Saturday, December 6, 2014

Book Reviews: The Devil's Red Nickel, The Sinatra Club, The Savage Sword of Conan

The Devil's Red Nickel 
by Robert Greer
In some very minor respects this mystery novel walks the same side of the street as similar works by Walter Mosley and Gar Anthony Haywood in that it imagines a black hero in a genre which still has very few such characters. But aside from the fact that the three authors share chromosomes and similar melanin levels and take black humanity for granted there's not too much else in common. The writing styles are utterly different. C.J. Floyd is a middle aged bail bondsman/private detective who lives in Denver, Colorado. He's definitely and defiantly old school. He drives around town in his 1957 Bel Air convertible. He's a man who loves listening to doo-wop and classic R&B. Think Esther Phillips and not Beyonce. Floyd is not exactly a wealthy man. In fact he's under some financial constraints because he's having some issues with people skipping their bond. But Floyd's not a man to let anything get in his way of doing what he sees as the right thing. He's good people. An older man named Leroy Polk dies of what appears to be a heart attack. 

The doctors/medical examiners find one of Floyd's business cards among the dead man's effects. Now Floyd did not know Leroy Polk personally but like millions of other people he knew the man intimately in Polk's persona of "Daddy Doo-Wop", a Chicago area DJ, music promoter, A&R man, producer and would be record company owner. Daddy Doo-Wop helped break tons of black music acts throughout the Midwest and West. Record companies and their acts would do their best to get their music played on his show. If Daddy Doo-Wop played your record that could make you famous and make you a lot of money. On the other hand if he didn't like your music it could be very difficult to get people to come to your shows. In some instances you might as well have quit the music industry and taken up needlepoint.

As a teen and young man, Floyd listened to Polk's show and was enthralled. Daddy Doo-Wop not only influenced Floyd's music tastes but also gave him the idea to go into business for himself. Floyd is shocked and saddened to learn of Polk's death. However the local police are interested in how and why Floyd's card wound up in Polk's possession. And so is Polk's attractive daughter, Clothilde. 

She's convinced that her father did not die of a heart attack, no matter what the coroner's report says. And she wants Floyd to look into it. Clothilde is not the kind of woman who listens to the word no. When you look like she does, you don't hear the word no very often. Floyd's investigation will lead him into some pretty deep and dark waters. 

The music business is not a place for shy people. There are some pretty nasty sharks out there who would just love to take a chomp out of a bail bondsman who they think is out of his league. Even if Daddy Doo-Wop did not die of natural causes there is a depressingly large number of people who might have had motives to kill him. Not too many folks are losing sleep over the fact that Daddy Doo-Wop is no longer on the planet. And that's all I want to say about that as I do not wish to give away spoilers to readers who might be interested in this book. Anyway I also want to write shorter reviews because of time constraints. So this is as good a place as any to stop. In paperback format this book is just over 300 pages but it's a quick read. 

There was never any spot that I felt that the story died. With one or two exceptions the characters are mostly engaging. Everything and everyone feels real. Most of the story lines are neatly wrapped up. It's written in third person, which I like. If you are into well constructed mystery stories that neither insult your intelligence nor get too complex this could be a good read for you. The author is also a doctor and medical professor as well as being a Denver native.  So because the book's events mostly take place in Denver certain book locations, real or fictionalized might be familiar to those of you who are native to that city or have passed through.

The Sinatra Club

by Sal Polisi
Salvatore Polisi, aka Crazy Sal or Sally Ubatz, was a mobster associated with the Colombo faction of the New York Mafia. For the obvious reasons he eventually decided to get out. He testified against former associates and entered the Witness Protection Program. The Sinatra Club is his memoir. However it's not as good as it could have been because of three decisions. First, recognizing that Sal Polisi is less well known than John Gotti, the book plays up any and all associations that Polisi had with Gotti, stories and rumors he heard about Gotti, Gotti's bad temper about his gambling losses, Gotti's distaste for hookers, the time Polisi was in the restroom with Gotti and Gotti made a racial insult against Sarah Vaughn and so on. Second, Polisi was a horrible husband who was never faithful to his wife. He constantly informs the reader that he needed at least five certain sex acts daily. While this adulterous behavior is not so uncommon among married mobsters, Polisi shares way too many details. Evidently Polisi's true love and soulmate was his primary girlfriend Jane, a fallen angel madam, dominatrix and prostitute. Polisi was already married when he met Jane. To hear Polisi tell it he was uniquely able to convince the otherwise asexual/lesbian Jane to try some salsiccia. Polisi spends a lot of time discussing all the ways that he and Jane made whoopie, by themselves and with other women. Some details were similar to Penthouse letters. Maybe there are a few people who needed to know how Jane could convince Polisi (in his words) to do things that Italian guys normally didn't do. I wasn't one of those people. Neither Jane nor Polisi's wife wanted to share him though each was content for a while to be lied to by him. That particular storyline ended the way you might expect. 

