Written by Charlie Stella — It is nearly four years since Rough Riders, a fictionalisation of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger‘s story, topped my end of year list. A lot has happened in the crime fiction field since then, most notably the genre-devouring Gone Girl and the whole phenomenon that is domestic noir. But Stella’s brand, that of hard-bitten criminals doing bad things to each other, remains timeless.
If only time would stand still for Stella’s characters. Tommy Red might be about a lot of things – a father’s love for his daughter amongst them – but mostly it looks at how change is inevitable. Adapt or die. The RICO racketeering laws changed everything in organised crime in America, and Stella paints a picture of a sclerotic criminal organisation, run by dinosaurs who only know the old ways, and who are always one step behind where they need to be.
Hitman Tommy Dalton, otherwise known as Tommy Red because of all of the blood on his hands, is devoted to two people. One is James Doc Adamo, his elderly friend from New Jersey who acts as his broker in negotiating the hits he earns his living doing. The second is his daughter, Alysha, who is just about to go off to veterinary college. When we first meet Dalton, he is frantically trying to repair the damage done by his ex-wife when she told Alysha what her father does for a living. While Dalton is desperately spinning a web of lies to protect his relationship with Alysha, at the same time he is making plans for his latest hit. It’s a clever scene from Stella, showing us Dalton’s duality, and a reminder that for all the entertainment in his novels, Stella remains a serious writer.
Meanwhile, the mob has problems of its own. A trusted lieutenant, Dominick Farase, is in witness protection after ratting out the Cirelli family. A retired homicide detective, Quinlan King, has recognised him living on a small island off the East Coast, and betrays him to the head of the family. A hit is arranged in a hurry and Dalton is the man asked to do it. Gasper Cirelli wants all loose ends tied off and once Farase is killed, Dalton and Adamo will be next. Farase proves to be an easy enough job for Dalton, and he has little difficulty overcoming the men waiting to kill him back on the mainland, but Adamo is seriously injured in the attempt on his life back in the city.
Dalton’s loyalty to Adamo, as well as his concern for his daughter, forces him back to New Jersey. He has his own code which is as anachronistic the mob’s – if you double-cross him or hurt somebody who he loves, Dalton will have to get revenge. It is a code he’s unable to give up, even as he realises that it will cost him his relationship with Alysha. The mob starts to unravel as Dalton closes in on the mob from one angle, and the FBI from another, including an embittered senior agent sick of seeing criminals walk free after they strike a deal for informing on their bosses. Increasingly desperate bosses become evermore paranoid that their soldiers are going to strike deals and order more hits, and as the body count rises inevitably the mob soldiers start wondering who will be next, and looking for a way out.
Tommy Red builds to an explosive climax that should satisfy readers looking for action, while at the same time offering complex characterisation and thematic complexity that is beyond the reach of most crime novels.
Stark House Press
CFL Rating: 5 Stars