Month: December 2015



I sometimes get asked why I don’t write about white collar criminals. Implied in the questions is the inference that white collar criminals, financially speaking, are certainly as much a menace to society as the gangsters I write about. I do agree with the premise. In America, white collar criminals are the true scourges of society. But there is a simple reason I don’t often write about them. They are boring.

I read the stories about them in the news – Kozlowski, Madoff, and this recent douche bag, Martin Shkreli, who marked up AIDS medication by five thousand percent and was recently arrested for securities fraud. These are people whose financial crimes are worse than the average organized crime family. They are certainly worse than, say, a street gang; their crimes do more damage to society than most gangsters.


But here’s the problem: most of them are “true blue Americans,” white men with wives and kids who live in garish mansions inside gated communities. Their version of the American Dream is the most unimaginative and shallow ever conceived. It’s based on acquisitiveness, and nothing more. It is crass and devoid of morality. Disgusting and pernicious? Yes. But also boring. Their daily lives are filled with nothing. The storyteller in me dies a little bit every time I read about their activities.

When I write about the criminal underworld – be it from the POV of my own Irish American culture, or Cuban American culture, or African American, or Mexican – it is from a place of respect and curiosity (curiosity being the highest form of respect) for the culture I’m writing about. I write about an aspect of that culture in which people are shut out from the mainstream, and they are struggling to become a part of that tapestry. In the underworld, violence and crime are the dominant transactional methods available; they always have been. The means by which outcasts and “suspicious characters” navigate this world is endlessly fascinating to me. It is the true American story.

White collar crime has no larger narrative. Sometimes, a storyteller will try to make something of the lives of Wall Street vampires, or hedge fund con men, or corporate predators by focusing on the excess. Perhaps there is drama and entertainment value to be found in the gleeful immorality of their lives (see: Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street). Doesn’t work for me. Greed as a motive is the most base and least interesting of all the Deadly Sins. It is mundane and lacks heart. It is boring.

So, yes, I will read the accounts in the media of those capitalist pigs who choke on their own gluttony, or those who are still getting away with it. It is important to stay informed, and to know who are the true criminals. Just don’t ask me to engage my imagination in their narratives. If you are so concerned, then you write those stories.

I would much rather spend my creative energy or my time with a street hoodlum than a CEO. I would rather do research in a Kingston tenement yard or a colonia in Ciudad Juarez than in a corporate boardroom. White collar crime may be an important subject, it may be worthy of discussion, but for a storyteller, it is about as nourishing as a speech by Donald Trump.



The year 2015 marks the 25-year anniversary of the THE WESTIES, the first book written and published by author T.J. English. At the time, there had never been a major book published on the subject of the Irish Mob in America. The Westies became a national best seller, and the book has gone on tIMG_6083o sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Since its initial publication in 1990, The Westies has never been out of print.

At the time that T.J. English first began researching the story of a notoriously violent gang of hoodlums in the New York City neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, he was a 30 year-old freelance journalist driving a taxi in the evenings to pay the bills. In some ways, he was not yet at a level in the business of writing where you would think he had the juice to get a book published. Except that there was no one else at that time with the perfect combination of talent, drive and insight to tell the story of the Westies. He was the perfect person at the right time, and the rest is history.

The book tells the story of the gang primarily from the point of view of Mickey Featherstone, who was the number two man in the gang behind boss Jimmy Coonan. The author spent many hours interviewing Featherstone, first while he was being held in federal prison and later when he was relocated into the Witness Protection Program. The author’s ability to forge an intimate relationship with his source would establish what has become a staple of English’s subsequent best selling books: his ability to tell underworld tales from the point of view of those who actually lived those stories.

The Westies were k158121nown primarily for the level of savage violence that characterized their criminal activities in the 1970s and 1980s. Specifically, they developed a macabre reputation for making their murder victims bodies “do the Houdini.” After they killed someone, they cut the bodies into pieces, bagged the body parts and dumped them into the East River. Eventually, the gang’s criminal activities came to the attention of the Mafia. Led by Coonan, the gang sought to establish a working partnership with the Gambino Crime Family, who were led at the time by Paul Castellano. This partnership, hotly debated within the gang, would eventually sow the seeds of the gang’s destruction.

In late 1987 and on into 1988, the Westies were the subject of a major RICO, or racketeering trial in the Southern District of New York. The primary witness against the gang was Featherstone, who felt that members of the gang, including Coonan, had deliberately framed him for a West Side murder he did not commit. Featherstone had been convicted of that murder and sentenced to life in prison. Instead of accepting that diabolical injustice, he struck back and became a cooperating witness against the gang.

The trial was attended by T.J. English. The courtroom stories of the gang’s roots and crimes,  s41qWifh2+NL._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_panning more than twenty years, captured the imagination of the young journalist and cab driver, himself an Irish American from a working-class background. What made it possible for this neophyte, would-be author to sell the story to a major publisher was that English saw this yarn in the larger context of the Irish American experience. The book became about something more than the story of this particular criminal group from this particular neighborhood. It became the story of a certain type of hard-nosed, tough guy Irish American culture that had existed in many U.S. cities for nearly a century.

There is a reason The Westies is now considered a classic. The intimacy of the storytelling at times makes it feel as if this is not even a book about organized crime, but rather the story of a group of friends and associates from a tough neighborhood with a long tradition of criminal activity. In the hands of English, the story of the Westies is humanized and brought down to earth, made to feel relatable and emotionally intimate. All these years later, the book is still shocking for the levels of violence and betrayal that are exposed in such vivid detail.51dJKP1uOeL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Read The Westies and you will be brought into the lives of the story’s main characters, but you will also be made to feel as though you are experiencing a living history of the city. Not the “official” history of politics, wars and big public events: a people’s history of ethnic tribalism, survival, and the pursuit of the American Dream from the POV of the mean streets of a festering American metropolis.