I very much enjoyed No Angel, the first-person account by an undercover ATF agent who was actually patched in to the Hells Angels — though the investigation ended before he actually got his patch. It’s a good read and at times really mind-bending.
Unlike a lot of books by undercover cops, No Angel moves quick and feels real. Perhaps most importantly, the language and life attitude portrayed by the narrator/cop/author is appropriate to the biker lifestyle, which is important because I look for total immersion in a world when I’m reading a book about undercover work.
That is definitely here — in spades. Dobyns shows a real ability to laugh at himself which makes the book feel more genuine and also makes it read more pleasantly. That wisecracking nature also doesn’t erode the genuine noir-ish, hard-boiled feeling of the book, which is too, too lacking in cop books. I’ll never understand how some cops who write books can see reprehensible behavior and then write about it as if they were writing church sermons. That’s not this; Dobyns comes across as genuinely hard-boiled, and his enthusiasm for the bad-ass life seems real.
For these reasons, I unreservedly recommend this book as a hell of a read. But I have some serious reservations about it both as a work and as a law-enforcement document.
The first reservation about No Angel as a work of art is that Dobyns talks a lot about his family — his wife and his kids who are reportedly adorable. To me as a reader and as a person, nothing is more boring than someone I’ve never met and somebody I’m never going to meet talking about their kids. Unless it’s an undercover cop talking about his kids. It drives me nuts. They’re his kids; of course he likes them. I don’t really like or dislike your kids, Dobyns. But in a cop book a little of that crap goes a long way.
This is a recurring problem with undercover-cop books. For the undercover cop to survive being undercover and live to write a book about it without falling into despair, isolation, alcoholism, drug use, his or her family pretty much must be thought of as perfect and wonderful and ooey-gooey. This is partially because of the psychological demands of being undercover, and partially because in order to be a successful undercover in a violent criminal gang, the undercover cop must develop his or her “dark side” so thoroughly that it becomes at some point a bit terrifying to most of them, in my experience. That’s on top of the fact that undercover work inside a criminal gang is quite simply some of the most nerve-wracking shit you will ever go through; from what I can tell, it compares to being under combat conditions for an extended period, and not much else.
At least…that’s the conventional wisdom as to why undercover cops praise their families so much in books they write after the fact. However, after reading a lot of undercover cop books, I think the real story is that it’s not so much for that reason, or because undercovers form a longing for family life while they are undercover, but because after spending years being neglected, their wives and kids will put hatchets in their heads if the cops don’t lavish them with unending praise.
It serves the cop authors’ purposes, but man! It is damned boring for the rest of us.
Furthermore, at the end, Dobyns throws in a few bleating huzzas for God, who I’m glad he got to know, but I’m sick of hearing about Him in a half-assed context in cop books, since resorting to God to find grace in police work seems irrelevant to my interests and actually actively counters any respect I would have for the insights about law, order, morality and immorality that a dedicated police officer has seen in the world of cop and criminal. If you lay it all on God, in my view you’re abdicating human responsibility. You’re suggesting that you trust in an absolutist model that, to me, is anathema to the kind of real, practical policing I want to see enacted to make society a better place. Not to put too fine a point on it, you’re suggesting that maybe you want to take the side of the anti-secularists, who believe that permissive society is what spawns crime. Maybe Dobyns does, and maybe Dobyns doesn’t. But as a Jesus Freak, he’s both not that subtle and not that enthusiastic. I’m an atheist, but if I believed in God I’d still say cop work is God’s work…if it’s done right. If it’s done wrong, then it’s very much in the purview of that other guy, and I don’t like to think about how many cops out there blissfully and shamelessly confuse the two.
If God is watching, I believe He wants you to actually understand the nasty things about human behavior, not just howl thank-yous to him for saving you from humanity’s dickwads. I trust that Dobyns finding God was important to him and meaningful, but it makes anything about people that I learned from this book feel, to me, empty.
The next, and hugely more important reservation, is actually partially ameliorated by the ending of the book and the ending of the case (which was called “Black Biscuit” — after a slang term for a hockey puck.) Or maybe my point is not ameliorated — it’s just that the courts agreed with my point overall. Hysterical weirdos like Canadian Hells Angels gadfly Yves Lavigne and The History Channel want to portray the Hells Angels as an international crime syndicate on par with the Mafia. Some sources (Lavigne chief among them) said explicitly in the ’90s, following the “collapse” of La Cosa Nostra, that the Hells Angels were going to take over the place that LCN had held in American crime. They claimed the Hells Angels were “trading in their Harleys for Jaguars, their switchblades for Uzis, their saddlebags for attache cases stuffed with cash.” This was and is total bullshit.
I am not arguing that the Hells Angels is an organization of criminals — duh, of course they are. Just read Bill Bonnano’s autobiography alongside Sonny Barger’s, and all will become clear to you.
But that doesn’t make it a criminal organization per se. Not the way some news sources tried to paint the Hells Angels.
And it sure as hell doesn’t make the Hells Angels La Cosa Nostra. Suggesting that it does is to, quite frankly, assign too much blame to the wrong party, simply because they’re scruffy.
Guns, drugs and violence are part and parcel of the outlaw biker lifestyle, but too often I’ve heard law enforcement portray the HA as some organized group of criminal masterminds. They aren’t. As far as I can tell, they’re a motorcycle club that, as individuals and groups, routinely engages in criminal activity, both organized and otherwise. But in an overall OC sense? Yeah, sure, in terms of the war with the Mongols and other clubs, but not in the sense that they should be placed on the same level as other OC groups that exist solely for profit.
This point is underscored by the fact that even after Dobyns and his associates went so deep underground that they were actually made Hells Angels, the RICO case against the Angels fell apart.
It seems to me like it was a crappy case to begin with; the Angels aren’t the sort of group that RICO was built to take down, even if the majority of them are engaged in criminal activity. As far as I can tell — admittedly, from no personal experience but merely from reading books on the subject — is that the criminal activity is not done in a RICO-worthy sense.
To be fair to Dobyns, he writes quite frankly at the end about the fact that Operation Black Biscuit mostly fell apart. Few meaningful prosecutions were gained, which he blames on problems with the government attorneys. It sounds like the press blamed this on the undercovers, which seems pretty bogus. It sounds like good undercover work, but unfortunately not all undercover work ends up being Joe Pistone.
Thank God for that…since I loved this book but I think reading Donnie Brasco is like watching paint dry.
Overall, No Angel is a great read and Dobyns actually sounds like a decent chap despite my bagging on his pro-God yowling.
It also sounds like he got kind of screwed by the government, blamed for some shit that wasn’t his fault, and more or less abandoned after his undercover work. But isn’t that the way?