Staring down Whitey Bulger

By PHILIP EIL  |  January 11, 2012

COLLABORATORS Fitzpatrick and Land.
Jon Land's latest thriller begins in a South Boston basement where a man named John McIntyre has been handcuffed to a chair, slammed in the head with a chair leg, and strangled with a length of sailing rope. Five hours later, after McIntyre's fingers have been methodically broken, he is asked, "You want a bullet in the head?" He nods and rasps the word "Yes."

While it may crackle with the same intensity of the Providence-based author's 30 — yes, 30 — previous books, Land's latest has one key difference: it's all true. The man with the gun was the notorious Boston mob boss, Whitey Bulger. The man chained to the chair was an unmasked FBI informant. The book — co-written and narrated by former FBI agent Robert Fitzpatrick — is titled Betrayal: Whitey Bulger and the FBI Agent Who Fought to Bring Him Down. On its official release day January 3, I met Land to discuss the book over sandwiches and coffee at one of his favorite local hangouts, the Wayland Square Diner. The interview is edited and condensed.

TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR PROCESS WORKING WITH FITZPATRICK. He had already written a lot, but it was not coherent. It was a mess and he knows that. But in reading all that, it gave me something to work from. Bob is a cop; he has a cop's mentality. He wrote the profile that nailed Ted Bundy. So he's a brilliant man, but he doesn't think the way a writer does. So, more and more, I would say to him, "Fitz, you're saying this . . . is this the thing that happened, not in 1981, but actually in 1982?" So that was the fun of the book. I'd ask him to tell me more about characters like Jack O'Donovan, the one-eyed, hard-assed [Massachusetts] State Police Chief.

WHITEY BULGER HAS INSPIRED CHARACTERS IN THE DEPARTED AND THE SHOWTIME SERIES BROTHERHOOD. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THIS GUY THAT PLAYS SO WELL ONSCREEN? It probably all dates back to The Godfather, where gangsters are cast as noble heroes, Robin Hoods, and law enforcement are the bad guys, the dummies. Why do we root for Tony Soprano? Because of power. He walks into a place and he gets the best table. He doesn't get charged for parking. He moves to the front of the line. Nobody messes with him. We romanticize what we seek to be.

WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION WHEN THEY CAUGHT BULGER? We had finished the book literally over a year before. It was with a smaller publisher that put me through six months of legal hell vetting the book with a lawyer who was convinced that it shouldn't be published. So we get the rights to the book back and I was thankful because I said, "This book is going to die a bad death." Two weeks later, at 3:30 in the morning — when the phone rings at 3:30 in the morning, it's never going to be anything good — it was Bob Fitzpatrick telling me, "Jon, they got him. They got Bulger." This was one of the greatest breaks of my career. Everybody said there were too many Bulger books on the market. Now, Bulger gets found, we get the rights back, everybody wants the book.

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  Topics: This Just In , Books, Whitey Bulger, betrayal
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