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Books

Book Review

‘Whitey Bulger’ by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy

It is fitting that in Whitey Bulger’s years on the run, the federal courthouse was moved from downtown to the South Boston waterfront, on the edge of the neighborhood Boston’s most infamous criminal had so long haunted with impunity.

Southie, as Globe reporters Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy note in the opening pages of their definitive “Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice,’’ is where the kingpin’s “legend as the good bad guy began.’’ And there it probably will end. “He will most likely die in prison, no matter how he plays his final hand,” they write. “Nothing seems more certain to die there with him than that legend.”

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The myth of Whitey as benevolent gangster has been crumbling for years, and now Cullen and Murphy dispense with what little remained. But this is no hatchet job. “Whitey Bulger’’ is an eminently fair and thorough telling of a life, which makes it all the more damning.

WHITEY BULGER: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice

Author:
Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy
Publisher:
Norton
Number of pages:
478
Book price:
$26.95

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This is a man, after all, who at the height of his power — lord of the Irish underworld, the FBI in his pocket, his brother Billy ruling as president of the state Senate — allegedly choked to death a troubled young woman named Deborah Hussey. He did this in a house in South Boston that he used expressly for killing people, and he did so while his partner, Stephen Flemmi, and his henchman, Kevin Weeks, watched. Hussey was neither criminal rival nor informant nor any real threat to Whitey’s empire. She was the daughter of Flemmi’s common-law wife, and Flemmi had molested her since she was a teenager.

This wasn’t business — there were plenty of others who were killed for business. Her murder was gratuitous savagery in service of his partner’s perversion. And Cullen and Murphy narrate it with such dispassion as to be devastating. “When it was over,” they write, “the trio assumed their usual roles: Weeks started digging, Flemmi started pulling Debbie’s teeth, and Whitey lay down to take his nap.”

There was a time, long ago, when the legend of Whitey Bulger seemed nearly Shakespearean. His was the story of two brothers who rose from the Old Harbor housing project to rule the city, Billy its politics and Whitey its rackets. It was the story, too, of that neighborhood, where the greatest sin was disloyalty, and how that sense of allegiance entangled a third son of Old Harbor — FBI special agent John Connolly — who recruited Whitey as an informant, then protected him beyond the bounds of good sense or the law. The saga was often cast by Whitey’s loyalists and enablers in a haze of noir romance.

“Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice” by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice” by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy

It was never that simple or that majestic, of course, and history and voluminous testimony have revealed as much. But Whitey is a product of a particular time and place, and he cannot be understood apart from either. Cullen and Murphy know this, and they reveal the complicated man amid the swirls and crosscurrents of Boston’s peculiar past.

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“Whitey Bulger,’’ in that sense, is as much a social history as a biography or manhunt thriller. The book, broken into three sections “The Rise,’’ “The Reign,’’ and “The Run’’ — begins with Whitey’s birth in 1929 in Everett and follows the trajectory of his life, through his youth in Southie, rise in the criminal underworld, involvement with the FBI, and finally his escape and capture.

The Old Harbor of Whitey’s earlier life is vividly re-created, as are the Irish gang wars that began in the 1960s and ultimately led to Whitey’s ascension. More importantly, they unravel the city’s ethnic tribalism and Southie’s demented honor code that, in the 1970s and ’80s, allowed an alliance between a murderous gangster and the FBI. In the same way that J. Anthony Lukas’s “Common Ground’’ is essential to understanding Boston’s racial history, “Whitey Bulger’’ is an authoritative treatise on the city’s late-20th-century underworld.

Cullen and Murphy are stellar journalists — he has won a Pulitzer Prize, she a George Polk Award — and both have covered Whitey for decades; their institutional knowledge and reportorial skills are evident throughout, and they weave decades of material and dozens of characters into a gripping narrative. They are relentlessly evenhanded (they duly acknowledge that Whitey denies killing Hussey, just as they acknowledge that neither Flemmi nor Weeks has motive to lie about it), and they are ambitiously broad, chronicling the domestic Whitey, the Southie loyalist Whitey, the fugitive Whitey, the Whitey tormented for decades by the aftereffects of LSD experiments he volunteered for in prison.

The final third of their book, the unspooling of Whitey’s 16 years hiding in plain sight and the halting search for him, is a fascinating portrait of an aging, retired gangster in hiding.

There are obvious heroes and villains here, though Cullen and Murphy generally refrain from explicitly labeling either. Instead, they write with an effective restraint, letting their reporting tell the good, the bad, and the horrifying. But they do, on occasion, allow glimmers of empathy, such as when Connolly’s life falls apart.

They understand, without condoning, how it was that two men from Old Harbor ostensibly on opposite sides of the law could collude, and they note, without comment, that Connolly was the only fed legally punished for what appears to be wider Department of Justice complicity. Their retelling of the moment Connolly was sentenced to 10 years in prison provides a rare moment of pathos.

“He had lost everything,” they write, “except his own illusions.”

And the same, finally, can be said of Whitey.

For more Whitey Bulger cover, visit the special section page.

Sean Flynn, a correspondent for GQ, can be reached at sflynn@nc.rr.com.

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