When we think of the mafia in popular entertainment, we think of the “Godfather” films, “Goodfellas” or the television show “The Sopranos.” They’re our filter, the prism through which we view the genre. But they no longer reflect reality in 2015.
While the novel UNDER FALSE PRETENSES is a work of fiction, the background of a shattered mob organization is an accurate reflection of what has taken place over the last couple of decades. Success by law enforcement in sending numerous mafia chieftains to prison, and inroads by rival organized crime groups from Central and South America, and Russia, left the traditional mafia reeling in many respects.
Plus, the top bosses who came from Sicily to dominate big cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, have come and gone. Subsequent generations have proven to be less capable and less motivated, with many family members choosing safer lines of work.
This doesn’t mean the Mafia is gone. The families remain active, according to some news reports over the years. But they’re different, and the money and type of criminal enterprises that remain available are far more constricted.
Those are the conditions faced by the fictional Gruppo Dando as UNDER FALSE PRETENSES begins. Aging Philly mob boss Giuseppe Campala has fled to warmer Arizona climes and is trying to run his organization from afar, with the help of some of his aides. But things aren’t going well. When his grandson, Jason, sees him for the first time in 15 years, it comes just after the boss has completed a tense meeting with henchmen from a South American drug cartel.
Pressure comes from all sides.
Meanwhile, the elder Campala is the only one who seems to have a sense of his roots. Jason — with a decidedly non-Italian given name — is an accountant trying to keep himself and his family as far away from the organization as possible. The only relic from the old days is a photograph of a girl that he pats on his way to work each morning, to remind himself why he chose to not be a wiseguy.
There’s some interesting reading on the state of the Philadelphia mafia today. This one from ex-Philadelphia Inquirer reporter George Anastasia is a brutal portrayal of how bad things have become from a writer who covered them for three decades. He calls them a “bungling conglomeration of misfit mobsters and pseudo gangsters. Call them the Simpsons of the underworld.” That’s pretty tough stuff.
Here’s another one, entitled “Is the Mob Dead in Philly?” You get the picture.
The Philadelphia mob did have its glory days in the 1960s under boss Angelo Bruno, who was fatally shot in 1980. His successor was Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo. The succeeding years were violent, and Scarfo himself was shot in 1989 but survived. Eventually, the feds announced numerous arrests that supposedly broke up the Scarfo gang.
But time and competition have caught up to the old-fashioned mafia. UNDER FALSE PRETENSES is, perhaps, the new prism through which to view the wiseguys.