized crime in New York in the decades before Prohibition shows how racketeers worked with local unions and industry bosses, utilizing violent skills in order to control workers and keep down labor costs for employers (1994, p. 52). Thus, any consideration of the role of media and cultural agencies in shaping the underworld myth should draw on the healthy skepticism advanced in these important studies.

Inevitably, much of this chapter focuses on London and the cities of North America, from where much of the most well-known and commercially influential media output has derived. For the purposes of this chapter, we need to start with definitions. The terminology of organized crime and the underworld is problematic. By its nature, the underworld is ethereal and fluid, and organized crime defies static interpretations, as Reuter’s concept of “disorganized crime” suggests (1983). In addition, stretching the relationship between organized crime and media over a long time frame raises other methodological challenges. How “modern” is the relationship between organized crime and media? Can we comparatively frame 18th-century print culture and 20th-century mass media as channels for the transmission of crime stereotypes? The first section of this chapter will provide a definitional framework for this study by looking at the evolution of organized crime rhetoric and historical depictions of the underworld. The middle part of the essay will focus on fictional representations of the underworld and organized crime in literature, film, and television. However, the emphasis here is on the blurred boundaries between fiction, faction, and true-crime media narratives of the underworld and organized crime. A final section will trace the interrelationship between the organized criminal as author/narrator and printed media such as criminal biographies, memoirs, and other forms of true crime writing.

Defining the Underworld: Contours of the Underworld Myth

Texts and pamphlets describing a criminal “underworld” can be identified at least back to the early modern period, when Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists and pamphleteers such as John Awdeley, Thomas Dekker, and Robert Greene wrote popular accounts of rogues, vagabonds, bawds, and coney-catchers (or beggars, prostitutes, thieves, and con-men). Rogue literature, as it was known, was aimed at the popular audience, but also provided a form of guide to wary travelers and merchants, reflecting contemporary fears of a mobile, and rootless, criminal population (Kinney, 1990, p. 5; Beier, 1985). The authors of early modern rogue literature tended to be playwrights, printers, and pamphleteers—by the 19th century, such texts tended to be written by journalists, social investigators, and writers of fiction. During the 19th century, concepts of criminal organization moved away from the picaresque to be influenced by a new set of discourses. The most important of these was the emergence of a class discourse, and particularly the tendency to talk about class in relationship to skills and categorization. In the context of crime and criminality, this class discourse would take its most obvious shape with the evolution of the concept of the “criminal class.” However, earlier ideas about the nature of class and crime were proliferated and publicized through social investigation. Arguably, these investigations built upon the mass of enquiry into policing and law enforcement that took place in the years prior to 1829. The increasing organization of law enforcement in this period would also help shape the public belief in a criminal underworld and “criminal class.”

The increase in police identification, surveillance, and supervision of criminals from the early 19th century clearly aided in the redefinition of criminal and poor space in Western cities such as London, Paris, and Berlin (Schlör, 1998). Whilst criminal intelligence was not to develop a great deal over the following decades, the raft of government investigation into law enforcement did much to sharpen public fears about the underworld in the early 19th century (Petrow, 1993). For example, by the 1830s and 1840s, when the earliest of the social investigators were treading the streets of London, a more specific spatial map of the underworld evolved (Shore, 2015, pp. 19–20). Certainly, the criminal milieu was irresistible to Victorian social commentators. From the mid-19th century the metropolis was apparently awash with social investigators, urban explorers, proto-anthropologists, and missionaries. These texts, which have been heavily relied upon by orthodox historians of the Victorian underworld, came from a curious mixture of writers. For example, Thomas Beames, preacher and assistant at St. James, Westminster, wrote his Rookeries of London in 1850; Watt Philips, a pupil of the illustrator Cruikshank, his Wild Tribes of London in 1855; the radical journalist John Hollingshead his Ragged London in 1861; and the prolific James Greenwood wrote a number of powerful narratives of poverty and crime from the late 1860s, most memorably The Seven Curses of London (1869), and The Wilds of London (1874). These writings provided a moral gazetteer for the armchair traveler of London’s criminal rookeries and enclaves (Marriott, 1999, pp. xi–1). More importantly, they were to influence the emergent notion of a “criminal class.” This notion was closely tied to new ways of understanding crime, poverty, and delinquency in the 19th century. Whilst many texts focused on the metropolis, this was a much more national concept. Moreover, a terminology developed to encompass description of the areas in which the “criminal class” were thought to reside. Terms such as rookeries, dives, dens, sinks, or more specific terms linked to a sense of place, such as Alsatia (a thieves’ sanctuary between Fleet Street and the Thames) and Devil’s Acre (a sanctuary in Westminster), described the areas where the poor and criminal apparently lurked, not only in London and British cities, but in other metropolises. Nineteenth-century New York, for example, had the Bowery and Hell’s Kitchen (Asbury, 1928). However, in his study of the Five Points area, home to gangs such as the Bowery Boys, Plug Uglies, and Dead Rabbits, Tyler Anbinder has argued that the area’s reputation has taken on “mythic proportions” (2001, p. 68).

Despite contemporary concepts of subterranean criminal worlds, the use of the term “underworld” in association with criminality did not consistently appear until the later 19th century. The earliest title usage is the work of the pseudonymic George Ellington, who in 1869 published The Women of New York; or, The Under-world of the Great City. This was followed in 1899 by the work of Helen Campbell, also writing about prostitution, in Darkness and Daylight; or, Lights and Shadows of New York Life … in the Underworld of the Great Metropolis. In 1912, Thomas Holmes published The London Underworld, which was the first British text to consistently use the term. Holmes was the Secretary of the Howard Association that had been formed in 1866, and London Underworld is a largely impressionistic account of his experiences amongst the “criminal classes.” Like his predecessors, Holmes’s “underworld” has a detailed iconography. Thus he describes an alternative world with a specific language, codes of behavior, and a distinct geography in the metropolis. In the early decades of the 20th century the use of the term had become fairly common in descriptions and accounts of urban criminal milieu in America, Britain, France, and the underworlds of the European empires (Gordon, 1921; MacMunn, 1933; Morain, 1929). Social investigations and semi-fictional accounts of the underworld continued to be a feature of print culture, and particularly newspaper and periodical reporting. However, by the mid-20th century the gangster and the underworld would occupy a much more influential medium, that of the cinema.

The Underworld in Fiction, Film, and Television

Narrating the Underworld: Fiction and the Big Screen

Fictional representations of the underworld and its “inhabitants,” in both print and moving image, have been a vivid source of inspiration for press, political, and public understandings of organized crime over time. For example, Hollywood gangster films from the 1970s, including the film version of Mario Puzo’s bestselling novel from 1969, The Godfather, both confirmed and created Mafia mythologies. Many historians have linked the evolution of the Mafia myth in this period to the Kefauver Senate Hearing of 1950–1951 and the McClellan Committee of 1963 (Hess, 1998, p. 167; Larke-Walsh, 2010, p. 127; Woodiwiss, 2012). As Woodiwiss notes:

Government agencies such as the FBN and, in the 1960s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Senate Committees chaired by Estes Kefauver and John McClellan, newspaper, magazine, and book publishers, and finally Mario Puzo’s 1969 film [sic] The Godfather, all entrenched the belief that the Mafia was a coherent national organization that dominated organized crime activity in the U.S. and further afield (2012).

Consequently the divide between fictional representations, public and political perceptions of organized crime is far from clear-cut. Indeed, these representations have, according to Diego Gambetta, been absorbed by the criminals as well. In his book, Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate (2009), Gambetta explores the transmission of gangster conventions to a younger generation of criminals: “Movies help not just to create but to spread the codes of behavior” (2009, p. 267). This tendency to blur the fictive boundaries of the underworld with the real margins at which individuals and groups become involved in crime is far from an invention of post-war mass media.

