Peter Maas Essay - Critical Essays

Maas, Peter


Peter Maas 1929–

American nonfiction writer, novelist, journalist, and editor.

Maas earned a reputation as an excellent investigative reporter for Collier's, Look, and The Saturday Evening Post during the 1950s and 1960s. His concern with the conflict between good and evil is apparent in his graphic exposés of organized crime and corruption; this theme also dominates his later book-length narratives.

Maas has been praised for his ability to produce work that is exciting as well as informative. Many critics consider The Valachi Papers (1969) and Serpico (1973) his best work. The Valachi Papers is based on the memoirs and testimony of Joseph Valachi, an ex-Mafia member turned informer. Serpico is the biography of detective Frank Serpico, who barely escaped death after exposing corruption inside the New York City Police Department. King of the Gypsies (1975) tells the story of the violent power struggle between two leaders of the American gypsy kingdom. These books were made into motion pictures.

Maas turned to fiction in Made in America (1979), a crime novel that contains stylistic and thematic elements similar to those of his nonfiction. Critics were impressed with Maas's realistic depiction of the unsavory side of New York City, but some found his prose stilted and his characterizations weak. In Marie: A True Story (1983), Maas returned to investigative journalism to document a woman's battle to save her job and personal reputation after uncovering bribery practices in her department. Many critics were disappointed in this book, citing Maas's lack of objectivity and his tendency to overdramatize the protagonist's plight.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)

Fred J. Cook

A better title for The Valachi Papers would have been The Thrice-Told Tales of Joseph Valachi. Anyone who may have anticipated that the prize Mafia informer had kept some precious nuggets of sensation hidden away to tell in his own fashion may now be disabused of all such illusion. Except for tidbits, there is nothing new in the present volume….

Maas does as well as can be done with the by-now familiar details of the endless double-cross and endless murder that mark the way of life in the underworld. One of his more fascinating asides deals with his struggle to get this story into book form. Shouting super-Italians put the heat on spineless politicians, and the politicians in turn pressured the Justice Department not to permit this affront to the Italian vote. Justice caved in, reneging on its promise to Valachi that he could write his own book, and Maas had to fight in the courts to win a compromise that permitted him to quote from interviews he had had with Valachi and from letters Valachi had written to him. The result is The Valachi Papers.

The book, as was perhaps inevitable considering its authorship, is marred by some of the same exaggerations that marked the original Valachi hoopla. Basic is the greatly overrated assess-ment of Valachi's performance, the contention that he established for the first time the reality of a gigantic underworld conspiracy that grosses some $40 billion a year....

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Tom Geoghegan

Pulp culture leans hard on cop books and mafia books, and now … the paperbacks have a new vein to work—the cops as the mafia. Such is the stuff of Serpico, which is slick bestseller melodrama in the true-to-life style of "the cop who defied the system," but a real guy, too, hip to things like the Village Voice and karate. Serpico … wears love-beads off duty, packs a Browning automatic, has a supermarksman rating, chops through doors and has his choice of "women who would drive readers of Playboy into a frenzy."

Despite the movie-like fanfare, Peter Maas seems finally to have one big innocent on his hands—one of the most naive or self-destructive of the "good cops," willing to finger his pals, at first in private to superiors, then to the DA, then The New York Times, then go on public record to put cops in jail even at some risk to his life….

In the slang of the force, cops on the take are either "grass-eaters" or "meat-eaters." The "meat-eaters," like many of Serpico's partners, have a take that exceeds their own salaries, which may be either "clean money" coming from numbers and prostitution or "dirty money" from narcotics. The historic line between clean and dirty money, Serpico and Maas believe, is no longer respected, but Frank Serpico is mighty prim about enforcing the laws against both. Some of the other cops, though, were no slouches either, as they hunted down gamblers to get themselves on the payroll. There has always been a nutty notion that cops are latent criminals, anyway. The new wisdom of social science is that they are time-servers like everyone else in government, wedded to their paperwork and their little quotas. As a result of their bad press they are even more conscious than most bureaucrats of being on sufferance in the...

(The entire section is 754 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

It is a pity that Frank Serpico did not write his own story. No doubt if he had it would have lacked the professional skill with which Peter Maas has composed [Serpico], by means of graphic scenes, flash-back technique and the adept use of research and inquiry. But there is something so utterly individual about Serpico's commitment that the reader longs for his voice. It is nevertheless only fair to say that Mr Maas has done his best to let us hear it as often as possible and that the best things in the book are those in which Serpico's personal testimony is most evident.

Paradox appears from the outset. Here was a young man whose heart's desire was to be a police officer in the American style, a crack shot and karate adept, his childhood hero the neighbourhood patrolman: yet once in the force he adopted a bohemian style far from the conventions of police appearance and behaviour. This Greenwich-Village association undoubtedly reduced his credibility when he sought to report his fellow-officers' systematic extortion. Most "ranking" officers inevitably saw him as a crank; the peer-group's norm was not for him, thus giving rise to an aura of suspicion of his whole manner of being.

When he was posted to plainclothes duty his real troubles began. The main business of the branch to which he was posted was to prevent gambling. To this well-known impossibility the plainclothesmen had accommodated themselves by regulating the bookmakers and the "policy" operators for their own advantage. When Serpico joined his precinct he discovered that he was expected to receive $800 a month from funds collected in an extremely business-like way from the people who ran gambling concerns. The...

