Black mass? What's that, some sort of weird, satanic ritual?
Technically speaking, a black mass is a satanic religious ceremony loosely based on the traditional Catholic mass. We don't want to go into too much detail, but suffice it to say it sounds straight off a death metal lyric sheet.
So what does that have to do with a bunch of gangsters? Is Whitey Bulger lowkey funding a satanic church on the side?
Not quite. Instead, the "black mass" referred to by the book's title is the dinner party where John Morris utters these fateful words to Flemmi and Bulger:
"You can do anything you want as long as you don't clip anyone." (2.13.43)
It's the night he gives them permission to commit any crime short of murder.
Besides sounding cool, the term "black mass" reflects how Connolly and Morris have subverted the proper relationship between the FBI and informants—the same way that a Black Mass subverts a traditional Mass. It's a wonderfully dark way to show us how twisted and evil this whole arrangement has become.
It might have taken decades, but Whitey Bulger is finally meeting justice.
And he's not the only one. Check the list if you don't believe us:
And then there is one—Whitey Bulger. Bulger skipped town as soon as he heard that an indictment was coming down in 1995, and has been on the lam ever since.
That is, until 2011. After gallivanting across the world with his girlfriend Catherine Greig, Bulger settles in Santa Monica, California under an assumed name. One day, a neighbor sees a picture of them on America's Most Wanted, and the elusive Whitey Bulger finally finds himself in police custody.
Keep in mind that Black Mass was first published in 2001, which means that the original edition of the book ended with Bulger still living free. Talk about a buzzkill. Though it might come a decade late, however, the important thing is that Whitey Bulger will finally be forced to answer for his crimes.
It's impossible to understand Whitey Bulger without first understanding South Boston. From the city's complex internal politics, to its unspoken code of ethics, the tale of Whitey Bulger wouldn't be half as complex if it didn't take place in Southie.
Southie, as it's known to residents, is defined by its working-class Irish-American roots. Here the Catholic Church reigns supreme and even the street names reference to regions in the home country. This ethnic identity comes to define Southie, giving the city a pronounced conservative bent. In fact:
[…] nothing [...] galvanized Southies more than a perceived slight by an outside who would change The Way Things Are. (1.2.11)
And boy do Southies hate outsiders. Whether you're a fed trying to integrate the neighborhood's public schools, a police officer trying to solve crimes, or a Yankee looking to fill the hood with high rises, chances are you're going to be despised by residents of South Boston. Similarly, native Southie tend to stick around, and "to this day the neighborhood consistently maintains the highest percentage of long-term residents in the city" (1.2.9). Even Whitey stays in his childhood home well into his adulthood.
You can't talk about Southie without talking about those dastardly Bulger boys, as both come to define Southie in their unique ways. Whitey, the gangster, becomes a Robin Hood-esque bad boy for residents: an anti-hero who protects Southies while ripping off outsiders. Billy Bulger, state senator, is also seen as someone who protects Southie, with a major example being his passionate opposition to federally-led efforts to integrate the neighborhood.
Of course, from our perspective, we can see the truth:
Southie had suffered in Whitey's hands. (2.12.21)
He kills its residents, exploits its businesses, and even floods its streets with drugs. Although Billy isn't directly involved in this activity, the implicit approval he gives Whitey allows Whitey to engage into this horrendous underworld activity to his heart's content. So, though they come to define South Boston, Whitey and Bulger certainly aren't giving their hood a good name.
The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman.
- William Shakespeare (Act III, Scene 4), King Lear
I do my best to protect you and I may break a few rules, but I break them in your favour.
- Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Some things are necessary evils, some things are more evil than necessary.
- John Le Carre, The Russia House
Black Mass isn't content with just one epigraph—it has three. Jeez, way to show off, guys. Each of these epigraphs come at the beginning of the book's three parts, and relate to the twists and turns of the Whitey Bulger saga.
The first epigraph is plucked from—where else?—Shakespeare.
It's an obvious reference to Bulger, who can certainly seem like a charming "gentleman," but does as much dirt as the Prince of Darkness himself. And, although Bulger doesn't go as crazy as the titular character of King Lear, we can trace some similarities between them as men who rise to the highest of heights only to plummet to the lowest of lows.
With the second epigraph, we turn our attention to John Connolly, the corrupt FBI agent. Taken from famous crime novel The Big Sleep, the quote alludes to Connolly's rampant rule-breaking within the FBI to protect his favorite informant.