The previous section explored how 19th-century social investigations sharply influenced contemporary beliefs in criminal confederacy and the existence of a physical and spatial underworld. The next section will show how criminal biography and autobiography tightened the connection between the public and the criminal underworld by bringing the life of the criminal, and even the voice of the criminal, into everyday popular culture. However, historically it has been the fictional and semi-fictional (i.e., those based on real events and/or individuals) depictions of gangsters and organized crime which have had a powerful psychological impact on the way in which we visualize, perceive, and respond to news about organized crime. One of the earliest, and most well-known, instances of fictional representations of the underworld, is Charles Dickens’s novel, Oliver Twist, published originally in serial from between 1837–1838. Dickens’s criminal characters: the Jewish fence, Fagin, the house-breaker Sikes, the prostitute, Nancy, and the juvenile pickpocket, the Artful Dodger, have become celebrated characters not only in literature, but also in shaping criminal vocabularies. Fagin and the Dodger, in particular, have influenced popular representations of crime. For example, at the trial of a group of juvenile offenders at the Borough Magistrates Court in Wrexham, in 1870, it was noted by the local press, “They were all boys of from 14 to 16 years of age, with the exception of Hopley, who is a young man, and appeared the ‘Fagin’ of the party” (Wrexham Advertiser, 28 May, 1870, p. 5). In 1951, in the Daily Mail, a report on a theft of jewelry in Berkley Square, noted, “one of the men is very young, the Yard believes, playing the role of Artful Dodger to the Fagin of the older man” (19 December, 1951, p. 3). As Gambetta argues, low (life) imitates art (2011). Whilst Dickens’ depiction of the gang was not necessarily romanticized (Fagin’s occasional homeliness contrasted with Sikes’s brutality), Fagin, the Dodger, and Nancy were charismatic, and the author was criticized for his depiction by contemporaries. For example, his contemporary William Makepeace Thackeray, directed a thinly veiled criticism at Dickens in his serialization Catherine: A Story (1839–1840), “Men of Genius … have no business to make these characters interesting or agreeable; to be feeding morbid fancies, or indulging their own, with such monstrous food” (Frazer’s Magazine, 1839, p. 701).

From the mid-19th century, the Newgate novel, a genre with which Oliver Twist was associated, had had its day (Pykett, 2003). Underworld fictions would be replaced by social investigation; as we have seen, these “authentic” accounts of the rookeries, slums, and thieves’ dens of the Victorian metropolises offered a glimpse into the lives of the “dangerous” and “outcast” of society. When authors did turn once again to fictionalizing the underworld, both Oliver Twist and real-life events provided the blueprint. Thus, Arthur Morrison’s novel, A Child of the Jago (1896), provided, in the story of young Jago resident Dicky Perrott, a character whose fortunes echo those of Oliver and the other young boys in Dickens’s novel. Moreover, the Jago and the events of its removal, were closely modelled on the parallel clearance of the Old Nichol slum in the East End of London, which had begun in 1891 (Wise, 2009).

Twentieth-century underworld and gangster fiction, indisputably founds its home in the literary evolution of North American popular fiction. Whilst British authors may have excelled at the detective novel, particularly during the “Golden Age” of the interwar period, organized crime was not a prominent feature of crime fiction. Given that the stereotype of the “gangster” was itself only transmitted from across the Atlantic from the end of the 1920s and the early 1930s, this is perhaps unsurprising. The rise of Al Capone, and the events of Valentine’s Day 1929 in Chicago, violently thrusted “gangsterism” into the world press. From 1931, the release of the early gangster films: Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932), consolidated and shaped the figure of the gangster in North American and European culture. These films were based on novels: William Riley Burnett published Little Caesar in 1929; The Public Enemy was based on an unpublished novel called “Beer and Blood” by the writers John Bright and Kubec Glasmon about events in Prohibition-era Chicago (Smyth, 2004, p. 68); Scarface was based on the 1929 novel by Armitage Trail, depicting the life of Al Capone (played by Paul Muni in the film).

One British writer was quick to respond to the gangster era. Thriller writer Edgar Wallace had visited Chicago in 1924, and his exposure to the reporting of gang crime in the city led to the writing of two plays which he then turned into novels: On the Spot: Violence and Murder in Chicago (1930–1931) and When the Gangs Came to London (1932) (Spicer, 2011, p. 158). An earlier book of Wallace’s, Educated Evans (1924), a racing novel, would be filmed in 1936. Ironically, as noted in the introduction, one of the extras in the film, racecourse bookie Massimino Monte-Colombo, would be the victim of a “gang-related” affray at Wandsworth Greyhound Track in September that year (Daily Mirror, 4 September, 1936; Shore, 2014, p. 362). Another book which would blend criminal activity on the racecourse with fictional storytelling was Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, Brighton Rock, apparently based on events at Lewes racecourse in 1936, when two gangs of racing men had violently clashed (Chibnall, 2005, p. 17). However, as both Chibnall and Paul Elliot point out, it is unlikely that British gangster Charles “Darby” Sabini, who had “retired” to Hove in the later 1920s, was a direct influence for the character of the gangster Colleoni, whom in contrast, was imagined through a Hollywood lens (Chibnall, 2005, p. 74; Elliott, 2014, p. 17).

Despite these small tracks into gangland fiction in Britain, America remained the favorite setting for organized crime fiction. Moreover, accounts of North American metropolitan underworlds were also popularized in the interwar period, best represented by Herbert Asbury’s semi-fictional, The Gangs of New York: An Informal History (1928). Asbury followed up this book with similar titles on Chicago, San Francisco, and New Orleans (Wright, 2013, pp. 121–122). This first “gangster” era almost immediately faced a backlash from 1930 with the publication of the Hays Code, as we will see below (Munby, 1999, pp. 100–110). Crime fiction in America remained popular, however the Code’s emphasis that crime had to be seen not to pay, signaled an end to the traditional gangster film, and arguably impacted the market for fictional depictions of gangsters. The rise of hardboiled crime fiction, from the late 1930s and the 1940s, tended to posit the maverick detective as the central anti-hero, rather than the criminal. As Lee Horsley has noted, the iconic figure of the pulp fictions of the later thirties and forties tended to be the tough investigator, most notably the character of Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s detective stories (Horsley, 2005). This is not to say that underworld fiction completely disappeared during the interwar period, as can witnessed by the popularity of Daniel Fuch’s trilogy, Summer in Williamsburg (1934), Homage to Blenholt (1936), and Low Company (1937). Moreover, on cinema screens, James Cagney continued to provide nuanced and complex portrayals of criminals, if somewhat circumscribed by the Code. For example, he played a gangster in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), a bootlegger in The Roaring Twenties (1939), and a psychopathic killer in White Heat (1949).

The fictional and semi-fictional representation of the gangster in print and on screen may have been stymied by the Hays Code and challenged by the hardboiled hero of detective fiction, but the “underworld” and the “gangster” endured in the iconography of popular culture. However, it would be in the later 20th century that the gangster would re-emerge as full-blooded cultural figure. This renaissance of the gangster figure was, in large part, due to the success of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1969) novel, and the subsequent release of the film version in 1972, and its sequel in 1974. A third part, Godfather III, was released in 1990, and all the films were directed by the Italian-American Francis Ford Coppola. The success of and critical acclaim for the trilogy is well known, and has been the subject of substantial analysis across a range of academic disciplines. A key theme that has been explored is the depiction of the family and the presentation of ethnic identity. Of course, many of the films which focus on organized gangs from this period have tended to explore the Italian-American “Mafia family.” Thus as Silvia Dibeltulo points out, “The association of Italianness with family and family values in a long-standing motif in Hollywood cinema as well as in wider popular culture” (2015, p. 25). The representation of kinship and ethics networks in the films of this era, to some extent reflects work undertaken by criminal anthropologists like the Iannis’, who wrote their ground-breaking study of organized crime in 1972. They argued that kinship groups and friendships based on cultural, ethnic, and economic ties, formed the basis of organized crime. This view was very much in contrast to that expounded by their contemporary Donald Cressey (2008). In 1966–1967 he had been a consultant on organized crime for the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice convened by Lyndon Johnson to address the threat of organized crime in the United States. Cressey’s research and his subsequent book, The Theft of the Nation, would inform U.S. government policies on organized crime for the following decades. Interestingly, whilst the book and film of The Godfather did depict the kinship networks explored by the Iannis’, it also did much to confirm the business-like concept of the Mafia, associated with Cressey, and characterized by hierarchy and criminal conspiracy (Camon, 2000, pp. 57–75).

