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.