Gangster Squad by Paul Lieberman is more than just a recounting of true crime; it is a vibrant tableau of mid-20th century Los Angeles—a city caught between the glamour of Hollywood and the grip of organized crime. Published in 2012, Lieberman's book digs into the archives and personal accounts to tell the story of a secret unit within the LAPD, tasked with tackling the mob and its notorious kingpin, Mickey Cohen, during the 1940s and 50s. Lieberman, a seasoned journalist, meticulously pieces together the exploits of this squad, whose methods were as unconventional as they were controversial.
The book's primary focus is on the Gangster Squad itself, a group of eight officers selected by then-chief of police Clemence B. Horrall, and later led by the legendary William H. Parker. These men operated in the shadows, employing guerrilla tactics to disrupt the activities of Cohen and his associates, tactics that often skirted the edges of legality and morality. Lieberman introduces us to these men, each a character in his own right, and paints a vivid picture of their personal lives, their motivations, and the brotherhood that formed among them due to their dangerous and secretive work.
Lieberman's work is grounded in a deep historical context, providing readers with an understanding of Los Angeles during this time. He dives into the city's rapid expansion post-World War II, the influx of dreamers and schemers, and the resultant fertile ground for vice industries—gambling, drugs, and prostitution—all of which came under the purview of Cohen's criminal empire. The author juxtaposes the glittering façade of Hollywood with the gritty underworld, crafting an image of a city in the throes of an identity crisis.
What makes Gangster Squad compelling is its narrative style; Lieberman adopts a novelistic approach to non-fiction. He carefully reconstructs scenes, complete with dialogue and rich descriptions, that transport readers into smoky backrooms, dimly lit bars, and the very heart of gunfights and chases. This is not a dry recounting of events but a lively, page-turning story that captures the reader's imagination as effectively as any work of fiction.
Lieberman also doesn't shy away from the complexities of his subject matter. He acknowledges the moral ambiguities involved in the squad's work—the bending of rules, the use of violence, and the personal toll it took on the officers. The book raises questions about justice and the means by which it is achieved, as well as the cost of law enforcement crossing lines to combat those who themselves have no regard for the law.
However, it is in the depth of research where Gangster Squad truly excels. Lieberman spent over a decade interviewing surviving members of the squad, their families, and others connected to the story. He combed through court documents, police records, and personal memorabilia, ensuring that the narrative is rooted in fact, even when it reads like a thriller. The result is a deeply informed perspective that provides the reader with an authoritative account of the events and the era.
Gangster Squad by Paul Lieberman is a compelling true crime book that offers a gritty, nuanced look at Los Angeles during a time of great change and the battle against organized crime that helped shape the city. While the book may have its shortcomings in terms of narrative structure, its strength lies in the rich detail and the personal stories of the men who were part of the Gangster Squad. Lieberman's work is a valuable contribution to Hollywood history.