Ethnic identity, kinship, and cultural connection remained key features of the genre through the 1970s and 1980s. The Godfather trilogy is recognized for its cultural significance but has also been considered as a metaphor for late 20th-century American society. As Ron Wilson notes, “The rise and fall of the Corleone family from their immigrant status to leadership in global politics through the character of Michael Corleone charts an epic example of American capitalist endeavor and the subsequent loss of self” (2015, p. 91). Whilst undoubtedly, the version of the Mafia family presented in The Godfather trilogy has had a lasting cultural impact (most significantly on the HBO drama, The Sopranos, see below) other filmic representations of the underworld and organized crime should be considered. Arguably, the most important figure in crime film making in this period was Martin Scorsese. Like Coppola, Scorsese’s canvas was primarily the Italian-American community. However, his crime films shifted away from the more clannish and hierarchical model of the underworld portrayed in The Godfather, and instead focused on what Wilson describes as the, “daily minutiae of mob life” (2015, p. 94). Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995) all focus on elements of the Mafia myth, but, unlike The Godfather films, they are characterized by a semi-documentary tone with realism as a strong note. This approach reflected a contemporary strand in academic study of organized crime and the Mafia, which drew on ethnographic methodologies, and participant observation (Abadinsky, 1981; Adler, 1993; Ianni, 1974). According to Fred Gardaphé (2006, p. 68), this is a reflection of Scorsese’s source material: his own experience growing up in Manhattan’s Little Italy, and the nonfiction books about the Mafia by author Nicholas Pileggi. Scorsese’s documentary style also led him into researching source material based on the historical roots of New York’s underworld. Gangs of New York, based on Herbert Asbury’s 1928 publication, was released in 2002; more recent gang history was the source material for The Departed (2006), which was loosely based on the Boston Irish crime “boss,” James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, who at time of the film’s release was still a fugitive from the law, and was not captured until 2011 (Lehr & O’Neill, 2015). However, despite the importance of auteurs such as Coppola and Scorsese, and the continuing influence that film would play shaping representations of the underworld, by the late 20th century it would be the small screen which would provide a new and dynamic stage for the gangster.

Gangsters on the Small Screen

It has been argued that the first television series which introduced the public to organized crime was the screening of the Kefauver Committee Hearing in 1950–1951 (Roth, 2011, p. 264). However, despite this early exposure to the realities of organized criminal activity, television has not until recently been a significant medium for the portrayal of gangsterism. In North America this may in part have been due to the high levels of censorship which the small screen faced, particularly after the Second World War. Unlike the Hays Code, which was loosening its grip on films by the 1960s, television censorship was much more in force until the 1980s (Silverman, 2007, pp. 21–24). Whilst the gangster film may have been stymied in the short term by the Hays Code, by the late sixties, the revisions to the rating code from 1968 gave audiences more choice, and depictions of criminal lives could flourish. Whilst crime films had continued to be made in the decades since Hays, the gangster films of the 1970s and 1980s were notable for the graphic portrayal of violence, realism, and ethnic context—in the case of the 1970s, this was reflected in the rise of Italian-American themed films, most notably, The Godfather series (Wilson, 2015, p. 82). Consequently, for much of the later 20th century, the great era of domestic television consumption, the gangster genre remained largely one of the cinema screen. There were some exceptions. In 1960s America, The Untouchables started screening in October 1959 and ran until May 1963. Screened on ABC, the series focused on the Prohibition-era activities of “The Untouchables,” a group of agents employed to bring down the Capone empire by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Based on the bestselling memoir of their leader, Elliot Ness (played by Robert Stack), the series was hugely successful.

In Britain, an earlier series based on the memoirs of a police detective was Fabian of the Yard, broadcast on the BBC between November 1954 and February 1956. Robert Fabian had been the head of the Flying Squad, and in the early 1950s, he had appeared in a semi-documentary series made by former journalist and crime writer Robert Barr, I Made News (1951). Fabian of the Yard was based on Fabian’s case files, and whilst he was played by an actor, the real Fabian provided a cameo addressing the audience at the end of the show (Turnbull, 2014, pp. 37–38). However, Fabian of the Yard dealt only occasionally with organized crime, with often more sensational violent murders being a main staple. Later detective procedural dramas, most notably The Sweeney, broadcast on the commercial channel ITV between January 1975 and December 1978, was also based on the activities of the Metropolitan Police Flying Squad, but focused more on organized criminality. However, the policing dynamic remained the center of the drama. A more unusual approach to the subject was taken by the BBC in 1975, with the play Gangsters. This was later extended into two six-part serials, broadcast in 1976 and 1978, and is regarded as both innovative and progressive in its depiction of both criminal lives but also ethnic minorities. As Gavin Schaffer notes, “The story orientated around turf battles between black, Asian, and white gangs, each of which included their share of wrongdoers” (2014, p. 252). Producer Barry Hanson saw the drama as very much a departure from typical BBC drama of the period: “Its cue came from contemporary American urban crime movies.” It was certainly a slice of urban realism, notable for its location sequences of Birmingham, as well as its acknowledgement of inner-city racial tensions (Cooke, 2015, p. 130).

More recently, the gangster has made a greater impression on the small screen. In part this has been a product of what might be seen as the rise of “cinematic” television. Indeed, it has been argued that there has been an influential shift from the cinema as the natural home for gangster films to the television, much of which is credited to the rise of the American cable and satellite television network, HBO (Home Box Office). Whilst HBO had been originally launched in 1975, in the mid-to-late 1990s it changed as a response to the massive growth of subscriber-based television channels in the United States. In order to compete in such a crowded market, the channel invested heavily in program development and high-quality series, most notably The Sopranos. As Gary Edgerton explains, the show’s creator, David Chase’s “original conception of combining an epic novelistic structure, a cinematic vocabulary, and a dystopian worldview with the usual conventions of prime time resulted in a uniquely singular generic and serial hybrid that inspired the next generation of television dramatists” (2013, p. 94). Over six seasons (1999–2007), The Sopranos follows the life of a New Jersey-based Italian-American gangster, Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini). It provides a unique twist on the gangster genre by exploring the tensions between Tony’s home life and his criminal organization. The series demonstrates its gangster culture antecedents, with nods to many of the classic films of the genre. For example, in an episode in the third season, three different characters watch The Public Enemy on Tony Soprano’s home cinema whilst his mother is on her death bed (Edgerton, 2013, p. 32). Moreover, the series provides a further example of the blending of fictional criminal lives and real organized crime activity, with the Soprano clan loosely based on the DeCavalcante crime family of Northern New Jersey.

