Welcome to the world of New York organised crime; of heists, extortion, family, gambling, molls and casual violence. This is the book that inspired the film, written by Nicholas Pileggi in 1985 and originally entitled Wiseguy. Martin Scorsese read it, contacted Pileggi who apparently "had been waiting for this phone call all my life", and between them they wrote the screenplay for the hugely popular 1990 movie. The resulting blend of snappy dialogue, snappier editing and superb ensemble acting tended to overshadow Scorsese's dubious ambivalence towards violence, but the audience was blown away more spectacularly than one of Tommy De Vito's victims.
Pileggi's book was written with Henry Hill, whose life it describes. The narrative switches between Pileggi, Hill, and Hill's wife Karen, all delivered with the smooth action of a well-polished Magnum. It proves utterly compelling, breathlessly serving up an action-fuelled life of criminal excess with Henry starting as an aspirant 12-year-old errand runner ("To be a wiseguy was better than being president of the United States. To be a wiseguy was to own the world"), and progressing to such a status within the Mob that when he is finally nailed he turns Federal witness to implicate his former cronies, a move that represents his only chance to save his family's necks. The irony for Hill is that his fictionalised life story has been seen by millions, but he cannot tell anyone without jeopardising his new identity, which means he gets "to live the rest of my life as a shnook". As a source the book runs very close to the film, and someone who know the film will find it hard not to picture Scorseses's stylised realisation as they read, while those who don't will discover a grittily related, authentically grim amorality tale of a life shot through with brutality and survivalist scheming that stands on its own without the Big Screen treatment. Surprisingly bleak. --David Vincent