Lastly the book jumps around in time too much. As individuals there are things which are important to us all that happened decades ago. Polisi had a turbulent and occasionally abusive childhood. But as a reader it was frustrating to skip back and forth between the story of Polisi's sister's death and the time that a higher ranking mobster made Polisi do something really savage to someone. Although Polisi is frank about his evil ways, he's ashamed of having committed a particular act, which even by Mafia standards, was depraved, albeit possibly deserved. FWIW Polisi claims he never killed anyone.

It is interesting to compare Polisi's street level account of events with stories or documented testimony given by other informers or undercover agents. He repeats as fact things which others contradict. I wouldn't necessarily say he got a lot of things wrong. I would say that similar to people in the real world, his perspective differs from those who were higher up and/or made more money. The guy putting the engine in a vehicle on the assembly line has a different perspective than a fellow at the same company trying to create a worldwide business plan for the upcoming fiscal year.

It's important for mobsters not to be curious or ask too many questions. Either characteristic can be extremely hazardous to a gangster's future health. He is after all working with very violent suspicious people who don't believe in coincidences or in taking chances that someone who knows too much won't talk. As legendary mob boss Lepke Buchalter said way back in the thirties, "no witnesses, no case". So it's unsurprising that on some things I really was curious about Polisi didn't know the answers and/or went out of his way not to ask questions of people who did know the answers. 

Polisi was never "made" or formally inducted into the Colombo crime family. Although this is a huge distinction within the world of organized crime it's more or less meaningless to people who only interact with the Mafia as victims, curious outsiders or customers. Basically all this additional status would have meant is that an organization recognized Polisi's outstanding entrepreneurial and/or murderous potential and went on record extending its protection to him. No one could have murdered him without prior permission from his bosses. Polisi would have had much more authority within the Italian-American underworld but also would have had much greater expectations and workload. His bosses would have tolerated fewer mistakes. Polisi would not have been able to decline certain requests.

Polisi was a jack of all criminal trades. He was involved in muscle work, loan sharking, gambling, bookmaking, auto theft, armed robbery and bank robbery. He beat up pimps who were rivals to Jane. But his primary business became narcotics importation and wholesale distribution. Polisi ran a club which gave this book its title. Although the club was initially profitable via hoodlum gambling games, Polisi's primary interest was in using the club to launder his drug profits. It's not that he wanted to hide them from the IRS. No, he wanted to hide them from mob superiors who would have killed him for dealing or more precisely for dealing without making sure they got their cut. If you liked the movie Goodfellas I suppose you might enjoy this story. Polisi knew or ran with many of the people portrayed. But I found the book's organization and style a little offsetting. There was a film made from this book which I have not seen.

The Savage Sword of Conan Volume One
based on tales by Robert E. Howard
This was a gift from my brother, who knows that I am a fan of most things Robert E. Howard and to a lesser extent classic comic books. The Savage Sword of Conan is a collection of seventies era Conan comic book stories, generally published by Marvel Comics. It's important to get a few things out of the way immediately. Some of Howard's work could be very grim and violent. There was a streak of racism and what would be today called sexism which ran through it. The men, especially Conan, are drawn as well muscled fighters. As you can no doubt tell from the cover these stories are primarily designed to appeal to people with an inborn frank appreciation for the feminine form, i.e. men or people who will one day be men. 

The women are generally drawn in shapely feminine styles featuring lush hourglass figures with plenty of visible cleavage and ample backsides. Conan's default response to an attractive woman is "You know we're gonna f*** so you might as well give me some now and get it out of the way". This usually works. There's only a few women on whom it doesn't work but even there Conan is still trying his best. In the very first story "The Frost Giant's Daughter" there is some controversy about whether Conan was going to commit a crime and if so was it from his own desire or was he under more malign influence. Rereading it I think it's unclear. The reader will have to decide for himself. On the other hand in other stories lack of consent is considered to be one of the most evil things imaginable, whether it be a woman ravished or a man enslaved. Conan speaks against both in the harshest of terms. Howard had plenty of contradictory ideas, some of which could be found in the same story. Because it was the seventies I don't think too many people cared or noticed but today comics like these would probably attract a lot more opprobrium from both feminists and traditionalists. Problematic depictions of women or non-whites not withstanding these stories are exciting. Howard wrote a LOT of Conan stories. Many of them turn up here in abridged black and white comic book format. 

However the authors do not limit themselves to Howard's published Conan work but remix some of his other stories and/or make up their own Conan tales. Some of these work better than others. Much of the prose can fairly be described as purplish but to be fair that is part of the appeal for stories such as these. A typical example might be "When a man looks at you, woman, he forgets his will until you show it to him". Lines like this might make you laugh out loud but in these stories they make perfect sense. Conan has been in just about every line of violent work there is, soldier, mercenary, thief, brigand, pirate and has the scars and stories to prove it. The artwork quality varies a bit from story to story but is generally good. 
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