The huge success of The Sopranos, both critically and commercially, would be a watershed in the production of high quality television dramas, dealing with the criminal underworld. From HBO would also come The Wire (2002–2008) and Boardwalk Empire (2010–2014). Whilst The Wire, written by former police reporter David Simon, was ostensibly a procedural drama set in the city of Baltimore, over its five seasons it dealt on a panoramic and cinematic scale with gang crime, political and union corruption, the illegal drugs trade, and the press. Its complex and nuanced depiction of the drug dealing Barksdale family was praised by critics: “The show was praised for its politics of representation, for putting Black characters in a drama, for including them in all depicted classes, all levels of hierarchies” (Rüdebusch, 2015, p. 1). The series also broke with convention by employing real life former policemen and ex-offenders such as Melvin Williams, a former drugs dealer, and Felicia Pearson, who had spent time in prison for second degree murder. The final HBO success dealing with organized crime travelled back to the relative safety of the Prohibition era. Boardwalk Empire focuses on the corrupt treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Moreover, the series is also noted for its depiction of the careers of other Prohibition gangsters, in particular Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Johnny Torrio, and Meyer Lansky. Nucky Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi) is loosely based on the New Jersey racketeer and political boss, Enoch L. Johnson.

The success of organized crime series that blended fiction and reality was also reflected in dramas produced outside North America. The violent underworld of New South Wales was depicted in Underbelly (2008–2013). Based on real-life events in the gang wars and drugs trade of New South Wales, it bears some similarity to the structure of The Wire, each season being related but distinct. Uniquely, it blends the historical past and the recent past. Whilst the first season of Underbelly (2008) focuses on events in Melbourne between 1995 and 2004, the subsequent two seasons (Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities (2009) and Underbelly: The Golden Mile (2010)) provide a prequel, focusing on the years from 1976 to 1999. The following season, Underbelly: Razor (2011), is set in Sydney during the 1920s; the next season Underbelly: Badness (2012) moves back to modern-day Sydney, and the final season, Underbelly: Squizzy (2013) travels to Melbourne between 1915 and 1927. Another drama blending historical narratives with fictionalized accounts is the British drama Peaky Blinders (2013 onward). Like Boardwalk Empire, this BBC drama is set in the interwar period. The first season of Peaky Blinders describes the aftermath of the Great War, and the shadow of that war looms broodingly over the narrative. Thomas Shelby, the central character, is a veteran; other characters bear the mental and physical scars of war.

The notion of realism and authenticity has characterized descriptions of the drama both by its writer and director, Steven Knight and Otto Bathurst, as well as in media reviews. As Birmingham-born Knight remarked in an interview with The Guardian, “The stories for Peaky Blinders came through my family—my Mum and Dad lived in Small Heath as kids, and were involved in the illegal betting industry. Off-track betting was illegal, so there were a lot of bookies, a lot of gangsters with guns. I had these snapshots of stories that I’d never read about in the history books” (2013, September 6). Certainly Britain did experience a surge in racecourse attendance at this time, and at certain points during the 1920s, the gambling “industry” became the subject of significant press, police, and political attention (Shore, 2015). In London, the Clerkenwell-based Anglo-Italian Sabini family are most often drawn as the key protagonists. In particular, the “head” of the family, Charles “Darby” Sabini, is understood to have been the main power on the London and south-east racecourses. His key rival was William “Billy” Kimber, portrayed in the BBC drama as the “kingpin” in the gambling and racing underworld, his dominance challenged by Tommy Shelby and his “Peaky Blinders.” In the second season, broadcast in 2014, the drama moves to London where the fictional Shelbys come into direct confrontation with the factual Sabinis. Despite the claims for authenticity the drama is fictional, playing with the events known as the “racecourse wars” which were widely reported during the 1920s and have been documented by a number of historians and true-crime writers (Chinn, 1991, pp. 178–179, 181–184; Shore, 2015; Morton, 2000; McDonald, 2010). Moreover, the drama is cloaked with the patina of gangster culture, drawing on the language and motifs of the “hardman,” which provide a shorthand for viewers familiar with the cultural hallmarks of the North American “Mob” and the British family firms of the fifties and sixties. Yet whilst commentators were concerned about the potential criminality of returning soldiers in the aftermath of the First World War, the “gangster” portrayed in Peaky Blinders would not emerge until the later 1920s and would not take hold until the 1930s. The international press really started reporting “gangster” crime in detail when it was brought to the world’s attention by the escalation of “gangsterism” in North America from the late 1920s, and particularly with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in February 1929. Moreover, as we have seen, it was only with the popularity of the “mob film” in the early 1930s that the language of gangsterdom truly became embedded in British cultural forms (Springhall, 1998). Indeed, tropes and stereotypes honed through decades of intertwined culture and the “factual” reporting of organized crime have retrospectively shaped the way we understand historical “gang” culture.

Criminal Biography and True Crime Writing

The importance of the true crime genre has been somewhat underestimated in the critical literature about organized criminality. In relation to discussions about representation and constructions of professional criminality, the genre has a significant influence. A few authors have tried to get to grips with the way in which true crime shapes our representations of the underworld. For example, at a paper given at the British Criminology Conference in 1998, Philip Rawlings commented, “The depiction of crime (fact and fiction) in books, newspapers, film, television, and so forth has an impact on how crime is understood and, therefore, on policy, and this alone makes popular criminology worth studying” (1998). Moreover, as a genre, true crime is one that has been historically bound by formula and a strict set of conventions about how the particular crime story is told. Whilst these might vary from one type of crime to another, the conventions are markedly consistent over time. As Mark Seltzer notes, “The protocols of true crime are not hard to detect. The conventions of the genre are in fact instantly recognizable; in fact, there is nothing more recognizable about true crime than its utter conventionality. True crime is not just formulaic; it is a sort of writing or screening by numbers” (2013, p. 35). Very few “true crime” texts transcend these conventions, or indeed, lift above the popular, or even “pulp,” end of the market. Those that do, such as Truman Capote’s, In Cold Blood or Norman Mailer’s, The Executioner’s Song (1979), are, perhaps unsurprisingly, written by individuals already noted for their literary achievements. Moreover, these texts focus on cases which involve murder events. Capote’s book focuses on the killing of four members of a farming family in Kansas in 1959; Mailer’s is an account of the murderer Gary Gilmore, who became noted in 1977 for his demand for his death sentence to be implemented, and to be carried out by firing squad in accordance with his Mormon beliefs of blood atonement (1966, 1979). Whilst these books were influential and compelling, the true crime genre has not served the organized criminal and the gangster quite so well. There are exceptions, which are discussed below.

Before talking about the historical development of such texts, it is worth considering in more detail what the true crime account entails. Broadly, the genre can be divided into third person accounts of crimes and crime events, and criminal biographies and autobiographies. Typically the “true crime” that is driven by a particular series of crimes or a single crime event includes accounts of famous murders (such as the Whitechapel or “Jack the Ripper” murders of 1888), accounts of one-off project crimes or robberies (such as the British Great Train Robbery of 1963) or of crimes involving elements of fraud, politics, murder, or celebrity (for example, the Manson Family murders in Los Angeles in 1969). These forms of sensationalist documentary writing are hugely popular. As Philip Jenkins has noted, there has been something of a resurgence of such books from the 1990s, most particularly in relation to extreme violence: “Serial murder stories usually account for between a third and half of the output of such books” (1994, p. 92). Some of this sort of crime account also focuses on organized crime and organized crime groups, the Mafia in particular. A number of academic authors have commented on the Mafia mystique. This was the title of a study by American criminologist Dwight C. Smith, who argued that the term “mafia” had become endowed with “mystique” in a process attributable to sensational reporting, hidden agendas, and ideas about secret societies (1990). True crime writing tends to confirm this mythological presentation of the Mafia. Moreover, as we have already seen, film and television dramas have done little to undermine this view. As Joseph Albini and Jeffrey McIlliwain have argued, the parallel publication of books about the Mafia and the representation of such criminals on screen had unintended consequences: “The Mafia mystique now had a visual portrayal of the stereotypes on the movie screen and an incestuous cycle began to develop” (2012, p. 66). This blurred boundary between fiction and reality also shapes the most important of the true crime subgenres, the criminal biography, and particularly the criminal autobiography.