(The entire section is 710 words.)

Peter Andrews

In "King of the Gypsies" journalist Peter Maas tells the story of Steve Tene who is anointed as the new leader of American gypsies by his grandfather King Tene Bimbo. As he did in "The Valachi Papers" and "Serpico," Mr. Maas has gotten close to the principal character and told the story from his viewpoint. Mr. Maas gets his narrative under way with a marvelous scene showing Steve as a 4-year-old working a gypsy scam in a jewelry store with his mother. Steve steals a diamond by swallowing it and is hustled back home where mommy stuffs him full of bread to coat his digestive tract until he passes the stone.

Peter Maas has the eye of an experienced journalist, and fills his narrative with the kind of detail that makes a good story come alive. King Bimbo was so adept a swindler that he made a hobby out of short-changing bank tellers. He could go to a bank with a $500 bill, ask for change, and walk out with $550 every time. Steve became a specialist in faking injuries to rip off insurance companies. His mother was the mistress of the "boojo," a fortune-teller swindle as old as sin and still as effective. There is a lovely scene when the senior Tene becomes furious when he catches his daughter doing her homework one night, and discovers that she has been sneaking off to school when she was supposed to be out on the streets begging.

With all of his good professional writer moves, however, Mr. Maas doesn't quite bring his...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

C. H. Rolph

[King of the Gypsies, a] violent and shocking book about the sixty-odd American gypsy clans could do much to rehabilitate our native ones by throwing up comforting comparisons. The murderous and tyrannical "King" Tene Bimbo, whose obese and squalid figure overshadows the whole scene, is about the most odious character any writer could choose for a subject. And yet it can be said that such gypsies, any gypsies, are largely what Western society has made them. Through the ages the persecutions and killings have been appalling, not even stopping with the murder of half a million gypsies tricked into Hitler's gas chambers by the promise of relief….

King of the Gypsies comes across as the...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

William Kornblum

Hundreds of students in undergraduate sociology classes this year will become interested in American gypsies due to the publicity this most enigmatic of peoples is receiving from King of the Gypsies. This is justification enough to review the volume in these pages. But an even better reason is that the subject of gypsy life in America calls for more detailed and thoughtful treatment than Maas has given it. Students of the social sciences who read King of the Gypsies should at least have some knowledge of where to look for competent scholarship and honest reflection on the relationships between gypsies and the rest of us who create the social environment in which gypsies thrive.

Since it...

(The entire section is 771 words.)

Evan Hunter

Until now, Peter Maas has concentrated on writing nonfiction, with admirable results…. We have come to expect from him a keen reportage that can evoke with equal sureness … the barren moonscape of a South Bronx street or the languid luxury of a northern Westchester tennis court. We have come to rely on his intimate knowledge of both law enforcement and criminal organizations in New York and elsewhere, an expertise again abundantly evident here. We have also come to trust the validity of his observations on the various real people he has written about. But "Made in America" is his first novel, and, liberated here from the constraints of writing about actual persons or events, he reveals a previously unsuspected...

(The entire section is 710 words.)

James R. Frakes

If Nick Carraway was repulsed by the foul dust that floated in the wake of Gatsby's dreams, he'd be really nauseated by Peter Maas' latest version of the orgiastic future [in Made in America,] to which our republic has been summoned by that twinkling green light. In 1974, the new world of this novel has become a burned-out wasteland: The South Bronx resembles a no-man's-land in South Vietnam; the Inwood section of Manhattan has acquired the siege mentality of Johannesburg. Whores crouch in 42nd Street doorways "like bears on a riverbank during a salmon run." Every ethnic group hates and fears every other.

Bleak. But all hope is not abandoned—America is still the land of opportunity, where...

(The entire section is 597 words.)


The trouble with "Marie: A True Story," is that Peter Maas does not tell it as the investigative reporter he is…. Instead, he uses the docudrama technique, replete with re-created dialogue and an appalling lack of objectivity.

His attempts to deal openly with the flaws of his heroine (a legitimate charge for drunken driving, for instance) appear as pathetic rationalizations. The effect is to raise doubts rather than quell them.

His partiality takes on the tone of revenge. The raw language, petty gossip, and snide characterizations of those who oppose Ms. Ragghianti make the reader want to cry "foul." Such savaging does not serve her cause, nor is it necessary. Maas has forgotten...

(The entire section is 268 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

It's all so neat the way things work themselves out in Peter Maas's latest book, "Marie: A True Story," about a woman's lonely struggle against the corruption she perceived in the administration of Ray Blanton, Governor of Tennessee from 1974 to 1978. The villains are so contemptible, especially the two figures at the heart of a conspiracy to sell executive clemencies to convicts, T. Edward (Eddie) Sisk, the Governor's legal counsel, and Mr. Sisk's extraditions officer, Charlie Benson, with their utter inability to credit anything but venal behavior. And Governor Blanton himself, in Mr. Maas's handling, is almost a caricature of Snopesian conniving and arrogance.

And the heroine, Marie Ragghianti, is...

(The entire section is 589 words.)