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 story off successfully. When King Tene Bimbo bypassed his own son to give the nod to Steve, he precipitated a moderately vicious power struggle, but we can never follow the action. We don't know why Bimbo did it. Apparently Mr. Maas couldn't find out exactly who was doing what to whom either. And we never get to know who, if anyone, now sits on King Tene Bimbo's throne. Moreover, we never get a clear picture of who the King rules, what exactly he does, what he gets or why anybody would want the job. I think it would have been better if Mr. Maas had spent more time with his subject before publishing. As it stands, "King of the Gypsies" remains a wonderful orchestrated prelude before a curtain that never goes up. Indeed, it is just possible that there is nothing behind the curtain and that Prince Steve has worked a little gypsy boojo of his own on Mr. Maas.
Peter Andrews, in a review of "King of the Gypsies," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 9, 1975, p. 29.