Gangster Squad (Paul Lieberman)

1940s LA fetishism writ large against scenes of carnage and wise-cracks. Unfortunately Paul Lieberman's Gangster Squad isn't as good as it sounds.

Our Book Review:

About halfway through reading Gangster Squad – the collection of Paul Lieberman‘s seven part LA Times 2008 feature about the eponymous group of crimefighters – you realise that this would probably make a better film than book. Luckily, the film has been optioned by Warner Bros., and is to be released in 2013. Truly, this is the greatest of all possible worlds.

The book is a collection of reminiscences from over three hundred people, whose patchy words and memories have been roughly formed into a patchwork tale of deceit, drudgery and double-crossing, which altogether forms a vague narrative that lurches inexorably towards its inevitably bloody conclusion. Someone has to die. But who? Mickey Cohen, charming but tiny clean freak? O’Mara, charming but tiny tough guy, an honest head on strong shoulders? Wooters? Tiny womaniser, tough guy, an honest head on strong shoulders?

What’s annoying is how repetitive the book is – every cop is the same salt-of-the-earth, seat-of-your-pants, scruff-of-your-neck kind of guy, and Lieberman is so in awe of them and so reverent to their memories that he just can not bring himself to actually look at what happened critically. When he talks about cops bugging gangsters, actually performing physical break-ins etc., it’s just seen as youthful hi-jinks. An adventure. When they would assault prisoners, or even shoot them without reason, it’s just shown as “boys will be boys”. Sure, it was a different time, but really? Shooting someone? That’s OK?

If he actually took a critical look at policing in those days, this book would be far better. What we actually have is the wet dream of a cossetted journalist longing for adventure on the streets of forties LA. He’s no David Simon, creator of The Wire. This story probably would need to be told, if it hadn’t been told over and over again through pretty much every film to come out of the USA at that time. There’s so many gangster films in cinematic history that can anything more really be said? The characters are the same, it’s just the names that are different. The book is a serviceable read, and would be really enjoyable if you want a completely uncritical, lightweight, rose-tinted remembrance of a time of Tommy guns, raincoats, and police brutality. If you’re looking for something more studious, or a bit more heavyweight, then look elsewhere. Like I said; it’ll be a better film than book.

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