James “Whitey” Bulger has become a one-man stimulus package for the book business.
The trickle of Bulger books started long before Bulger was arrested in Santa Monica in June 2011. By then he'd been a fugitive for 16 years, as his self-generated legend as South Boston's Robin Hood–style mob boss — the “good bad guy” who kept drugs out of the neighborhood, only killed bad guys and would never snitch on anybody — continued to grow.
Now that trickle has turned into a flood, with more than a dozen Bulger books out there and more on the way: books by relatives of his victims, books by his crime compatriots, books by cops and prosecutors. His girlfriend of 30 years — not Cathy Greig, the one caught with him, but his other girlfriend of 30 years, Teresa Stanley — started her memoirs before dying of lung cancer last year.
Bulger himself had completed more than 100 pages of a memoir when FBI agents lured him out of the Princess Eugenia apartment house and slapped the cuffs on him. After his August conviction on 31 of 32 counts of racketeering, money laundering, extortion and weapons charges — the jury also convicted him of involvement in 11 murders — he reportedly has resumed work on his book, determined to do what he chose not to do at his two-month trial: tell his own story in his own words.
Each book has a different perspective and tells part of an amazing crime story from a particular point of view. But if you only have the stomach for one authoritative Bulger book, with 19 grisly murders (including the strangling of two young women), Shelley Murphy and Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe have written it.
Their book — Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice — is the product of a combined 50 years of covering Bulger. But more than densely detailed reporting, it also brings amazing human-interest insight made possible by the authors' geographic proximity: Cullen lived in South Boston for most of Bulger's reign; Murphy graduated from South Boston High School.
“As a teenager I would read stories in the papers of guys being gunned down in the streets,” Murphy tells the Weekly. “The next day you would hear Whitey's name whispered in the school hallways.”
Decades later, Murphy would realize that Kevin Weeks, Bulger's protégé and bodyguard, had been just one year ahead of her in high school. “I went back and looked at the yearbook, and sure enough I recognized his face,” she says. Weeks, who served five years in prison on a plea deal in exchange for cooperation with prosecutors, released his best-selling memoir, Brutal: My Life in Whitey Bulger's Irish Mob, in 2006.
“It's actually a pretty good book,” Murphy says.
Weeks returned the compliment in Brutal: “The reporter who seemed to do the most research and put real effort into getting the true story without having been there was Shelley Murphy.”
That shoe-leather approach is what makes her book with Cullen, a Pulitzer Prize–winning Globe columnist, so compelling. Weeks and others provide fly-on-the-wall insider accounts slanted by agendas and selective memory, but Murphy and Cullen take an overview of the man, his victims, his accomplices and one of the worst cases of FBI corruption in U.S. history.
Frank Costello, the bloody, depraved Jack Nicholson character in Martin Scorsese's 2006 Oscar winner, The Departed, was based on Bulger. But Hollywood came up short: The real-life Bulger was even more evil than Nicholson's character.
“There's no one left in Boston who believes Whitey was a good bad guy,” Murphy says. “The trial took care of that legend.”
Their book also serves as a sociological history of Boston from the early 20th century — from construction of the Boston projects that produced Whitey and his brother Bill Bulger, who grew up to be president of the Massachusetts State Senate, right up to the gleaming, 21st-century city that Bulger barely recognized after 16 years on the run.
Along the way the authors provide riveting details: how Bulger coordinated the shipment of C-4 explosives to the Irish Republican Army; how the FBI overlooked the murder of innocent citizens to keep the mobster as an informant; and how Bulger carried out a series of secret, symbolic attacks, including the firebombing of President John F. Kennedy's birthplace, to protest the court-ordered desegregation of Boston's public schools in the '70s.
They also provide a reminder of the banality of evil. Nineteen murders sounds like a lot, but that's 19 murders spread over 50 years of criminal activity. Most of the time Bulger stuck to a bizarre domestic routine: Wake up late in the afternoon at Greig's house, have a regular 6 p.m. dinner with Stanley and her four children, drive around with Weeks collecting extortion money from bookies and drug dealers, then spend most of the night watching TV at Greig's place before finally crashing out at dawn and starting the cycle all over again the next day.
The 83-year-old Bulger is due to be sentenced next month; he's sure to spend the rest of his life in prison.
“Whitey will definitely write a book,” Murphy says.
Murphy and Cullen will sign their book Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. at Vroman's Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; and Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 1201 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica.
Contact Paul Teetor via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Twitter:
Follow Public Spectacle on Facebook