The paradigm of criminal celebrity has not been subjected to extensive analysis by either criminologists or historians of crime. An exception is Ruth Penfold Mounce, whose study, Celebrity Culture and Crime: The Joy of Transgression, is unusual in tackling the celebrity criminal as a distinct subject over time (2009). Penfold Mounce explores the blurring of the public and the private which the growth of a mass media, in modern society, has enabled, whilst recognizing important precedents to be found in medieval and early modern treatments of the criminal. These included autobiographical accounts of notorious criminals. Criminal biographies focus on individual criminals, and tend to take one of two approaches. The first is a collaboration between a criminal and a writer (most typically, a journalist). The second, is the rarer true crime autobiography, written by the criminal as a reflection on his (or her) life. Some of these are ghostwritten. Surprisingly, given its reputation for organized crime activity, biographical accounts seem to be less common in the United States. American criminal biography has tended to focus much more strongly on murderous offenders such as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, et al.) rather than the organized criminal. Jean Murley has written interestingly about how, in the 1980s, true crime books replaced the more “traditional” and established true crime magazines. In particular, it would be the success of the author Ann Rule (who wrote her first book about Ted Bundy in 1980) which really cemented the growth of the serial killer genre (Murley, 2008, p. 72). Whilst true crime concerned with lethal and serial violence has continued to be commercially successful in America, its appeal has been rivalled by the growth of gang memoirs since the 1990s. Whilst in the States the predominant form of gang memoir has come from African American and Latino gang members (Metcalf, 2009), in Britain, an earlier tradition grew out of the “family firms” of the post-war period.

However, as suggested earlier, criminal biography in Britain has a much longer history. It would be in the 18th century that a genre recognizable to the modern consumers of the black and red “true crime” section first emerged. Criminal biography would reach its apex in the huge market for the life stories of the criminal and the condemned in this period. Moreover, the individuals who were the most popular subjects, and indeed “authors,” of the biographies, were those who we might loosely see as the “organized criminals” of their day. They included highway robbers, burglars, members of criminal gangs, pickpockets, conmen, and thieves (McKenzie, 2007). These hack-written accounts of criminal lives, often hurriedly produced for the scaffold audience, were an extremely popular form of cheap literature throughout the 18th century, although by the 1760s popular demand for this type of literature was waning (Bell, 1991). In many ways publications such as the Old Bailey Sessions Papers, the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, and the Last Dying Speeches of Criminals reflected contemporary fears about urban crime. Hence, they contained largely stereotypical portrayals of criminals and often had a didactic purpose. Biographies of noted thieves like Jack Sheppard (executed 1724) James Dalton (executed 1730), and highwaymen like Ralph Wilson (executed 1722) and William Page (executed 1758) followed a formula in which the protagonist made a number of unwise choices which inevitably led him to the gallows. Thus the biographies combined the sensation and excitement of criminal lives, with moral pedagogy and a warning of the outcome of a life lived badly. The highwayman was perhaps the most notorious and most romantic figure to emerge from this literature (Shoemaker, 2006; Spraggs, 2001).

The highwayman has long been subjected to the literary gaze, and by the mid-Victorian period juvenile literature loosely based on 18th-century highwaymen and robbers such as Dick Turpin contributed to an enduring mythology. However, behind the highwayman myth, there existed a number of criminals who achieved a form of 18th-century celebrity. For example, James MacLaine was the classic “gentleman highwayman” beloved of Victorian writers such as Edward Bulwer Lytton and Harrison Ainsworth (1848, 1856). The son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister, he famously robbed the Earl of Orford and Whig politician Horace Walpole in 1749. MacLaine, like Jack Sheppard before him, became a celebrity criminal in his aspirations for a lifestyle through illegal appropriation. Even in its more mundane guise, highway robbery was taken seriously by the authorities, and those caught were very likely to end up on the gallows, making them commercially valuable in the market for criminal biographies. In contrast, the early Victorian period would witness a shift in concern to the problem of the “criminal class,” as we saw earlier. Biographical accounts of individual “professional criminals,” other than those in the reprinted Newgate Calendar and the fictionalized accounts from the likes of Ainsworth, were few and far between. One exception was the biography of Charles Frederick Peace, the infamous burglar and murderer from Sheffield (Purkess, 1880).

The first half of the 20th century, arguably saw a more marked turn to autobiographical memoirs. However, these were more predominately produced by policemen, particularly detectives, than criminals. In Britain, the retirement of the earliest generations of CID (Criminal Investigation Department) detectives resulted in a flood of memoirs. There had been some earlier policing memoirs which touched on gang crime, such as the memoir of the Manchester detective Jerome Caminada, Twenty-Five Years of Detective Life (1895) (Shpayer-Makov, 2011, pp. 280–281). Paul Lawrence has written about similar memoirs in late 19th-century France (2000). However, it would be the memoirs that appeared during the 1920s which dealt more directly with the professional criminal, and later, with the gangster. In these texts good “police” and bad “villains” were often drawn in very broad brushstrokes. Former police detectives such as Tom Divall (1929), Fred Wensley (1931), and Frederick “Nutty” Sharpe (1938) draped their accounts of the events with both machismo and close “knowledge.” Divall, for example, was keen to stress his intimacy with the gangs: “I had friends among both lots …” (1929, p. 208). Typically, accounts were subject to institutional or self-aggrandizement. As Sharpe wrote, “I don’t think that I make any unfair boast when I say that these yellow livered, rotten little bullies and cowards are dead scared of the Flying Squad” (1938, p. 213). In America, as we’ve already seen, the famous Prohibition agent, Eliot Ness, published his influential memoir in 1957.

There were some successful forms of criminal biography in the interwar period. The conman and ex-con narratives were popular. For example, Matt Houlbrook has explored the “career” of Netley Lucas, a conman and “gentleman crook” who extended his career into publishing in the 1920s and 1930s (2013). Other “crook” authors of the interwar period, included robber Eddie Guerin (Crime: The Autobiography of a Crook (1928)), the burglar Mark Benney (Low Company (1936)), cat burglar George Smithson (Raffles in Real Life: The Confessions of George Smithson (1930)), and smash-and-grab raider, John “Ruby” Sparks, (Burglar to the Nobility (1961)). Moreover, serialized first person narratives were popular in newspaper and detective periodicals both in Britain and North America; as Houlbrook notes, “The ex-crook writer was a ubiquitous figure in interwar mass culture” (2013, p. 4). Whilst the “crook memoir” favored the exploits of the professional habitual criminal, it would be a memoir published in 1955, which would mark the emergence of the gangland autobiography. The Boss of Britain’s Underworld (1955), was ostensibly by the London hardman and gangster, Billy Hill, although it was ghostwritten by the crime writer, Duncan Webb, and serialized in the popular newspaper, The People. Webb had been responsible for exposing the Soho vice operations of the Messina brothers in The People in 1950 (Shore, 2010, p. 133). The publication of Hill’s autobiography was accompanied by a launch party at Gennaro’s Rendezvous restaurant in Dean Street, Soho, which was attended by criminals including Frankie Fraser and Ruby Sparks, former CID officers, and various celebrities (Campbell, 2011). Photographs from the evening are preserved in the Getty Archive.