Again, we can see a few echoes between Black Mass and the source of this epigraph, The Big Sleep, as both explore the corruption and violence inherent to the criminal underworld.
Finally, our third epigraph presents a counterargument to Whitey's supporters who claim that protecting him is a "necessary evil" to take down the Mafia. Sure, having Whitey on the payroll certainly doesn't hurt the FBI's effort, but they end up causing way more harm than good when everything is said and done.
Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill are journalists by trade, so their writing style is as smooth and silky as a D'Angelo single. No impenetrable metaphors or page-long paragraphs here.
That being said, the story told by Black Mass spans decades, so there's a ton of info to keep track of. It might be hard to follow at first, but once you get familiar with the cast of characters, the book reads like a dream.
In what universe does it seem like a good idea for an FBI agent to host dinner parties with known gangsters?
Even though "the FBI in no uncertain terms banned socializing with informants," dinner parties become a ritual for the corrupt Organized Crime Squad and their two favorite informants, Whitey Bulger and Steve Flemmi (2.9.49).
The group usually gathers at John Morris' home, though they sometimes drop by Whitey's instead. As you can imagine, Morris' wife Rebecca isn't too pleased to be cleaning up after murderers, and the tension between the married couple over this issue is a big contributor to the dissolution of their marriage.
And who can blame her?
These parties also illustrate the unsettling closeness that's developed among the fearsome foursome of Connolly, Bulger, Morris, and Flemmi. They're meeting in Morris' home after all; this relationship has transcended business and is now personal. Plus, it's at these meetings that things get truly dark.
Check it out:
Morris, his wine nearby but clearly sober, said, "You can do anything you want as long as you don't clip anyone." (2.13.43)
This is the moment that the book's writers dub a "black mass"—the moment Morris and Connolly transcend a grave moral boundary and become criminals themselves. The fact that it happens during a casual dinner party only makes it somehow darker.
How do you buy off an FBI agent? It's easy—just buy a plane ticket for his girlfriend-on-the-side. Works like a charm.
Or at least that's the case with John Morris. Although Morris is brought into the Organized Crime Squad to be wet blanket for John Connolly, he quickly becomes a participant in Connolly's shady deal with Whitey Bulger. The only difference between them is that Morris actually feels bad about his involvement.
Though, to be fair, he doesn't feel bad enough to stop.
The next level of Morris' corruption comes when Bulger buys him a plane ticket. And not just any plane ticket—a plane ticket so his secret in-office girlfriend can join him on a business trip. That's soap opera-worthy gossip. This is a sudden, impulsive decision for Morris, but the implication is clear: Bulger and Flemmi "now had Morris in their grip, and he'd come cheap—a plane ticket for an illicit tryst" (2.9.24).
In an added layer of ouch, Morris only needs a side-girlfriend because "at home his marriage was falling apart" (2.7.6). And why is it falling apart, you ask? Because of Bulger. Rebecca Morris hates how her husband has changed since growing close to Bulger, especially given that the gangster regularly drops by for a bite to eat.
Yeesh. Chalk it up to irreconcilable differences.
So that's some pretty brutal irony: Morris probably wouldn't need the plane ticket if he hadn't gotten involved with Bulger in the first place. That's the Bulger two-for-one special.
FBI agent John Morris spends the bulk of Black Mass in a personal tailspin of epic proportions, and that tailspin is fueled largely by booze.
For instance, Whitey Bulger and Morris bond over wine, despite Bulger not drinking much himself. Instead, Bulger frequently tries to "ply Morris with fancy wine—here and there a $25 or $30 bottle of French Bordeaux" (2.9.60).
Besides showing Bulger's flashy nature, this rampant gift-giving is a premonition of Morris' acceptance of cash from his informant.
Morris' other big, booze-soaked moment comes after the prosecution of the Angiulo crime family. The crew meets at a hotel and Morris, in an absurd conflict of interest, plays a secret wiretapped tape recording from the investigation for Bulger and Flemmi. But that's not even the worst part.
Take a look:
Besides emptying more than two wine bottles, Morris had stumbled out of the hotel, leaving behind the top-secret government tape recording he had so proudly played for Bulger and Flemmi. (2.8.55)
In both instances, alcohol becomes a symbol of John Morris' decline over the course of Black Mass. Whether used for bribery, or to dull his feelings of shame, Morris' spiraling relationship with booze mirrors his spiraling relationship with Whitey Bulger.