Late in Mr. Untouchable: The Rise, Fall, And Resurrection Of Heroin's Teflon Don, notorious '70s heroin kingpin Leroy "Nicky" Barnes concedes, without a hint of irony or self-consciousness, "I don't think I should have expected so much positivity out of an operation based on drug dealing and homicides." For most folks, this would qualify as a staggeringly obvious conclusion, but for Barnes, it's clearly hard-won wisdom. Barnes helped transform street crime into organized crime by establishing "The Council," a collection of black heroin dealers bound together by their shared Muslim faith and an often-violated moral code of Barnes' devising. Barnes expected his black-market enterprise to accomplish something beyond flooding the streets with extremely potent heroin and making obscene amounts of money, but he learned the hard way that there is no honor among freebasing heroin dealers, especially once egos, paranoia, and sexual competition enter the picture.

Barnes' ghostwritten memoir jumps back and forth in time, tracing his rocky, bloody ascent from a poor street kid hustling to support his heroin habit to a notorious crime kingpin whose outsized legend reportedly inspired a hit song (Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown") and provided the model for Wesley Snipes' charismatic drug dealer in New Jack City. Barnes' self-aggrandizing memoir—which boasts a seemingly ironic title, considering Barnes' three decades behind bars and eventual evolution into a government informant—is fascinating as a sociological exploration of the high-end '70s low-life, and a deliriously trashy pulp potboiler in the Donald Goines/Iceberg Slim tradition.

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But Mr. Untouchable is most useful for its insights into the unrepentant criminal psyche. Barnes spends 99 percent of the book sneering at squares and glorifying his decadent lifestyle in terms that make most multi-platinum rappers look humble by comparison. The final 1 percent offers the most pained and arbitrary of mea culpas. If Barnes regrets anything, it's that he got caught and didn't have various enemies killed when he had the chance. So while Untouchable makes it hard to root for the bad guy, there's a queasy voyeuristic thrill in riding shotgun with Barnes as he conquers the New York underworld, only to be betrayed by power-hungry cohorts he once considered brothers. It's hard to put down, but its unapologetic sleaziness leaves an ugly, sour aftertaste.