Bootleggers and Killers and Spies and Other Hard Cases

As a general rule, around here the to-read list swings like a pendulum between SF and pulp/mystery/crime. As luck would have it, it’s been a crime spree around here lately, so I thought I’d try and get a few of those off the list.

It started when my colleague Jim MacQuarrie messaged me, If Hard Case Crime sends you a copy of Dylan Struzan’s new book, I hope it warrants a good review. She’s a nice lady and her husband is a god.

Now, I’ve known Jim about twenty years, and this kind of full-throated endorsement is rare. He does often say people are nice — despite his curmudgeonly online persona, in real life Jim is an amiable guy and a remarkably good dad who’s raised three really spectacular children — but it is rare for him to admit to flat-out worship. So I had to look up Mr. Struzan and see what was so godlike about him.

Turns out Jim nailed it.

Then I was embarrassed at not recognizing the name. Because I totally should have.

I mean, I own a lot of these things.

So I went looking and was shocked and a little horrified that A Bloody Business was already out… and Hard Case hadn’t sent me one.

It sounded really cool, though: ON THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF PROHIBITION, LEARN WHAT REALLY HAPPENED. In 1919, the National Prohibition Act was passed, making it illegal across America to produce, distribute, or sell liquor. With this act, the U.S. Congress also created organized crime as we know it. Italian, Jewish, and Irish mobs sprang up to supply the suddenly illegal commodity to the millions of people still eager to drink it. Men like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, Dutch Schultz and Bugsy Siegel, Al Capone in Chicago and Nucky Johnson in Atlantic City, waged a brutal war for power in the streets and on the waterfronts. But if you think you already know this story…think again, since you’ve never seen it through the eyes of one of the mobsters who lived it.

Called “one of the most significant organized crime figures in the United States” by the U.S. District Attorney, Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo was just 15 years old when Prohibition became law. Over the next decade, Alo would work side by side with Lansky and Luciano as they navigated the brutal underworld of bootlegging, thievery and murder. Alo’s later career included prison time and the ultimate Mob tribute: being immortalized as “Johnny Ola” in The Godfather, Part II.

Introduced to the 91-year-old Alo living in retirement in Florida, Dylan Struzan based this book on more than 50 hours of recorded testimony–stories Alo had never shared, and that he forbid her to publish until “after I’m gone.” Alo died, peacefully, two months short of his 97th birthday. And now his stories–bracing and violent, full of intrigue and betrayal, hunger and hubris–can finally be told.

Too good to miss, and as it happens we had gotten an unexpected influx of cash — a slightly better than usual quarterly check for book royalties, and also a little spare change from our day at the Tacoma book fair.

So I squelched the inner fear that Hard Case was breaking up with me and ordered one of my own, with my own money.

A Bloody Business,
as it turns out, is a terrific book.

It’s also a HUGE book. “Nearly 200,000 words, covering the entire 13 years of Prohibition.” It’s hefty, a two-inch-thick hardcover.

But also hugely interesting. Ms. Struzan knows how to tell a story. I had rather expected a sort of Studs Terkel first-person reminiscence from Mr. Alo, but Dylan Struzan has instead chosen to frame the story as a chronological narrative, written in the style of a novel (much like Capote’s In Cold Blood.) It’s very accessible and even more difficult to put down.

I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I was able to put aside my usual prejudice against stories told in the present tense. (Normally I hate this technique with the blazing fury of a supernova; it’s way too pretentious and should be banished forever to useless ‘literary’ writer’s groups where it belongs.) But I forgave Ms. Struzan because I dug the actual story enough to get past it.

It doesn’t hurt that the book is lovely, just as an artifact, as well. It’s loaded with terrific illustrations from her spouse.

24 in all, and every one of them has that movie-poster feel to it.

Unfortunately, the production on my copy seems to have washed everything out a little. I understand not wanting to do color, I worked in printing and know that would have pushed the costs way too high; but higher contrast would have helped a lot. Even these examples– I tweaked each one a little before posting them, to bring the figures into sharper relief, but I think there’s still too much gray.

Now, that’s strictly my opinion, and your mileage may vary. But it’s certainly not a reason to skip the book. Even with those caveats, I think it’s one of the best things the Hard Case imprint has done. Hugely recommended.

*

It’s almost impossible for me to order just one book and stop if Amazon’s you-might-also-enjoy algorithm lands on a suggestion that catches my eye because it’s about something I’m hugely into and new to me, especially if it’s cheap. This one, Ben Macintyre’s For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond, ticks all three boxes.

