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Criminal Pursuits

March 12, 1995|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Mark Kriegel is a New York reporter and columnist whose first novel, BLESS ME, FATHER (Doubleday: $22; 321 pp.) has the power of "Mean Streets" or any of the dark, originating novels of film noir. It explores the world Martin Scorsese has captured on film and indeed it is no trouble imagining the novel as it would look if shot by Scorsese. Yet, for the similarities, Kriegel's voice is uniquely his.

Inspired by a real-life story Kriegel knew of an Italian father who forced his reluctant son to try to become a prizefighter, he creates Frank Battaglia as a father who disgraced himself in his own first and last big-time bout in Madison Square Garden. But the early flop has been transmuted into a triumph as Frank in later years becomes a minor Mafia soldier and neighborhood big shot.

Son Nicky has no heart to be a fighter, but his own world turns sour when his adored older brother Buddy goes crazy and jumps off a roof, and Frank leads Nicky to the gym to carry forward the family's dubious honor.

The novel is a series of revelations: Nicky's growing, devastating comprehension of his father's real nature, Nicky's sad coming of age in what is as de-sentimentalized, deglamorized but mesmerizing a portrait of the Lower East Side as you will find. It's the turf well south of Don Corleone, and Kriegel, an exceptionally gifted writer, captures it in the urgency of well-handled present tense and in dialogue that simply sounds real, not theatrical, not cinematic.

There is at last a horrendous fight in the ring, but its subtle and stinging symbolism, and the convoluted revenge it represents, seems as original and unexpected as everything else about the novel. We have been on these particular mean streets often before in film and fiction, but never with quite the same sad and unsparing clarity of vision.

Susan R. Sloan's GUILT BY ASSOCIATION (Warner Books: $22.95; 496 pp.) is another first novel, partly set in a different Manhattan, interesting and in its own aspirations ringing equally true emotionally. Sloan's protagonist, Karen Dern, had been date-raped but then also brutally beaten while she was a Cornell undergraduate. Her attacker, a Harvard law student, argued that the sex was with consent and denied the near-fatal beating. He got off; she was left with shame and hate.

Thirty years later the rapist is seriously considered to be a likely next U.S. President. Then he is accused of an identical date-rape, but in a world that has changed for both attackers and victims. Sloan gives an affecting look at Dern's turmoil over the years and proves, in her procedural way (including a very good courtroom sequence), to have been building to a splendid and ironic surprise.

"Procedural" as describing a crime genre covers a lot of ground, from Ed McBain's fictional eastern metropolis to half the towns in England. And when they are done well, police procedurals get very close to the heart of daily life.

The British writer Andrew Taylor's first novel, "Caroline Miniscule," was nominated for an Edgar and won a British award as best debut novel. His latest work, AN AIR THAT KILLS (St. Martin's: $19.95; 266 pp.) explores some goings-on in a village called Lydmouth, where workmen razing an old inn turn up a box containing the bones of a baby, a silver locket and an ancient news clipping.

Thornhill, an inspector newly assigned to the town and saddled with a classically pompous and unhelpful boss, looks into the discovery, checking with the alcoholic village historian and the local newspaperman. The chief suspect (a catalyst as much as anything), is a young ex-con being pursued for an old debt by a sleek and thoroughly nasty mobster from London. The past, of course, never stays buried and here past and present collide in ways that are intricate and not less lethal for being accidental.

Without struggling for literary effect, Taylor takes us into the dank, decaying houses and the ale-smelling pubs, acquaints us with sexy barmaids and estranged daughters, watches with a knowing eye the iffy relationship between Thornhill and his wife, strangers in a new town; and he makes us believe it all, if we will.

The Mafia surfaces again, in quite another tone but with peculiarly affecting and melancholy grace notes, in Laurence Shames' SUNBURN (Hyperion: $21.95, 279 pp.). The setting is Key West, where an aging don (Capo di Tutti Capi) has gone to live out his days in the warm quiet. He has a good son, now legitimate, and a second, brutishly dumb son, who imagines the good old bad days are still there if you just give a little shove in the right places. The don has a pal from the old days who has also come south for the sun, bringing his constipated Chihuahua (who, we are glad to report, is much improved by book's end).

The don has decided to tell all to a young reporter on a local paper. Not quite all, of course, not who did what to whom, but what it was like within cosa nostra .

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