The Mafia is as deeply associated with the American experience as the Old West, but it presents an unusual problem for would-be chroniclers: If it's doing its job properly, there's little to write about. The Mafia thrives in the shadows, making its presence known only when it has to, and then only to those who need to feel it. Former New York Times reporter Selwyn Raab refers to it as a "toxic effect," with the mob contributing to a general sense of corruption as it exerts its invisible tax through activities conducted just beneath the eye of the law.

Raab's mammoth Five Families sets out to provide a thorough history of the "families" that have dominated New York since Lucky Luciano's organizational brilliance codified the American Mafia in the early '30s. Held together by its high-profit criminal lifestyle, as well as omerta, a code of silence and loyalty, the Mafia thrived for decades, virtually ignored by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. (There were all those communists and subversive types to take down, after all.) But in the '70s, law enforcement began to make serious inroads into the mob with the institution of RICO laws, which granted greater powers of surveillance and expanded the grounds for prosecution of mob crimes.

After a surprisingly cursory account of the preceding decades, Raab concentrates on this phase of mob history, where his book is at its best. Of course, his colorful material doesn't hurt. For instance, there's John Gotti, who craved the spotlight and who started to believe his own press as the "Teflon Don" to whom no charges could stick. (They did.) And Vincent "Chin" Gigante, who for years feigned mental illness to throw the government off his scent, sometimes strolling New York in a tattered bathrobe that hid a sharply tailored suit.

A devotee of straightforward reportage, Raab never finds the language to equal his material. His habit of doubling back on the narrative and repeating himself doesn't help, either. He's dry but thorough, and as a warehouse of information, it's tough to beat Five Families, particularly once it catches up with the era that Raab himself covered. As omerta broke down and more wiseguys turned on their bosses in exchange for softer sentences, the truth about the Mafia began to emerge. It's not a pretty truth, either, even for those who make it to the top. Gotti lived high, but his reign lasted only a few years. Gigante held on much longer, but his feigned insanity made him a virtual shut-in. Raab cautions that, with the government's attention focused elsewhere post-9/11, the mob could easily rise again. But one pattern emerges in his history: Failure is hardwired into the Mafia's success.