Frank Lucas with Aliya S. King: Original Gangster

Frank Lucas with Aliya S. King: Original Gangster

The story of Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas has been told a few times now, via Mark Jacobson’s 2000 New York magazine article “The Return Of Superfly” and Ridley Scott’s 2007 movie American Gangster, based on the article. Still, it figures that Lucas would return with a full, as-told-to book. As Lucas himself notes in Original Gangster: The Real Life Story Of One Of America’s Most Notorious Drug Lords, co-written with former Billboard and Vibe staffer Aliya S. King, not only has he never been one to leave well enough alone, but at this late stage of his life, his story is pretty much all he has left as a moneymaker. 

As anyone even cursorily familiar with Lucas is aware, it’s one hell of a story: Six-year-old, dirt-poor black North Carolina boy witnesses his cousin’s murder by the KKK, then grows into a remorseless thief, drug dealer, and womanizer before making his way to Harlem, where his fearlessness as a stick-up man led to his patronage by the city’s numbers boss, Bumpy Johnson. When Johnson died, he left Lucas the business, and the younger man took his wildest risk yet, smuggling heroin from Thailand via U.S. military planes carrying his own custom-made false-bottom coffins—not, Lucas insists, inside the bodies of U.S. soldiers: “I’m no angel. But I do have my limits. And that would be one of them.” After flooding American ghettoes with this higher-quality heroin (“Blue Magic,” it was dubbed), Lucas wound up in prison, albeit for a lot less time than anyone might have figured, after he turned state’s evidence on the crooked cops who’d arrested him, and, he alleges, stole $11 million of his hard-earned money. 

Lucas’ voice, rendered here, is flatly hard-boiled, almost without affect. (In a way, the book’s dedication page says it all: Two of its four sentences begin “Please,” and the tone is humble, almost begging. It’s also signed “Mr. Frank Lucas,” just so we know who’s in charge.) He still has scores to settle, be it by tying himself in knots justifying his philandering, long past the point where it matters, or by devoting a short chapter to detailing just how little he thinks of his far showier fellow Harlem heroin trafficker Nicky Barnes, whom Lucas ran into at one of his many residences: “I never went back to the apartment at 3333 Henry Hudson Parkway again… if Nicky wanted to live there, he could have that building all to himself.” Nevertheless, when he skips the Apollo Theater première of American Gangster “out of respect to the many people, in Harlem and beyond, who suffered from the heroin industry that I helped to expand,” his contrition seems real.

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