Archive for April 2019

Book review – McMafia

One of the BBC’s biggest productions of 2018 was McMafia, an eight-part series depicting the life of a London-based Russian family with links to organised crime. Over the course of the series we follow the exploits of the fictitious Alex Godman as he finds himself embroiled in the world of organised crime and performing one illicit activity after another. McMafia is based on the non-fiction work of the same name by former BBC journalist Misha Glenny. Not only was I surprised that the TV series was based on a work of non-fiction but also that the book was published way back in 2008.

‘McMafia’ is the term that Glenny gives to the phenomenon whereby organised criminal gangs operate in much the same way as multinational corporations such as ‘Shell, Nike or McDonald’s’: seeking out opportunities like entrepreneurs; following the economic fundamentals of supply and demand; and exploiting economies of scale. Over the 400-odd pages of the book we find ourselves rubbing shoulders with Chinese people smugglers, the Russian mafia, the Japanese Yakuza, Colombian drug cartels, and many more. You’ve got to hand it to Glenny; not only does he have an extensive rolodex, he’s got nerves of steel.

If you thought the book was going to be all about Russian oligarchs you’ll either be disappointed or happily surprised. I for one welcome the big picture approach. Whether Glenny is exploring Nigerian email scams, fake cigarette production in China (with a view to tax evasion), or real estate bubbles and corruption in Japan, you come away with the sense that no country, or person, is immune from organised crime. Moreover, that each gang / syndicate has their own modus operandi based upon the specific environment in which they are born into, as well as the evolving demographics. Who’d have thought that the Yakuza had a recruitment problem!

The book’s strength is Glenny’s ability to sit down with some seriously hardened criminals and gain and share an insight into the workings of the shadow economy. His objectivity is also a plus, for example in recognising that not all criminals are criminals by choice, as in the case of two Columbian doctors-turned-kidnappers that Glenny meets. Glenny is right to make the link between regular citizens and the shadow economy, such as the consumption of ‘recreational’ drugs or lower food prices driven down in part by trafficked labour in the agricultural sector. However, this feels somewhat of an afterthought, relegated to the epilogue. Given the societal implications of organised crime I would have thought this deserved its own chapter.

Glenny has gone to great effort at serving up a global portrayal of organised criminal gangs at work, so it is a bit of a shame that there isn’t greater comparative analysis between the different crime gangs, given their differing environments. Is it inevitable, for example, that illicit activity arises as a consequence of state failure or the existence of a political vacuum? However, this is a minor complaint and one borne of the fact that other reading I do within this space is of an academic nature.

If you enjoyed the TV show then it’s not a foregone conclusion that you’ll like Glenny’s book. However, it’s a good place to start and I hope this review has helped make up your mind either way.

Book review – The Surgeon

I came upon The Surgeon (2001) by Terr Gerritsen having searched for a crime thriller with an element of the macabre. The Surgeon finds us in Boston on the hunt for a killer whose actions suggest the work of, you guessed it, a surgeon. Alongside his victims the killer is targeting a previous victim who escaped. The only trouble is, the killer was shot and killed by that same victim, who just happens to be a beautiful surgeon. So has the killer returned or is this a copycat? Spearheading the investigation is detective Thomas Moore, a widower (see where this is going!) and plain homicide cop known to his colleagues as ‘St. Thomas’. Moore is accompanied by detective Jane Rizzoli, who, I understand, becomes the central character in subsequent books and features in the TV series Rizzoli and Isles.

My expectations of The Surgeon, which admittedly weren’t that high, were exceeded. It was well written, had plenty of pace, gruesome (Gerritsen bringing her medical training to the fore), and with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing from beginning to end. Moreover, the book has a few moments that send shivers down you spine, which in my experience is quite rare and therefore welcome.

Moore is a likeable enough character owing in part to your sympathy for him as a widower, and him being a general nice guy. If the plot was weaker, however, I don’t think the character would be strong enough to carry the book. Though as mentioned, this isn’t the case here. In fact, the person with the strongest character is Catherine Cordell, the surgeon in The Surgeon’s cross-hairs. Detective Rizzoli, as the central character in subsequent books and the one that shares double billing in TV’s Rizzoli and Isles, is surprisingly peripheral but you can see that the foundations are there for a decent character despite her being a little annoying.

At over 400 pages, The Surgeon isn’t short but it’s just the right length and a real page-turner. If you’re after a decent crime thriller then I’d thoroughly recommend it.