Last year when I was in London, a North African cabbie asked where I was from. When I told him Chicago, he smiled, said "Al Capone," and made a machine-gun motion with his fingers. Sure, it's a cliche--it was either that or "Michael Jordan"--but organized crime is as essential to the city's identity as the Columbian Exposition, the DNC, or the Daleys. In his exhaustively researched, fascinating book The Outfit: The Role of Chicago's Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America, investigative reporter Gus Russo explores the post-Capone era controlled by the organized crime cartel known as "the Outfit." For decades, the shadowy group manipulated the vice industry, the entertainment industry, and the political map, resulting in changes all over the cultural landscape: Top 40 radio, lotteries, interstate OTB, films, and even political fixes that have gone as high as the presidency. Russo, a veteran JFK assassination researcher and the author of the lone-gunman-centric Live by the Sword: The Secret War Against Castro and the Death of JFK and several TV documentaries on the subject, displays a defiant streak of populism in his latest book, which includes an afterword in which he scolds a system that prosecutes crime from the bottom up, focusing on lower-class criminals while ignoring and even rewarding white-collar offenders. The ascent of the underworld to such a position of influence, he concludes, happened thanks to its initial exclusion from the upper world, and Russo takes clear pleasure in the irony that those initially dispossessed came to wield so much power from behind the curtain. Russo will discuss and sign copies of The Outfit on Wednesday, April 16, at 12:30 PM. Borders Books & Music, 150 N. State, 312-606-0750.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven Parke.