Written by Michael Mayo — New author Michael Mayo is an experienced film journalist who has worked in both print and on the radio. Jimmy The Stick, though, represents his first novel and so perhaps it’s only natural the author chose to set his work in prohibition-era America – it’s one we’re familiar to people thanks to the movies.
Jimmy ‘the stick’ Quinn grew up as a petty criminal on the streets of New York, and his bravery, nerve and cunning enabled him to rise quickly through the criminal ranks from message boy to bagman and then gunman. Being shot, and the murder of his boss Arnold Rothstein, ended that career, and whilst he’s still not strictly legit, his life is much quieter. He runs a respectable speakeasy which he himself describes as the kind of place a woman can go to for a drink on her own. He’s happy with his lot, particularly when he’s sleeping with one of his waitresses.
Two things come along to spoil this. First, he’s viciously worked over by a cop – a detective from a different precinct. This kind of thing isn’t supposed to happy to Jimmy, who keeps things respectable and is always on time with his pay-offs. The detective gives no reason for the beating, and Jimmy is left to find out why it happened.
Secondly, his old friend and partner Walter Spencer makes a request. Walter has married into wealth and respectability and as far as Jimmy knows has left the bad life behind. Living in rural New Jersey and running the family petroleum company, Spence has to go away on business, but his young bride is convinced their baby son is going to be kidnapped, just like the Lindenbergh baby. What’s supposed to be an easy week body-guarding turns out to be anything but. Jimmy is joined at the Pennywright mansion by vicious gangsters, hangsers-on, suspicious local police, and the mysterious doctor from a nearby asylum. As rooms are vandalised, strangers are glimpsed in the estate at night, and a drunken family friend is found naked and crucified on a tree, the mystery deepens over just why Spence is so keen to have Jimmy around.
The narrative is interspersed with chapters describing Jimmy’s childhood and how his criminal career began and developed. We also learn more about Spense and their relationship. Make no bones about it, Jimmy is a hard-bitten killer who has no qualms about getting the job done, but these chapters help to round out his character and allowed me to empathise with him. Indeed he’s not without charm. It’s a tough balancing act for Mayo. If he writes Jimmy too hard, we won’t care about him; too soft and we won’t believe him. Mayo gets it just right.
Elsewhere I was reminded of Hammett by the hardboiled jargon, and there are shades of Chandler in the Pennywright family. Their veneer of wealth and sophistication is stripped away to reveal the lies, secrets and rot underneath. Absolutely marvellous stuff.
The research here seems meticulous. The whole setting seems convincing, no doubt helped by the inclusion of real life gangsters, including Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, and real life scams such as the fixing of the World Series.
I have lived with this book for over a month, and I really don’t think it has any faults. Part hard-boiled thriller, part country house mystery, as a novel it’s great, as a debut it’s stunning.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars