Saturday, November 2, 2013

Book Reviews-The Damned Busters, Operation Family Secrets

The Damned Busters
by Matthew Hughes
This is a quirky book that was a fun read. Like many books these days it is first in a trilogy. I'm not quite sure that everything couldn't have been wrapped up in one book. The reader will however be curious as to what happens next. I am reading the second book now and hope that the series doesn't go the way of The Matrix trilogy. Matthew Hughes is a British-Canadian writer. Though this story takes place in an unnamed and presumably American Midwestern city it still has the kind of sardonic dry humor that I often find more common among British writers. I liked that. It's a little long and occasionally repetitive in one or two spots but hey no one is perfect.

Chesney Arnstruther is a low level actuary. Even among actuaries, who generally aren't the life of anyone's party, he is introverted, shy, socially inept and somewhat easy to push around. This last is the result of being brought up by his strict, religious, domineering mother Letitia Arnstruther. Letitia spends her free time writing letters promising hellfire, brimstone and damnation to anyone who offends her and especially anyone who is listed as a bad person by the TV preacher Rev. Billy Lee Hardacre. The self-righteous and almost frigid Letitia has an unadmitted crush on the Reverend. Chesney is also most likely a high functioning autistic. His world is dominated by numbers, statistics, doing what's right, and comic books. He calls those things his "pools of light" or areas in which he has a frightening amount of knowledge and can speak with total authority. Most other things he's either not interested in, unaware of, or fearful of getting involved in. The last category includes women. Chesney likes women and will often arrange his Sunday lunches in the park to watch women jogging or exercising. He has NO idea how to talk to women.

While Chesney is arranging a poker game at his house for his so-called friends (who only play with him because he's a horrible poker player) he accidentally hits his thumb with a hammer and bleeds over the five sided table. He swears but not with any recognizable profanities as growing up with a mother who washed his mouth out with soap for cursing cured him of that. Chesney lets off a stream of gibberish while his blood drips on the table.

It turns out that stream of gibberish just happens to be an incantation to summon a demon from Hell. And by bleeding over the pentacle, Chesney has done just that. The demon asks Chesney what he wants. Chesney refuses to ask for anything as this was all a mistake. Annoyed, the demon states there are rules governing such things. Chesney refuses to budge as actuarially speaking, selling your eternal soul for brief pleasures on earth is a very bad idea. He's adamant even as the demon and its supervisors tempt Chesney. Hell is now unionized. Chesney's summoning of the demon meant that it couldn't meet its daily quota of tortured souls and with no new contract to bring back, demonic management refused to lower the quota. So Hell goes on strike. This turns out to be a mixed bag for Earth as violence and crime drop but so does productive economic activity. Without Hell's tempters urging Pride, Greed, Envy and other of the Seven Deadly Sins Wall Street plummets. 

The Rev. Billy Lee Hardacre negotiates a settlement with Satan and the International Infernal Brotherhood of Torturers and Fiends. The agreement allows Chesney to keep his soul and do what he really wants to do, which is to be a crime fighting superhero, just like in his comic books. Satan assigns the demon Xaphon (who was last on Earth in the 1920s, was good friends with Al Capone, and talks and dresses like someone in a classic Warner Bros movie) to give Chesney superpowers and assistance for 2 hours each day. Disguised as The Actionary, Chesney sallies forth to fight crime. However he finds that crime fighting is not as easy as it looks. Things get more complicated when in both his Actionary guise and his real life identity Chesney is noticed by his boss' daughter, a tremendously beautiful but spoiled and mean woman for whom he has a THANG and by one Melda McCann, one of the women that Chesney watches on Sundays. The plucky and direct Melda is NEVER without her can of mace, something Chesney learns the hard way. The Rev. Billy Lee Hardacre also has an idea about what's going on, something which may require a revolutionary reinterpretation of all religion, science, morality and of reality itself. Neither Satan nor Chesney like this idea. But the reader will be delighted with it.

Operation Family Secrets
by Frank Calabrese Jr. and Keith Zimmerman
I had been wanting to read Operation Family Secrets for a while but had some mixed feelings about it afterwards. Frank Calabrese Sr. was a soldier/captain in the Chicago Outfit, who over time became one of the Outfit's most reliable enforcers, murderers and occasionally torturers. Although he occasionally gave lip service to separating business from family, he also brought his brother Nicholas and to a lesser extent his sons, Frank Jr. and Kurt into the mob life. More ominously Frank Sr. didn't really make a lot of distinctions between the threats and intimidation that he dealt out to other mob members or mob victims and people in his own family.
Corporeal punishment is still legal. Certainly a child or even a pre-teen or teen living at home might get a whipping from his father without too many people raising an eyebrow. But imagine that same father doling out not spankings or whippings but punches and beatings to his fully adult son. Imagine opening the door to your home right now as an adult only to have your father punch you in the face because of some mistake you made, something he wrongly thought you did, something somebody else did for which he blamed you or just because he's in a bad mood.

To hear Frank Calabrese Jr. aka Frankie, tell it that was his life. Most children grow up and get some level of separation from their parents. As children mature most parents reduce and ultimately put away authority that they exert over their children. This apparently wasn't the case in the Calabrese household. Of course it's easy to read this book and wonder why Frankie didn't either take matters into his own hands physically or just move away. Perhaps the first question can be easily answered by the fact that his father was a stone cold killer who when angry could and did threaten the lives of relatives. And killing someone in the mob without permission, even your own abusive father, would likely require retribution from the mob. That still leaves the second question though. Frankie was in the mob. He wasn't just a peripheral associate. He was involved in drug dealing, extortion and loan sharking among other things. Perhaps as a teen or young man you could excuse those things as activities he was bullied into by his father, which would be true. But as a grown man he had responsibility for what he did. 

Maybe I'm blaming the victim here but it was difficult for me to empathize with Frankie, because his familial experiences were 180 degrees different than mine. More than that I lost any sympathy when Frankie stole a huge amount of his father's money (I'd be tempted to throw someone a beating over that, family or not) and under the guise of family reconciliation in prison, taped his father's criminal admissions and musings. Frankie ultimately testified in court against his father. Frank Calabrese Jr. received a life sentence and died in prison. It's ugly read about how much a son hated and feared his father but then again this is the true face of organized crime. There are not any gravel voiced protective patriarchs running around in this story. When he was at home the senior Calabrese could not turn off the ugliness and brutality that he used at work. This cost him his relationship with his wives, siblings and children and ultimately cost him his freedom.

If you are interested in how the modern era Chicago Outfit works this was a good read. But obviously it's written from Frankie Calabrese's POV and by the end of the book I didn't care for him that much. He wasn't as bad as his father and that's all I can say. The FBI operation which grew out of Frankie's frustration and anger with his father ended up with a 43 page indictment and convictions of eleven Outfit members. Although this didn't destroy the Outfit, it put a huge dent in its operations. Who would think that they would need to check their son for a recording wire?
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