Are there more over-used figures in fiction than gangsters?. I think not. It’s just a shame so few of the depictions come anywhere near the truth. I have worked for many years in the U.K. with gang members. Now in the U.S. I am developing literary projects, in Virginia, for gang boys and girls. None of them resemble the characterizations in books or films. Many of them are actually quite sweet. Broken, bereft of hope and vision, yes but not the snarling people they are portrayed as. I question the factual programmes too. They often hand out money to the youth to perform for the cameras, just like the animals coaxed into “acting” for the nature programmes. I despise these “film” makers. I have dealt with the Mr. Bigs as well as the juniors. They are well-mannered, quiet, not without a sense of humour, but dangerous. I turned down a gangster’s lunch invitation. When asked why? I said “I never do lunch with people who don’t send solicitors’ letters.” He liked that. Not like “Scarface” melting down and going berserk shooting everything that moved. Make no mistake though, I did it on the end of a telephone, not in person. There are also far more Mrs. Bigs than people realize. Come on, think about it.
Factual books go for the shock factor too with titles like “Homeboyz”, “The Hoopster” and my favourite “Snitch”—one label which can brand you for life. The problem is that people with no redeeming features have little resonance in a story. The space they occupy is tiny, it is their actions which echo with the pain and grief they cause others which is different to a character being part of a woven tale. In the fantasy world of film, the gangster finds out that there is a family with a youngster, with a disability, who needs an operation and they produce the money. In real-life the gangster goes to the family and says don’t think you are going to avoid your financial tributes to me, just because of your child.
There are some who pull a “Scarface” but they always end up in jail. The Krays, two brothers who terrorised London’s East End in the 60’s, blew someone away in full public view. It got them life in jail. You can go on a guided tour of the “Blind Beggar” pub where it all took place on your next visit to London. Tasteful, eh. Gangster No.1 is a film which is based on one of their members .
Sometimes real gangsters land book deals. They pretend they have left their “ways” behind them. One commissioning editor told me of her experience with one of them confronting her with a milk bottle full of acid ready to throw it in her face, in a dispute over royalties. Lovely. My first thriller starts off with a man having lighter fuel poured into his ears and ignited by two gangsters. That was the only part of the book which actually happened in real life. It was told to me by someone who had led the life. It was also the most revolting. The rest of the book is fiction and more palatable for it.
There are so many books to choose from in the reality genre . Random House’s Under and Alone is by William Queen, an undercover agent, who infiltrated one of America’s most violent motorcycle gangs. There are parts of this book which do actually raise a chuckle. Billy St. John as his undercover name and the part where a psychopathic, deranged motorcycle outlaw is given the cold shoulder at parents’ night. That, at least, rang true, but, was hardly a surprise. In another great twist of reality Billy gets to stitch up the face of a woman beaten up by a gang member. My name is Billy St. John and I love needlework. You couldn’t make that one up.
At least that was real.
Anchor published a book by Gini Sikes with the title 8 Ball Chicks is all about the female of the gang species. You can work out the contents for yourself, by the title.
Unlike Billy’s book, there is precious little needlework in it. Getting closer to the not glamorous truth is Reymundo Sanchez in My Bloody Life: The Making of a Latin King. He leaves the gangster life behind, quits drugs, has nightmares about his past and, having lost his community of gangsters, has to support himself with everyday ordinary jobs. A single mother with three kids and four jobs is just going to have her heart strings wrenched by that bit.
My favourite book was actually published in the 70’s and deals with the city of my birth, Glasgow. James Patrick’s A Glasgow Gang Observed (Methuen) tells the true story of a youth worker, who joins one of the razor gangs in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 60’s and 70’s. There is not a single redeeming feature of any of the real people in that book, including him with his lies and subterfuge to get his story. It is, however, real life. Nasty, hard and cold. Just like when I moved into my house in Virginia’s drug central and was welcomed by five bullets. Boom! Boom, boom, boom, boom…
I still remember my face pushed into the carpet, sobbing like a baby, as the gunman melted into the night, his work done. The bullets missed my body but they left a mark. Is there any point in literacy for criminals? Georgia (not the one in the U.S.!) is No. 1 in the world with 100% literacy, closely followed by Cuba who is No. 2. Both have low crime rates. The U.S. and the U.K. are joint 21st with high crime rates.
That tells the story of why I do what I do. People say to me all the time “What’s the point? They just end up in jail.” They don’t, I know. I didn’t.
Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia, where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish. His next book, The Politics of Murder (The X-Press UK/US), will be published July 31, 2011.