Friday, August 16, 2019

The Book You Have to Read:
“La Donna Detroit,” by Jon A. Jackson

(Editor’s note: This is the 159th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
Retiring from the mafia is not easy—even if one survives to old age. A Detroit mob boss with the stomach-churning name of Humphrey DiEbola wants to do just that in La Donna Detroit (2000), the eighth entry in Jon A. Jackson’s Detective Sergeant “Fang” Mulheisen series. Fang himself doesn’t appear often until nearly the end of this book, but readers won’t miss him all that much—plot-wise there’s no need for his presence. La Donna Detroit is a character study and a post-mob handbook for aging torpedoes, which on the surface reads as a basic mafia back-stabbing revenge drama. Fortunately, the tale never veers towards that, nor towards a flat-footed procedural, even when Mulheisen shows up. The action here focuses on DiEbola’s plan, which will require plenty of patient scheming as he gets all his ducks in a row as nicely if they were floating past in a shooting gallery. The first and most crucial step is to find and groom someone to take over the business once he fakes his death; and DiEbola believes he has his patsy.

Helen Sedlacek is a successful, intelligent young woman with “gallons of black hair” and the scruples of a robber baron. She is without a doubt her father’s daughter, her old man being the Serbian crime boss whose murder is the MacGuffin in this book. Helen has been able to make a decent living in a man’s world without getting involved in the family business, but that soon changes. This tough little cookie is drawn into the perilous action after her father is murdered, prompting her and lover Joe Service, a freelance hit man, to deliver some street justice to the capo who ordered thar killing. Revenge is served even colder when the pair makes off with millions of dollars in mob cash—but as usual, a recovery team of thugs is hot on their trail. With unexpected results.

Seven installments of the Mulheisen series were published prior to this one, so La Donna Detroit backtracks just enough for late-arriving readers (such as me) to be clued in; for instance, the hit on Helen’s dad was made and the money taken in a previous book, allowing this one to be read as a standalone. There are, however, enough plot twists and complications here to compel readers to stay on the ball. In flashbacks, we see Service hospitalized after he and Helen take it on the lam. Helen grabs the loot while Joe is laid up, and DiEbola—who’s already next in line to be king—fills the interregnum and locates Helen. He’s not out for revenge; he just wants to talk business. Like an angel of redemption, DiEbola brings Helen back into the fold and cuts a deal.

DiEbola has known Helen all of her life. Without her, he wouldn’t have risen to capo di capo, so at the very least he owes her something for that. He’s been an uncle to her (“Unca Umby”), and Helen trusts DiEbola not to harm her. He tells Helen that he tried to dissuade the killers from making the hit on her father, and that he has big plans for her. DiEbola wants to take Helen to the head of the class, starting with her running his knock-off cigar company—maker of the premium La Donna Detroit brand—as well as other of his legitimate businesses. However, as Sedlacek is introduced to louche Detroit society—the slobs and the players—and their doings, a group of rogue government law-enforcement agents are leaning on the hospitalized Service for intel on the international drug trade. Their selling point is simple: Service is a fugitive from the law and a man wanted by the mob, with law enforcement guarding his recovery room 24/7. With no one to turn to save for this renegade group, Service is finally convinced to escape from the hospital, and is eventually talked into blowing up a jet with a drug kingpin on board—as well infiltrating the mob and killing DiEbola. However, luck, opportunity, and old-school allegiance to the criminal organization prevail, and after fleeing the rogue agents, Service makes his way back to DiEbola and Helen, who by this point is DiEbola’s right-hand woman. All the while, DiEbola has been putting together the components of his escape, and in organized crime, there’s no such thing as a clean getaway.

(Left) Author Jon A. Jackson

DiEbola hosts a poker game that ends in a massacre, during which he makes his getaway. Among the dead is one of DiEbola’s henchmen, whose corpse is DiEbola’s stand in. Service returns to the fold to aid DiEbola’s flight aboard a cabin cruiser, across Lake Michigan to Canada. This is Mulhiesen’s cue to enter the stage. He assembles the clues to the massacre at the poker table and DiEbola’s possible involvement, and he’s also able to solve a murder that happened decades in the past, one that involves an adolescent Humphrey DiEbola.

The old days of mafia honor are disappearing, and the machinations of La Donna Detroit show the new ways taking hold. Classic thugs and enforcers are out, along with blackjacks and cement overcoats; gangsters with MBAs are rushing to fill the void. Author Jackson delivers the story of this nefarious evolution with humor and insight and a curiosity that should lead newcomers to search out other entries in his series, which began with 1977’s The Diehard.

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