The best character-driven gangster novels

Anthony Schneider Author Of Lowdown: A Mafia Romance Thriller
By Anthony Schneider

Who am I?

Growing up on a diet of The Godfather, The Sopranos, thrillers, and gangster novels, and living in New York City with eye-opening trips to Sicily, I became slightly obsessed with the Mafia. I came to see the American Mafia as a quintessentially American fabric, woven of family, power, immigrants, money, history, loyalty, legacy, and, yes, crime.  

I wrote...

Lowdown: A Mafia Romance Thriller

By Anthony Schneider,

Book cover of Lowdown: A Mafia Romance Thriller

What is my book about?

My book started with a lot of questions. What is it like to spend time in prison and then, decades later, return to the place you once called home? How do you survive if you are “married to the mob”—a woman married to a violent, abusive mobster? What happens if a star-crossed lover appears—a good guy, a soulmate? And how will things turn out, if, just as they are about to run away together, a snitch ruins their plan, sending one star-crossed lover to prison and the other into exile?

Lowdown spans three decades and two continents, and moves from Brooklyn to Sicily, from murder to romance, from prison to freedom—and a long shot at love and redemption.

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The books I picked & why

The Godfather

By Mario Puzo,

Book cover of The Godfather

Why did I love this book?

This book was my first foray into the world of gangsters.

Set just after World War Two in the dangerous alleys of the nascent American Mafia, The Godfather tells the story of the first family of American gangster fiction, their fight for survival, and bid for power.

The complex, indelibly drawn characters, including Vito Corleone, his three sons and their families, and “business associates” travel a bloody road of passion and power, conspiracy and crime.

This fictional family, the novel, films, and franchise have been part of my consciousness for as long as I can remember.

It’s not the best written novel on this list, but it may be the best-known, most influential crime novel ever, and that’s reason enough to read it. Capisce?

By Mario Puzo,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Godfather as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The classic novel that inspired 'the greatest crime film of all time'

Tyrant, blackmailer, racketeer, murderer - his influence reaches every level of American society. Meet Don Corleone, a friendly man, a just man, a reasonable man. The deadliest lord of the Cosa Nostra. The Godfather.

But no man can stay on top forever, not when he has enemies on both sides of the law. As the ageing Vito Corleone nears the end of a long life of crime, his sons must step up to manage the family business. Sonny Corleone is an old hand, while World War II…

Book cover of The Winter of Frankie Machine

Why did I love this book?

Retired hitman Frankie Machianno thinks he’s left the past behind and can focus on the things that matter—wife, mistress, daughter, surfing, perfect kitchen, roasting coffee, cooking.

But someone is coming for him and wants him dead. The problem is: Frankie doesn’t know who. As he tries to figure it out, we learn about Frank, his family, his lover, and his past, from San Diego beach bum to mafia “button man.”

He’s my favorite kind of gangster—the good guy bad guy—and I couldn’t help but like Frank and fear for his life, as the novel hurtles toward its bittersweet conclusion.

By Don Winslow,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Winter of Frankie Machine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Frank Machianno is the guy, a late-middle-aged ex-surf bum who runs a bait shack on the San Diego waterfront. That's when he's not juggling any of his other three part-time jobs or trying to get a quick set in on his long board. He's a beloved fixture of the community, a stand-up businessman, a devoted father to his daughter. Frank's also a hit man. Well, a retired hit man.

Back in the day, when he was one of the most feared members of the West Coast mob, he was known as Frankie Machine. Years ago, Frank consigned his mob ties…

American Tabloid

By James Ellroy,

Book cover of American Tabloid

Why did I love this book?

A history of the early 1960s in America, leading up to the assassination of JFK, seen through the eyes of the mobsters and criminals, crooked cops, spies, and sleazos who power the machines of history.

A comprehensive romp through the underbelly of American crime and politics (and you might, after reading this book, wonder what’s the difference), it’s a novel about characters you don’t like—but they’re vivid and fascinating.

Much more than a gritty gangster novel, it’s a tale about the people in history’s shadows, and, ultimately, history and the “never innocent” America itself. 

By James Ellroy,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked American Tabloid as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first novel in Ellroy's extraordinary Underworld USA Trilogy as featured on BBC Radio 4's A Good Read.

1958. America is about to emerge into a bright new age - an age that will last until the 1000 days of John F Kennedy's presidency.

Three men move beneath the glossy surface of power, men allied to the makers and shakers of the era. Pete Bondurant - Howard Hughes's right-hand man, Jimmy Hoffa's hitman. Kemper Boyd - employed by J Edgar Hoover to infiltrate the Kennedy clan. Ward Littell - a man seeking redemption in Bobby Kennedy's drive against organised crime.…

Billy Bathgate

By E.L. Doctorow,

Book cover of Billy Bathgate

Why did I love this book?

Few writers inhabit history, distill it, and convey the feeling of an era with the verve or immediacy of E.L. Doctorow.

In Billy Bathgate, he trains his lens on the 1930s and introduces us to Billy Behan, a fatherless Irish-Jewish kid from the Bronx, who has a chance encounter with New York gangster Dutch Schultz and decides “whatever my life was going to be in this world it would have something to do with Mr. Schultz.”

Add a love triangle, a colorful cast of mobsters, murder, blackmail, a special prosecutor, and you have the propulsive plot and rich characters that power this unforgettable novel.   

By E.L. Doctorow,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Billy Bathgate as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'I was living in even greater circles of gangsterdom than I had dreamed, latitudes and longitudes of gangsterdom'

It's 1930's New York and fifteen-year-old streetkid Billy, who can juggle, somersault and run like the wind, has been taken under the wing of notorious gangster Dutch Schultz. As Billy learns the ways of the mob, he becomes like a son to Schultz - his 'good-luck kid' - and is initiated into a world of glamour, death and danger that will consume him, in this vivid, soaring epic of crime and betrayal.

Night Boat to Tangier

By Kevin Barry,

Book cover of Night Boat to Tangier

Why did I love this book?

The gangsters in Kevin Barry’s vibrant, poetic novel are past their prime.

Their glory days behind them, Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are now in the ferry terminal of the Spanish port of Algeciras waiting for a boat and looking for Hearne’s missing, estranged daughter. They talk, they reminisce, they question locals, they drink.

Sound boring? It’s not. Imagine two aging, Irish, very loquacious Tony Sopranos in Waiting for Godot, told in beautiful, luminous prose—and you’ll have an idea of the magic that is Kevin Barry’s unforgettable novel. 

By Kevin Barry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Night Boat to Tangier as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'A true wonder' Max Porter
'Beautifully written' Guardian

It's late one night at the Spanish port of Algeciras and two fading Irish gangsters are waiting on the boat from Tangier. A lover has been lost, a daughter has gone missing, their world has come asunder - can…

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