Hostile takeover

Boss of Bosses: How Bernardo Provenzano Saved the Mafia

Clare Longrigg

John Murray, 300pp, £20

Known as "the tractor" for his brutality, the Sicilian Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano had been on the run for more than 40 years when he was arrested in 2006 in a shepherd's hut. In this perceptive book, Clare Longrigg traces Provenzano's rise from stealing barrels of pecorino cheese in Corleone in the 1950s to the top of Cosa Nostra and its shadowy network of businesses.

The police chief who finally caught Provenzano tells Longrigg he snared a "chameleon . . . [his] great skill is this ability to adapt". Longrigg finds Provenzano an impressive, if repellent, figure. She tells the extraordinary story of how he rescued the Mafia from the brink of defeat in the 1990s. Under his friend Totò Riina, the Mafia fought a bloody war against the Italian state, bringing a crackdown and widespread revulsion.

After Riina's arrest, Provenzano ordered the Mafia to "make no noise", to end violence and put profit above all else. The Mafia worked its way deeper into Italy’s economic fabric, taking over the businesses from which it had been forcing kickbacks, blurring the line between its legal and illegal activities.

According to Longrigg, his revival of the Mafia’s fortunes is a story "from which the heads of corporations have much to learn".

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back