BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Devil Himself: A Novel’

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But Lansky had allies, too - neighbors. One of them was the gangster Frank Costello. The other was the columnist Walter Winchell. All three lived at the Majestic, a block-long apartment building on Central Park West between 71st and 72nd streets. Winchell, a Jew born Walter Winschel, was a tough-talking newspaperman whose syndicated column had 50 million readers. Lansky leaked nuggets of information to Winchell and, in turn, Winchell wrote items that helped the gangster.

This unholy alliance worked in the government’s favor. Haffenden’s ferret squad broke up the Nazi networks on the East Coast. German spies were captured; most of them were executed. Lansky’s networks provided valuable information to the Navy and to the FBI.

In the end, according to Mr. Dezenhall, none of those involved with this successful intelligence operation was rewarded. Luciano was deported to his native Italy. Lansky was pursued by Hoover’s FBI. Cmdr. Haffenden was shipped off to the Pacific, where he was severely wounded.

But through it all, Lansky remained a patriot. As Mr. Dezenhall writes in Lansky’s voice: “I am a patriot. I recruited Charlie Luciano, Frank Costello and other Italians who needed to be reminded that America was their country. We all owed America a big debt. Of all the contracts people say I put on people, the contract to help America was the only one I ever really ordered.”

Revisionist? Maybe. Fiction? Of course. But Mr. Dezenhall has created a fascinating prism through which to look at a certain point in history. A prism that echoes a quote often attributed - but never confirmed - to George Orwell: “Peaceful men sleep soundly in their beds because rough men stand ready to do violence in their stead.”

John Weisman is the author of “KBL: Kill Bin Laden” (William Morrow, 2011).

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