It’s a terrific book — comprehensive, deeply reported, invested with an understanding of place and character, and the subtle, at times pernicious, ways they interact. This is hardly surprising; the authors, Polk Award-winning Boston Globe reporters (Cullen also has a Pulitzer), have been on the Bulger trail for nearly 30 years. Their expertise infuses “Whitey Bulger” with authority, a depth and an engagement that makes it less a work of true crime than a social history.
“(I)n his own bloody way,” Cullen and Murphy write, “Whitey Bulger’s life was fused with the modern history of the city. During his career he became one of its most recognizable icons. Boston is the city of John Adams, John Kennedy, and Ted Williams, but there are few names better known or more deeply associated with the city than Bulger’s. Certainly he is Boston’s most infamous criminal.”
That idea, of Boston as a city in which patrician elements are juxtaposed against a strong and rambunctious working class, resides at the heart of Cullen and Murphy’s investigation. And yet, as their book reveals, such borders are more fluid than they seem.
Bulger — who moved to South Boston in 1938 when he was 8, and grew up in public housing — may have learned that “(b)eing tough meant something in all of Southie, but especially the projects,” but his younger brother Bill went in a different direction, serving for many years as president of the Massachusetts State Senate and later president of the University of Massachusetts. The same was true of Bulger’s partner-in-crime Steve Flemmi, whose brother Michael was a Boston cop.
This porousness makes it difficult to establish clear lines between good and bad guys, to define, in any fixed way, right and wrong. Instead, as Cullen and Murphy make clear, everyone is complicit, from Bulger, who “considered himself more paternal than pathological, nothing like the other bad guys,” to “two accomplished men (who) assisted in this preening self-portrait: Bill Bulger, who could never fully face what a menace his brother was, and one of Bill’s proteges, FBI agent John Connolly.”