The best books that give the outlaws a say

Joe Pappalardo Author Of Red Sky Morning: The Epic True Story of Texas Ranger Company F
By Joe Pappalardo

Who am I?

As a journalist and author of history books who's lived in Texas for most of my adult life, I've found myself unavoidably steeped in Texas Ranger lore. I didn't understand how such a small force could enter unfamiliar areas of Texas and get any results as law enforcement officers. This central question led to me the operations of Company F during 1886-1888. I found the showdowns were just one part of the story. Researching these topics meant learning about the Rangers' outlaw targets - following another journalistic impulse to give both sides of this story an equal hearing. What resulted is a nuanced, complex tale that hopefully will open eyes instead of pointing fingers.


I wrote...

Red Sky Morning: The Epic True Story of Texas Ranger Company F

By Joe Pappalardo,

Book cover of Red Sky Morning: The Epic True Story of Texas Ranger Company F

What is my book about?

Many books about the Texas Rangers are told strictly from the point of view of the lawmen and don’t dwell on those of their targets. In Red Sky Morning, I describe both sides of several clashes for a more complete view of the outlaws’ personalities and motivations, as well as the effect the Rangers had on the communities where their manhunts unfolded. The book is set in the late 1800s, but it’s more inspired by the movie Heat than westerns like Tombstone.  

Maybe I spent too much time as a journalist, but I enjoy finding forgotten accounts that reexamine official narratives. These new points of view aren't always sympathetic to the criminals, but they certainly help explain why they made the decisions that led them to cross paths with the Texas Rangers.  

The books I picked & why

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The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down

By Colin Woodard,

Book cover of The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down

Why this book?

Pirates make great bad guys, plundering their way through history as seaborne barbarians. The Republic of Pirates makes you look at infamous figures like Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, "Black Sam" Bellamy, and Charles Vane in new ways. Those pirate ships were incubators for democracy, marked by equal rights for all races and leadership elections. Compared to the slave-trading empires that the pirates attacked, the pirate ships were bastions of freedom before (and in some ways better) the American Revolution canonized them in the Declaration of Independence. It just goes to show, you’re only an outlaw or a rebel if you’re caught or defeated.  

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down

By Colin Woodard,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Republic of Pirates as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An entrancing tale of piracy colored with gold, treachery and double-dealing (Portland Press Herald), Pulitzer Prize-finalist Colin Woodward's The Republic of Pirates is the historical biography of the exploits of infamous Caribbean buccaneers.

In the early eighteenth century, the Pirate Republic was home to some of the great pirate captains, including Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, "Black Sam" Bellamy, and Charles Vane. Along with their fellow pirates — former sailors, indentured servants, and runaway slaves — this "Flying Gang" established a crude but distinctive democracy in the Bahamas, carving out their own zone of freedom in which servants were free, blacks could…

To Kill the Irishman: The War That Crippled the Mafia

By Rick Porrello,

Book cover of To Kill the Irishman: The War That Crippled the Mafia

Why this book?

Danny Greene is a bad role model but a great protagonist. A former US Marine and union boss convicted in federal court of embezzling, he transitioned into organized crime by doing enforcement work for the Cleveland Mafia. However, he soon branches out on his own in the most brazen ways possible, incurring the wrath of his former associates. Murders, an extended bombing campaign and Greene’s work supplying intel to federal agents all culminate in a conclusion that has real consequences – the downfall of La Cosa Nostra in Cleaveland in 1977. It’s hard not to empathize with the crazy-brave Greene, standing shirtless in plain sight in front of his headquarters as the Mafia plots his death. When a criminal is this kind of character, it’s easy for a reader to lay polite society aside and immerse inside that world, enough so to root for a bad guy.      

To Kill the Irishman: The War That Crippled the Mafia

By Rick Porrello,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked To Kill the Irishman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Be sure to see Kill the Irishman-the major motion picture based on Rick Porrello's true-crime masterpiece!

