When you hit the Georgian capital Tbilisi in 1992 you stayed at the Metechi Palace Hotel. Everyone did.
You got a taxi from the airport. It cost $5 and the driver spent more time negotiating bribes with the roadblocks manned by young men with AK-47s and leather jackets than he did at the wheel.
The city was a wreck, smoke-black from the recent fighting. Out the taxi window you saw the shops embracing free enterprise, selling Malaysian exercise books, Korean playing cards, fake Camel cigarettes, leather jackets from Turkey. The bookshops that sold only Soviet engineering texts and copies of the twelve century Georgian epic poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, that everyone in the country already owned. The Stalinist-style parliament building, half destroyed in the fighting, its supporting columns eaten away by RPG rounds. The street vendors selling orthodox icons, nesting dolls, glassware, ornamental daggers, the family silver.
The last time Chicago street gang the Almighty Gaylords hit in the media was back in August 2011. Early morning police raids scooped up nine gang members for illegal gun possession and sales. The tv news helicopters broadcast footage of stocky middle-aged men sitting around suburban gardens in their underwear while cops searched houses.
The days when the Gaylords were local boys defending a shrinking island of white inner city Chicago against multiculturalism were long gone. Now the gang was an amputated limb of its former self, a group of fortysomethings with prison records who’d made their peace with rival Hispanic and black gangs to sell drugs and guns in suburban places like Addison and Elmhurst and Villa Park.
The 2011 raid took out the Gaylord’s main faces, including James Grace aka Mega, the 40-year-old leader of the gang’s Addison faction. And he’d been turned in by one of his own.
Crazy Joe Gallo got a bullet in the head in April of 1972. I wrote a post about it here. He was celebrating his birthday in the early hours at Umberto’s Clam House when gunmen came in through the back door and started blasting.
Joe overturned the table and made it outside but died in the street. It was the end of the Gallo brother’s dream of forming their own Mafia family.
But back in the 1950s that dream was still alive. Joe, elder brother Larry (the brains of the outfit), and younger bother Albert (‘Kid Blast’) were up and coming foot soldiers in the Colombo crime family. They ran their own corner of Brooklyn for the family, collecting debts and protection money, and hustling any opportunities that came their way.
The three brothers were the Mafia warlords of their block. They had money, guns … and a real life lion in the basement. And a little person club-owning friend to walk him through the Brooklyn streets.
If you get lost in the woods, leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Don’t stay out after dark. Don’t talk to strangers.
The schoolboy is walking along Warsaw’s ulica Naruszewicza with two friends. It is the afternoon of 22 January 1957. Snow is on the ground.
The three boys are on their way home from St Augustine High School for their dinners. St Augustine is a good private school, one of the very few in Communist Poland. Its students are the sons of important men.
The schoolboy is fifteen-years-old. His dark hair is combed back from his forehead in a pomaded shell. He carries his school books in a brown leather briefcase. He wears a herringbone overcoat and winter boots with white laces.
It is 13:50. At the intersection of Naruszewicza with ulica Wejnerta a tall man with a briefcase approaches the boys.
“Which one of you is Piasecki?”
The schoolboy steps forward. The man takes a piece of paper from his case and shows it to him. The schoolboy silently accompanies the man to a nearby taxi rank on Wejnerta. He does not look back at his friends.
In 1949 Raymond Chandler wrote a letter to a literary critic. Chandler was a lonely man who drank too much. His letters were long, rambling, and indiscreet. Among the industry gossip and small talk in this one were his opinions about a new kid on the block. They weren’t positive.
At the time, Chandler was the best known detective writer in the anglophone world. This British-American mongrel had set the template for the modern private eye in fiction: a cynical, bruised-heart romantic who uses the wrong methods to do the right thing in a futile battle against a world in which corruption grows like mould.
“Down these mean streets must go a man who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”
The note perfect evocations of 1940’s Los Angeles in Chandler’s novels were the icing on the cake. He was such a towering presence in the genre that other writers had to try hard not to sound like him. Some didn’t bother. Earlier in 1949 Ross Macdonald (born Kenneth Millar in California but raised in Canada) published his first novel about detective Lew Archer. The Moving Target would be followed by another 17 books about Archer, each more popular than the last. Archer was clearly and unapologetically based on Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.
Sitting comfortably? Then put a new cigarette in its ivory holder and refresh your whisky and soda. Get the servants to stoke the fire because these old houses can get so cold at night. And make sure your service revolver in the desk drawer is loaded. Captain Grimes is coming round tonight to discuss the accounts.
The little matter of those post-dated cheques in the mess tin. You might be forced to take the gentleman’s way out. Or you might be forced to shoot Captain Grimes.
The wealthiest stratum of British society has always prided itself on loyalty and devotion to duty. But too many of the aristocrats, trust fund beneficiaries and members of the officer class who sit at the apex of Britain’s social triangle have a moral backbone like a bit of wet spaghetti. From Rupert Bellville to Simon Raven, the Earl of Erroll to John Aspinall, the most respectable part of the country has churned out black sheep on a production line scale.
So put away that portfolio of artistic French photographs and leave answering the love note from your brother’s wife until later. Let’s take a stroll through the last one hundred years of bankrupt aristocrats, corrupt golden youths, and frankly untrustworthy remittance men. Books and the odd flick will be our signposts.
We’ll start gently, with some flawed heroes. Let’s go back to the days when we still had an Empire … .
In February 2001 two Belgian smugglers met their contacts in the town of Doornik. There was some small talk, a few jokes, then the smugglers showed off the merchandise. Copies of a comic book called Tintin in Thailand. The buyers flicked through a few pages and pulled out handcuffs. They were undercover police.
Shortly after, Antwerp police raided the home of the mastermind behind the operation: Baudouin de Duve, 50-year-old former expat and member of a prominent Belgian family. His uncle had won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
Tintin is a comic book hero created in Belgium but globally famous. Hergé (aka Georges Prosper Remi) first drew the adventurous boy detective for the kids’ section of Brussels newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle in 1929. For the next 54 years the Belgian cartoonist sent his creation exploring a ligne claire world, from the African jungle to outer space. Most readers encounter Tintin in the elegantly slim hardback versions of the comic strips. Tintin in the Congo, Tintin in Tibet, Tintin and the Picaros, and 21 more.
But Hergé never wrote a book called Tintin in Thailand.