Hill’s criminal “career” and celebrity arguably mark something of a turning point in representations of British criminals. The visible mingling of celebrity with criminality became a hallmark of certain types of organized criminals. There were precedents for this sort of criminal celebrity, as we have already seen; 18th-century criminals such as Jack Sheppard and James McClain achieved some degree of public fame, although it did not divert them from their ultimate fate on the gallows. In the Prohibition era, Al Capone achieved celebrity status. As Chris Rojek notes, “By the 1930s the gangster Al Capone had become the civic landmark of Chicago, fêted by actors, scriptwriters, and media moguls, and was frequently cheered by the public when he appeared at sports stadiums, restaurants, and other public places” (2001, p. 127). In the case of Capone, that celebrity amounted to a huge reflection of power, and to some extent fear of violent repercussion. However, undoubtedly Capone exemplified the “glamor” that proximity to criminality could represent. Rojek refers to this as “The Charm of Notoriety,” arguing that whilst unfavorable celebrity or notoriety was generally stigmatizing, “deviation can be developed as a positive live strategy geared to the acquisition of status” (2001, p. 172). This charm of notoriety is particularly apparent in the criminal careers of post-war British gangsters, Ronald and Reginald Kray, and to some extent shaped the way that the true-crime genre has developed over time.

In 1967, at the height of their notoriety, the Kray twins approached writer John Pearson to write their biography. The book that Pearson eventually published in 1972, The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins, was not one that the twins particularly approved of (Pearson, 1972, 2002). Whilst it was far from sensational it can be seen as the blueprint for the wave of true-crime accounts and biographies that would appear over the following decades. The Kray twins have often had a starring role, although other contemporaries are also the subject of such texts that celebrate the hardman, such as Frankie Fraser, Lennie McLean, Freddie Foreman, and Bruce Reynolds, the ringleader of the Great Train Robbery of 1963 (Fraser and Morton, 1995; McLean, 2003; Foreman, 2007; Reynolds, 1995). The publishing phenomenon of criminal biographies in recent years is not unprecedented, however the continual and growing popularity of such texts is striking. Former criminal lawyer James Morton (1992, 1994, 2000) has contributed significantly with this growth, and has been one of the main authors to provide the historical narrative of British organized crime, along with writers like Robert Murphy (1993) and Brian McDonald (2000, 2010). Such texts have, to a large extent, established the chronological and narrative framework of the British “underworld.” These books do have some value and often the authors have sourced press accounts and police evidence in an attempt to provide credibility. Indeed, Morton has drawn on the records of the Metropolitan Police in his “gangland” histories and Brian McDonald has used Old Bailey records. However, they need to be read critically and with some skepticism since their reliability and credibility remains questionable. Evidence is thin or lacking, and there is a tendency to repeat mythologies and indeed to create them. The writing tends to be characterized by a form of hypermasculinity, the authors’ “knowledge” often gained through some proximity or close association to the villains (Shore, 2015, p. 170). For British organized crime biography, the “hardman” characterizes both the subjects of the texts, the style of the writing, and in many cases, the associations and identity of the author. There are often fluid boundaries between criminal subject and identity, author and ghostwriter, and objective or subjective approaches to the crime biography.

In America, this fluidity can be found in the success of the “ghetto narrative,” and its particular reinvention linked to the rise of gangsta rap from the late 1980s. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these is the biography of the drug dealer, Frank Lucas, Original Gangster: The Real Life Story of One of America’s Most Notorious Drug Lords. (2010), written with Aliya S. King, and filmed as American Gangster in 2007. Lucas’s biography is interesting in that it is the most well-known of a group of African American gangster biographies, many of which relate to membership of gangs such as the “Crips” and the “Bloods,” which have been circulating since the 1990s. An early example is, Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member (1993) written by ex-Crips member, Sanyika Shakur aka Monster Kody Scott. Josephine Metcalf has discussed the rise of the “ghetto” narrative in true crime, noting that, “it is possible to see contemporary gang memoirs as their own distinct literary genre with their own definitive form of cultural production” (2012, p. 30). However, she also recognizes the importance of black urban experience and “ghetto” culture, as well as the influence of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which had been originally published in 1965 but was revived with in the early 1990s in parallel with the making and release of director Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X (1992). Finally, even before the publication of Monster, television documentaries on street gangs which incorporated testimony from gang members were watched by large audiences.

Review of the Literature and Further Sources

The criminal underworld, in its various incarnations, is the subject of a wide range of literature. However, there are some limitations to this field. Whilst criminological and sociological perspectives are abundant and the field of research is healthy, critical historical analysis of the underworld remain few and far between. Moreover, there is little analysis of the historical underworld and organized criminal activity specifically in relation to media, print, and popular culture. In her work on London’s criminal underworlds, historian Heather Shore does attempt to chart the historical evolution of the underworld concept in relation to print culture (2015). Other scholarly studies of the historical “underworld,” in which print culture plays a significant role, have focused on Germany, New York, and the Netherlands (Evans, 1998; Gilfoyle, 2006; Egmond, 1993). Criminologists also provide useful historical contexts in their contemporary discussions of organized crime. For example, there are useful international surveys and edited collections, by Howard Abadinsky (2003), Mark Galeotti (2005, 2008) and Alan Wright (2013). A recent accessible account of the global underworld is by the journalist, Misha Glenny, McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld (2009). The literature on organized crime groups in North American cities is vast and wide-ranging. Cressey’s work remains significant (1969), however, his findings have been largely overturned by subsequent work (Albini & McIlliwain, 2012, pp. 4–5). However, the relationship between crime and the media, and specifically the portrayal of organized crime, is only tangentially touched upon in such texts. For the student who is interested in this topic, cultural and media studies approaches to the portrayal of gang crime are extremely useful. The two key periods of “mob” films, the pre-Hays Code gangster films, and The Godfather effect from the 1970s, have been widely discussed (Munby, 1999; Ruth, 1996; Mason, 2002; Wilson, 2015).

Fictional and semi-fictional accounts of the underworld have not been widely surveyed. For the early modern period, Kinney’s collection on rogue literature is very useful. Eighteenth-century criminal biography has been discussed in some detail, and much of this material focuses on property criminals (thieves, robbers, conmen, and highwaymen) who could arguably approximate to a version of pre-modern organized criminality (Faller, 1987; McKenzie, 2007). Most of our knowledge of these early accounts of criminality tend to be focused on the British literature, although it is worth noting that a number of the criminals who left biographies had previously experienced convict transportation to the Americas. For example, The Life and Actions of James Dalton, a thief and robber who was executed in 1730, contains some description of his life in the colonies (Rawlings, 1992, pp. 83–85). It is relatively easy to find fictional and semi-fictional accounts of the 19th-century underworld, or at least the rookeries and slums of the Victorian and early 20th-century urban metropolises. Accounts of the poor and criminal inhabitants of London can be found in both printed collections and online. For example, John Marriot and Masaie Matsumara’s collection of extracts from London’s social investigators provide students with a broad range of the types of writing about the city and its problems from the late eighteenth until the early 20th century (1999, 6 volumes). The website compiled by author Lee Jackson, The Dictionary of Victorian London, includes extracts from social investigators into crime and poverty in the period.

The coverage of the gangster as a figure in fiction and film varies. Whilst a huge amount has been written on crime fiction, this is largely concerned with the historical evolution of detective fiction. Lee Horsley’s Twentieth-century Crime Fiction (2005) is a useful survey of both detective fiction, the rise of hardboiled fictions, and does have a chapter about Prohibition-era gangsters. Academic discussions of gangster film are much more in evidence. These range from specific accounts of the pre-Hays Code Golden Age of the “Mob” film (Ruth, 1996) to broader analysis of the development of the genre (Munby, 1999) to analyses of the gangsters’ move from the big to the small screen (Larke, 2010). Issues relating to ethnicity, immigrant cultures, and the connection of these to the American “dream” factor largely in accounts of the gangster movie. More recent crime films (in both America and Britain) have been subject to rather less academic inquiry, although the crime films of Quentin Tarantino, particularly Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), are an exception to this (Gormley, 2005). British gangster films have not been the subject of scholarly investigation in any significant way, although Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy’s edited collection, British Crime Cinema, brings together a number of useful essays dealing with themes such as: gangland, tough guys, and masculinity (1999).