I got mine for about five dollars, and it was well worth it. Even though I’ve been reading about the subject a lot over the last forty years and there wasn’t much technically new to me, Macintyre does a really good job of organizing the biographical stuff in a way that makes sense.

It’s not really a biography. Instead the book is built on an idea very familiar to those who have read the Bond books and also about the life of Ian Fleming; the process by which he arrived at the plots and characters populating the world of 007 was to take things from his real life and inflate them into Bond-sized daydreams. That’s what gave the novels such an irresistible boy’s adventure, wish-fulfillment quality. But instead of doing it chronologically, Macintyre organizes these things by category, which works a lot better.

It’s another volume that’s lovely to have just as a physical object, a nice coffee-table art book full of cool photos.

This one’s also recommended, especially if you are new to Fleming’s Bond books and are curious about how they came about. It’s fun for old 007 hands like myself as well, but don’t pay full price. I just looked around Amazon and eBay and you can get a nice copy for less than ten bucks, including the shipping.

*

And finally, I am delighted to report that Hard Case did NOT break up with me, because a review copy of The Triumph of the Spider Monkey by Joyce Carol Oates arrived last week.

This is another little-known title from a famous author that Hard Case has rescued from obscurity. Unavailable for 40 years, this seminal novel of madness and murder is acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates’ powerful trip into the mind of a maniac.

Abandoned as a baby in a bus station locker, shuttled from one abusive foster home and detention center to another, Bobbie Gotteson grew up angry, hurting, damaged. His hunger to succeed as a musician brought him across the country to Hollywood, but along with it came his seething rage, his paranoid delusions, and his capacity for acts of shocking violence.

Unavailable for 40 years, The Triumph of the Spider Monkey is an eloquent, terrifying, heartbreaking exploration of madness by one of the most acclaimed authors of the past century. This definitive edition for the first time pairs the original novel with a never-before-collected companion novella by Joyce Carol Oates, unseen since its sole publication in a literary journal nearly half a century ago, which examines the impact of Gotteson’s killing spree on a woman who survived it, as seen through the eyes of the troubled young man hired by a private detective to surveil her…

This is a book I’m glad exists in the world, because I think Hard Case Crime does a genuine service to the genre by rescuing these works and putting them back in print. And I admired the story itself. both the prose and the structure, a great deal. But….

…I didn’t enjoy it very much.

I’ve never been much for the inside the mind of a killer! style of thriller. I much prefer the narrative viewpoint to be the one on the side of justice, and failing that, at least for the bad guy’s side of things to alternate with the good guys. (Like Lawrence Sanders’ first and third Deadly Sin books, say.) But doing the whole thing from the viewpoint of the killer skeeves me out.

Now, that’s me. You might be really into that. But as it is, all I can say is, it’s provisionally recommended as a well-done example of this kind of thing, but only if you like that kind of thing. It happens I don’t. But it takes all kinds.

That said, I’m grateful to still be on the Hard Case Crime review list, at least for the books that weigh less than five pounds.

Back next week with something cool.

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4 Comments

  1. Louis Bright-Raven

    “Unfortunately, the production on my copy seems to have washed everything out a little. I understand not wanting to do color, I worked in printing and know that would have pushed the costs way too high; but higher contrast would have helped a lot. Even these examples– I tweaked each one a little before posting them, to bring the figures into sharper relief, but I think there’s still too much gray.”

    Not having seen the actual book, I’m only speculating here, Greg, but is it possible that was done on purpose to give the book a look of ‘authenticity’ where the art is 100 years old, where even if it was preserved, reproduction of it would look ‘washed out’? I’ve seen other publishers do that with other B&W pencil / charcoal illustrations to make the art seem to be from the time period it was reflecting. Just a thought.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Your impressions of Oates’ work echo my own: I admire it quite a bit but don’t necessarily enjoy it. Thematically, her prose is often really heavy, dark and emotionally taxing. All that said, I’m *really* interested in reading this book, because I’ve only read her more ‘recent’ stuff (like, from the past 25 or so years), and I’d like to read some of her earlier writing – esp. something out of print for a long time.

    Struzan’s book, by the way, looks awesome.

  3. Christopher Rice’s “Blood Echo” turned me off with an early chapter told from the view of the serial killer (though other problems would have killed my interest anyway). Not that I object to killer’s eye view per se, but fictional serial killers are a generic lot and there’s never anything interesting in their heads.
    There’s a Richard Condon novel, “Mile High” built around the idea the underworld not only profited from Prohibition, they pulled the strings to make it happen. It should have been a perfect fit for Condon’s style, but he made an incredibly dull book out of it.

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