Why, The Student, are you reviewing a non-fiction book that was released 17 years ago?’ you may ask. Because, dear reader, it was adapted into a Johnny Depp-starring blockbuster 18 months back, and has consequently and predictably been re-released with a swanky new cover.
In case the film passed you by, here’s the plot in a nutshell: Bostonian crime boss Whitey Bulger is a rat – that is, an FBI informant, not a rodent. In cahoots with the Feds from 1975 to 1994, his is not an atypical mafioso tale.
Except, here is where it gets interesting: the line starts to blur between who is using whom. What should be a straightforward pumping of information on other suspects in return for an eventual shortened sentence begins to tilt further and further in Bulger’s favour. First his information is subpar. And, when his crimes do not fit with the ‘government-approved’ list of offences informants are allowed to commit, the Feds continue to arrest Whitey’s underworld rivals and leave his gang conspicuously intact. In step with Bulger are FBI agents John Connolly and John Morris, who were proven to have advanced their own careers and taken innumerable bribes in return for Bulger’s continued freedom. That all three, now quite aged men, are currently serving very extended sentences in the US prison system should come as no surprise.
Aside from this enthralling true-crime premise, what does Lehr’s account have to offer? It triumphs most in the humanising details and everyday anecdotes of a genius criminal and killer; vainly inspecting his lean reflection in car windows, or making a habit out of helping old ladies to cross roads. In this sense, Black Mass is impeccably researched and enlightening to read. This is not unlike another Johnny Depp adapted real-life Mafia story, Donnie Brasco.
However, these moments are few and far between, and for page after page Lehr leaves us without these human moments, supplying us only with cold facts and numbers. While the Bulgers and Connollys may be well drawn, the characterisation of smaller players in the story leaves something to be desired. Too often Lehr mentions a name from 100 pages prior and expects the reader to recall the person with no reintroduction. If it were a page-turner, the sort of book you could finish in a couple of days, this would be less of a problem. Returning to it after a few days away, however, leaves the reader feeling confused and as out-of-the-loop as Whitey left the FBI.
All in all, then, Black Mass fails in turning Bulger’s story into an enjoyable and palatable narrative. If you liked the film though, and want to get all of the facts (literally, every fact, ever), Lehr is your man. Otherwise, stick to Depp’s version of events: it summed things up pretty succinctly.
Black Mass by Dick Lehr (Canongate 2015)
Photo credit: Lwp Kommunikáció