Finally, for any student interested in studying the representation of the underworld and organized crime in print culture and moving image, the best place to start is with the texts and films themselves. As noted earlier, many of the gangster films have been based either on fictional accounts or crime memoirs. The earliest gangster film, The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), directed by D. W. Griffiths, is a curious period piece and as Munby notes, provides an early narration of the fears about urbanization and modernization (1999, pp. 21–22). The three classic films of the early 1930s, Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932), remain hugely influential, shaping the public image of the “Mob” and the underworld. Similarly, The Godfather trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990) followed by Goodfellas (1990) provide the template for understanding more recent evolutions of organized crime visual fictions. Moreover, as this chapter has demonstrated, in more recent years, television versions of the underworld increasingly contribute to the public narrative about organized crime. In this case, the HBO series The Sopranos (1999–2007), The Wire (2002–2008), and Boardwalk Empire (2010–2014), and the BBC series Peaky Blinders (2013 onwards) are recommended as an introduction to small screen gangsters.

Further Reading

Abadinsky, H. (2003). Organized crime. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.Find this resource:

Albini, J. L., & McIlliwain, J. (2012). Deconstructing organized crime: An historical and theoretical study. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.Find this resource:

Chibnall. S., & Murphy, R. (1999). British crime cinema. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Larke-Walsh, G. S. (2010). Screening the Mafia: Masculinity, ethnicity, and mobsters from The Godfather to The Sopranos. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.Find this resource:

Munby, J. (1999). Public enemies, Public heroes: Screening the gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Rawlings, P. (1992), Drunks, Whores, and Idle Apprentices: Criminal Biographies of the Eighteenth Century. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.Find this resource:

Ruth, D. E. (1996). Inventing the public enemy: The gangster in American culture, 1918–1934. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Smith, D. C. (1975). The Mafia mystique. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

Springhall, J. (1998). Censoring Hollywood: Youth, moral panic, and crime/gangster movies of the 1930s. The Journal of Popular Culture, 32(3), 135–154.Find this resource:


Abadinsky, H. (1981). The Mafia in America: An oral history. New York: Praeger.Find this resource:

Abadinsky, H. (2003). Organized crime. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.Find this resource:

Adler, P. (1993). Wheeling and dealing: An ethnography of an upper-level drug dealing and smuggling community. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Albini, J. L., & McIlliwain, J. (2012). Deconstructing organized crime: An historical and theoretical study. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.Find this resource:

Anbinder, T. (2001). Five points: The 19th-century New York City neighbourhood that invented tap dance, stole elections, and became the world’s most notorious slum. New York: Free Press.Find this resource:

Asbury, H. (1928). The gangs of New York: An informal history. New York: Garden City Publishing.Find this resource:

Beames, T. (1850). The rookeries of London: Past, present, and prospective. London: T. Bosworth.Find this resource:

Beier, A. L. (1985). Masterless men: The vagrancy problem in England, 1560–1640. London: Methuen.Find this resource:

Bell, I. A. (1991). Literature and crime in Augustan England. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Block, A. A. (1994), Space, time, and organized crime (rev. ed.). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press.Find this resource:

Block, A. A., & Chambliss, W. (1981). Organizing crime. New York: Elsevier.Find this resource:

Camon, A. (2000). The Godfather and the mythology of Mafia. In N. Browne (Ed.), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Trilogy (pp. 57–75). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Campbell, D. (2011, July 2). Criminal confessions. The Observer. Retrieved from this resource:

Campbell, H. (1899). Darkness and daylight; or, lights and shadows of New York life: … With thrilling personal experiences … in the underworld of the great metropolis … Hartford, CT: Hartford.Find this resource:

Capote, T. (1966). In cold blood. New York: Random House.Find this resource:

Chibnall, S. (2005). Brighton rock. London: L. B. Tauris.Find this resource:

Chibnall. S., & Murphy, R. (1999). British crime cinema. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Chinn, C. (1991). Better betting with a decent feller: Bookmaking, betting, and the British working class, 1750–1990. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.Find this resource:

Cooke, L. (2015). British television drama: A history. London: British Film Institute/Palgrave.Find this resource:

Cressey, D. R. (2008). Theft of the nation: The structure and operations of organized crime in America (rev. ed.). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.Find this resource:

Daily Mail, 19th December, 1951, p. 3.Find this resource:

Daily Mirror, 4th September, 1936.Find this resource:

Dibeltulo, S. (2015). Family, gang, and ethnicity in Italian-themed Hollywood gangster films. Film International, 12(4), 25–43.Find this resource:

Divall, T. (1929). Scoundrels and scallywags, and some honest men. London: Ernest Benn.Find this resource:

Edgerton, G. (2013). The Sopranos. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.Find this resource:

Egmond, F. (1993). Underworld: Organized crime in the Netherlands. London: Polity.Find this resource:

Ellington, G. (1869). The women of New York; or, the under-world of the great city. Illustrating the life of women of fashion, women of pleasure, actresses and ballet girls, saloon girls, pickpockets and shoplifters, artists’ female models, women-of-the-town, etc … New York: New York Book.Find this resource:

Elliott, P. (2014). Studying the British crime film. Leighton Buzzard, U.K.: Auteur.Find this resource:

Evans, R. (1998). Tales from the German underworld: Crime and punishment in the nineteenth century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Find this resource:

Faller, L. B. (1987). Turned to account: The forms and functions of criminal biography in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century England. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Foreman, F. (2007). Brown Bread Fred: The autobiography of the godfather of British crime. London: John Blake.Find this resource:

Fraser, F., & Morton, J. (1995). Mad Frank: Memoirs of a life of crime. London: Warner.Find this resource:

Frazer’s Magazine, 1839, p. 701.Find this resource:

Galeotti, M. (Ed.). (2005). Global crime today: The changing face of organized crime. Oxford: Routledge.Find this resource:

Galeotti, M. (Ed.). (2008). Organized crime in history. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Gambetta, D. (2009). Codes of the underworld: How criminals communicate. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Gardaphé, F. L. (2006). From wiseguys to wisemen: The gangster and Italian American masculinities. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Gilfoyle, T. J. (2006). A pickpocket’s tale: The underworld of nineteenth-century New York. London: W. W. Norton.Find this resource:

Glenny, M. (2009), McMafia: A journey through the global criminal underworld. New York: Random House.Find this resource:

Gordon, C. G. (1921). Crooks of the underworld. London: Geoffrey Bles.Find this resource:

Gormley, P. (2005). The new-brutality film: Race and affect in contemporary Hollywood cinema. Bristol, U.K.: Intellect Books.Find this resource:

Greenwood, J. (1869). The seven curses of London. London: S. Rivers.Find this resource:

Greenwood, J. (1874). The wilds of London. London: Chatto and Windus.Find this resource:

Hess, H. (1998). Mafia & Mafiosi: Origin, power, and myth. London: C. Hurst.Find this resource:

Hobbs, D. (2013). Lush life: Constructing organized crime in the UK. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Hollingshead, J. (1861). Ragged London in 1861. London: Smith, Elder.Find this resource:

Holmes, T. (1912). London’s underworld. London: J. M. Dent.Find this resource:

Horsley, L. (2005). Twentieth century crime fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Houlbrook, M. (2013). Fashioning an ex-crook self: Citizenship and criminality in the work of Netley Lucas. Twentieth Century British History, 24(1), 1–30.Find this resource:

Ianni, F. A. J. (1974). Black Mafia: Ethnic succession in organized crime. New York: Simon & Schuster.Find this resource:

Ianni, F. A. J., & Ianni, E. R. (1972). A family business: Kinship and social control in organized crime. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Find this resource:

Jenkins, P. (2009). Using murder: The social construction of homicide (rev. ed.). Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.Find this resource:

Kinney, A. F. (Ed.) (1990). Rogues, vagabonds, & sturdy beggars: A new gallery of Tudor and early Stuart rogue literature. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.Find this resource:

Larke-Walsh, G. S. (2010). Screening the Mafia: Masculinity, ethnicity, and mobsters from The Godfather to The Sopranos. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.Find this resource:

Lawrence, P. (2000). Images of poverty and crime: Police memoirs in England and France at the end of the nineteenth century. Crime, History, and Societies, 4(1), 63–82.Find this resource:

Lehr, D., & O’Neill, G. (2015). Black mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a devil’s deal (rev. ed.). New York: Public Affairs.Find this resource:

Lucas, F. (2010). Original gangster: The real life story of one of America’s most notorious drug lords. New York: St. Martin’s Press.Find this resource:

MacMunn, G. F. A. (1933). The underworld of India. London: Jarrolds.Find this resource:

Malcolm, X. (1965). The autobiography of Malcolm X: As told to Alex Haley. New York: Ballantine Publishing Group.Find this resource:

Mailer, N. (1979). The executioner’s song. New York: Little, Brown.Find this resource:

Marriott, J. (1999). Introduction. In J. Marriott & M. Matsumura (Eds.), The metropolitan poor: Semi-factual accounts, 1795–1910, vol. 1 (xi–l). London: Pickering and Chatto.Find this resource:

Mason, F. (2002). American gangster cinema: From Little Caesar to Pulp Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

McDonald, B. (2000). Elephant boys: Tales of London and Los Angeles underworlds. Edinburgh: Mainstream.Find this resource:

McDonald, B. (2010). The gangs of London: 100 years of Mob warfare. Wrea Green, U.K.: Milo Books.Find this resource:

McKenzie, A. (2007). Tyburn’s martyrs: Execution in England, 1675–1775. London: Hambledon Continuum.Find this resource:

McLean, L. (2003). The Guv’nor. London: John Blake.Find this resource:

Metcalf, J. (2009). From rage to rap and prison to print: Social, cultural, and commercial contexts in the emergence of gang memoirs. European Journal of American Studies, 4(2). Retrieved from this resource:

Metcalf, J. (2012). The culture and politics of contemporary street gang memoirs. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.Find this resource:

Morain, A. (1929). The underworld of Paris: Secrets of the Sûreté. London: Jarrolds.Find this resource:

Morton, J. (1992). Gangland. London: Little, Brown.Find this resource:

Morton, J. (1994). Gangland, vol. 2: The underworld in Britain and Ireland. London: Little, Brown.Find this resource:

Morton, J. (2000). East End gangland. London: Little, Brown.Find this resource:

Munby, J. (1999). Public enemies, public heroes: Screening the gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Murley, J. (2008). The rise of true crime: 20th-century murder and American popular culture. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.Find this resource:

Murphy, R. (1993). Smash and grab: Gangsters in the English underworld, 1920–60. London: Faber & Faber.Find this resource:

Pearson, J. (1972). The profession of violence: The rise and fall of the Kray twins. London: HarperCollins.Find this resource:

Pearson, J. (2002). The cult of violence: The untold story of the Krays. London: Orion.Find this resource:

Penfold-Mounce, R. (2009). Celebrity culture and crime: The joy of transgression. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Petrow, S. (1993). The rise of the detective in London, 1869–1914. Criminal Justice History, 14, 91–108.Find this resource:

Philips, W. (1855). The wild tribes of London. London: Ward and Lock.Find this resource:

Purkess, G. [ca. 1879–80]. Charles Peace, or, the adventures of a notorious burglar. London: G. Purkess.Find this resource:

Pykett, L. (2003). The Newgate novel and sensation fiction, 1830–1868. In M. Priestman (Ed.), The Cambridge companion to crime fiction (pp. 19–40). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Rawlings, P. (1998). True crime. In J. Vagg and T. Newburn (Eds.), The British Criminology Conferences: Selected Proceedings. Volume. 1: Emerging Themes in Criminology. Retrieved from this resource:

Reiner, R. (2007). Media made criminality: The representation of crime in the mass media. In R. Reiner, M. Maguire, & R. Morgan (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of criminology (pp. 302–340) (rev. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Reuter, P. (1983). Disorganized crime: The economics of the visible hand. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

Reynolds, B. (1995). The autobiography of a thief. London: Bantam.Find this resource:

Rojek, C. (2001). Celebrity. London: Reaktion.Find this resource:

Roth, M. P. (2011). Crime and punishment: A history of the criminal justice system (rev. ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.Find this resource:

Rüdebusch, E. (2015). You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way: How David Simon’s The Wire maintains African American stereotypes. Hamburg, Germany: Anchor Academic Publishing.Find this resource:

Rule, A. (1980). The stranger beside me. New York: W. W. Norton.Find this resource:

Ruth, D. E. (1996). Inventing the public enemy: The gangster in American culture, 1918–1934. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Schlör, J. (1998). Nights in the big city: Paris, Berlin, London, 1840–1930. London: Reaktion.Find this resource:

Seltzer, M. (2013). True crime: Observations on violence and modernity. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Shaffer, G. (2014). The vision of a nation: Multiculturalism on British television, 1960–1980. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Shakur, S. (1994). Monster: The autobiography of an L.A. gang member. New York: Penguin Books.Find this resource:

Sharpe, F. D. (1938). Sharpe of the flying squad. London: John Long.Find this resource:

Shoemaker, R. (2006). The street robber and the gentleman highwayman: Changing representations and perceptions of robbery in London, 1690–1800. Cultural and Social History, 3(4), 381–405.Find this resource:

Shore, H. (2010). Criminality, deviance, and the underworld since 1750. In A. M. Kilday, & D. Nash (Eds.), Histories of crime: Britain, 1600–2000 (pp. 120–140). Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Shore, H. (2014). Rogues of the racecourse: Racing men and the press in interwar Britain. Media History, 20(4), 352–367.Find this resource:

Shore, H. (2015). London’s criminal underworlds, c. 1720c. 1930: A social and cultural history. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Shpayer-Makov, H. (2011). The ascent of the detective: Police sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Silverman, D. S. (2007). You can’t air that: Four cases of controversy and censorship in American television programming. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.Find this resource:

Smith, D. C. (1975). The Mafia mystique. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

Smyth, J. E. (2004). Revisioning modern American history in the age of Scarface. Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, 24(4), 535–563.Find this resource:

Spicer, A. (2011). The angel of death: Targeting the hitman. In B. Nicol, E. McNulty, & P. Pulham (Eds.), Crime culture: Figuring criminality in fiction and film (pp. 155–174). London: Continuum.Find this resource:

Spraggs, G. (2001). Outlaws and highwaymen: The cult of the robber in England from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. London: Pimlico.Find this resource:

Springhall, J. (1998). Censoring Hollywood: Youth, moral panic, and crime/gangster movies of the 1930s. The Journal of Popular Culture, 32(3), 135–154.Find this resource:

Stubbs, D. (2013, September 6). Peaky Blinders, Britain’s answer to Boardwalk Empire. The Guardian. Retrieved from this resource:

Turnbull, S. (2014). The TV crime drama. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Find this resource:

Wensley, F. P. (1931). Detective days: The record of forty-two years’ service in the Criminal Investigation Department. London: Cassell.Find this resource:

Wilson, R. (2015). The gangster film: Fatal success in American cinema. New York: Wallflower Press.Find this resource:

Wise, S. (2009). The blackest streets: The life and death of a Victorian slum. London: Vintage.Find this resource:

Woodiwiss, M. (2001). Organized crime and American power: A history. Toronto: Toronto University Press.Find this resource:

Woodiwiss, M. (2012). Organized crime, the mythology of the Mafia, and the American/Anglo Response. History & Policy. Retrieved from this resource:

Wrexham Advertiser, 28th May, 1870, p. 5.Find this resource:

Wright, A. (2013). Organized crime (rev. ed.). Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.Find this resource: