Friday, March 1, 2013

Young Al Capone by William Balsamo and John Balsamo

After reviewing several thrillers -- two of which, Still Missing and Dark Places, I read right in a row (Gone Girl I read months ago) -- I decided to take a break and review a few other sorts of books while I read Les Miserables.  Young Al Capone was a biography I read as part of the research for a series of novels I am writing, which take place in 1920s Chicago.  Although much of this book was about the years before Capone moved to Chicago, it still looked like it would be full of information for my novels -- which, of course, it was.

The book addresses Capone's earlier life, which the authors claim is largely ignored in most biographies about him, which focus on his time as an established gang leader in Chicago.  This book is about his childhood, his initiation and early growth in Torrio's gang in New York, and how he ended up moving to Chicago, where he ultimately became one of the top gang bosses in America.  I think most of us, when we think of the 1920s and Chicago, think of Capone as always having been there, just like part of the landscape, but that is of course not the case at all.  This book does a great job of showing how he ended up there.

As useful as it was, though, it was often an aggravating book to read.  The authors, William Balsamo and John Balsamo, who are apparently descendants of gangsters, had a writing style that was laden with cliches.  Most good writers know not to overuse cliches, unless you are trying to make a point in a character's voice, but this book was full of them -- in the narration as well as in quoted passages (much of which, I assume, had to be fabricated, as the book was told in a more fiction-like style, with lots of dialogue).  And when I say full of them, I mean I could read a single paragraph and cringe as much as three or four times because of the overdone cliches.  They were (to use a cliche of my own) over the top.

The other flaw was that the book often rambled on without giving dates, so that you didn't know exactly how much time was passing, or when seemingly major events occurred.  Also I wasn't always sure that certain things were entirely factual, but the authors write with something of an "insider's" attitude, so I suspect that a lot of the material in the book came from anecdotes from aging gangsters and their friends and relatives.

Despite these flaws, though, it was a fascinating book, and one I think would be interesting to others interested in the development of the 1920s mob and Capone's rise to power.

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