A modern warrior known as Greene
Was very quick and smart, and mean.
He scrambled hard and fought like hell,
And led a charmed existence.
They shot him down and blew him up
With most regular persistence.
-From The Ballad of Danny Greene Clevelan d, the 1970s:

A fearless Irishman boldly muscles in on the Italian-American Mafia-intrepid, charismatic, shrewd, cunning, and armed with a master plan to take over the rackets under the auspices of the Irish banner of which he was so fiercely…

The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld

By Herbert Asbury,

Book cover of The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld

Why this book?

In the 19th century, the Bowery and the Five Points neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan were twisted warrens of saloons, brothels, opium dens, and gambling houses, home to gangs of criminals like the Plug Uglies, Bowery Boys, and Dead Rabbits. It’s a complex ecosystem but when it comes to lowlifes Herbert Asbury is an extraordinary naturalist. His book covers a bewildering number of hoodlums, scams, bawdyhouses, convictions, and murders, and the sum total makes a larger impression than any one part. (Although highlights include the depictions of the crooked Tammany Hall political leadership and a chilling account of the New York City draft riots of 1863.) When the book was originally published in 1927, the Prohibition-empowered Italian Mafia pretty much ran Lower Manhattan’s crime and the era of these legendary gangs was already a fading memory. Asbury’s tome captured an entire criminal universe that was packed into a few square blocks, now frozen in time for us to examine.  

The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld

By Herbert Asbury,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Gangs of New York as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in 1928, Herbert Asbury's whirlwind tour through the low-life ofnineteenth-century New York has become an indispensible classic of urban history.

Focusing on the saloon halls, gambling dens, and winding alleys of the Bowery and the notorious Five Points district, The Gangs of New York dramatically evokes the destitution and shocking violence of a turbulent era, when colorfully named criminals like Dandy John Dolan, Bill the Butcher, and Hell-Cat Maggie lurked in the shadows, and infamous gangs like the Plug Uglies, the Dead Rabbits, and the Bowery Boys ruled the streets. A rogues gallery of prostitutes, pimps, poisoners, pickpockets,…

Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga: A Strange and Terrible Saga

By Hunter S. Thompson,

Book cover of Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga: A Strange and Terrible Saga

Why this book?

Nothing beats an author willing to immerse himself into an outlaw world to get their perspective – until that world starts to literally beat the writer. Hunter Thompson’s first book is more of a journalistic work, examining the infamous biker gang from the inside than what would follow (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas and so on.) He is very much part of the action at riotous parties, on bar stools, and alongside at motorcycle runs, but his first-person narration is an effective tool for revealing the Hell's Angels as independent people and as a fraternal organization. The writer and his subjects willingly project their images of unrepentant criminals. But when Thompson is on the receiving end of a gang beatdown, it’s a reminder that the line between outlaw and citizen can be hazy, and you might not know you’ve crossed it until blood’s being spilled.      

Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga: A Strange and Terrible Saga

By Hunter S. Thompson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Hell's Angels as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the father of 'gonzo journalism', Hunter S. Thompson's research for Hell's Angels involved more than a year of close association with the outlaws who burned a path through 1960s America, resulting in a masterpiece of underground reportage published in Penguin Modern Classics.

'A phalanx of motorcycles cam roaring over the hill from the west ... the noise was like a landslide, or a wing of bombers passing over. Even knowing the Angels I couldn't quite handle what I was seeing.'

Huge bikes, filthy denim and an aura of barely contained violence; the Hell's Angels could paralyse whole towns with…


Wise Guy

By Nicholas Pileggi,

Book cover of Wise Guy

Why this book?

Henry Hill’s story is well-captured in the movie Goodfellas, but the movie departs from the true story in crucial ways. Beyond this book’s utility as an extension (and fact check) of the film, Wise Guy stands on its own as one of the best American chronicles of the life of a modern outlaw. It’s steeped in practitioner-level details on organized crime in the 1970s, from street-level scams to the record-breaking Luftansa heist of 1978. The strength of the story is the rise and fall of the disreputable Hill, the lifetime mobster turned informant. The heart of his saga is a morality play – no one in their right mind can read this and want to jump into a career in organized crime.  

Wise Guy

By Nicholas Pileggi,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Wise Guy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A longtime member of organized crime recounts his criminal career, his involvement in the six-million dollar Lufthansa robbery, and his decision to become a federal witness.

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