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Book Review: Excellent Cadavers

Piersanti Mattarella, the President of the region of Sicily and elder brother of the current President of Italy, is murdered in Palermo, Sicily in January 1980.


Two years later Roberto Calvi is found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London.


In the same year Tommaso Buscetta’s two sons disappear, never to be found again, and he is returned to Italy from a life on the run in Brazil to become the most important pentito (informer) in history.

Excellent Cadavers book by Alexander Stille

In 1985 Rudy Giuliani, as District Attorney for New York, indicts and prosecutes senior members of the five families in New York and the 'Pizza Connection' trial starts with 22 Sicilian born defendants accused of operating a $1.6 billion cocaine and heroin operation across 10 countries. Guilty verdicts are delivered 18 months later in a landmark case involving unprecedented international law enforcement cooperation.


In 1989 the Berlin Wall falls and the US government’s excessive paranoia about Soviet influence in southern Europe via the Italian Communist Party ends, and with it the US policy of unquestioning support for the Italian Christian Democrat Party, with its shady ties to Cosa Nostra.


In July 1992 a young Sicilian girl of seventeen called Rita Atria jumps to her death from the balcony of her safe house in Rome.


At the same time, operation Mani Pulite (clean hands) commences and within two years 6 former prime ministers, more than 500 members of parliament and several thousand local and public administrators become caught up in the investigations.


In March 1993 former six-time Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti is accused of collusion with the mafia by prosecutors in Palermo.


In July 1993 the Christian Democratic Party, the party that has led all Italian governments since 1946, collapses and formally dissolves, beset by corruption, scandals and its all-too-obvious links to the mafia.


In 1994 Bettino Craxi, Prime Minister of Italy from 1983-87, flees to Tunisia to escape prosecution and years later dies there exiled and disgraced.


What do all these events over 14 years have in common? Two people, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who were prosecuting magistrates in Sicily. Throughout the 1980s they took on the mafia and the system, little knowing that the levers of power above them all the way to the very top were rarely on their side.

This 420 page book, Excellent Cadavers by Alexander Stille, covers the mafia wars of the 1980s and the successes, disappointments and struggles of Falcone and Borsellino. It shows you the wider context, most of which the two of them were unaware of at the time.

Sometimes when reading this book you have to remind yourself that this is not a work of fiction and you have to wonder how things got so bad and why they went unchecked for so long. It’s a fascinating and horrifying book and Alexander Stille makes you understand how close Italy was to becoming a failed democracy controlled by the hidden hand of corruption and organized crime. Twenty-six years after the book was written, who can really say with any certainty whether the battle is yet won.

The events of these years were so shattering in Italy that many of them subsequently became the subject of Italian films and tv series. The story of Tommaso Buscetta became a 2019 film called Il Traditore, Rita Atria’s short, tragic life was made into a film in 2008 called La Siciliana Ribelle and the recent excellent Italian three part tv series called 1992, 1993 and 1994 are about the events of those three years and the contemporaneous rise of Umberto Bossi's Lega Nord and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia. And in 2020 the film Hammamet was released portraying the last years of Craxi's life in exile in the Tunisian village of the same name.

The year 1992 was the most turbulent of all the years covered in this book and a watershed moment in Italian history. It is now referred to as the end of Italy's First Republic and it was not just the political parties that changed but the entire voting system. This book describes the build up to that tumultuous year and though it reads like a fast paced crime thriller it is refreshingly honest about the sheer brutality of the sicilian mafia. The movie industry, with its constant glamorization of these people, would have you believe that they live by some sort of honorable code but nothing could be further from the truth.