Friday, June 19, 2020

The Book You Have to Read:
“Tender Is Levine,” by Andrew Bergman

(Editor’s note: This is the 163rd installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
Author Andrew Bergman exhibits real chutzpah when he combines kitsch, high art, and the mob in Tender Is LeVine, his third—and as far as one can tell, final—Jack LeVine mystery. Divorced, alone, and drinking too much, New York City private eye LeVine is a “depressed dick” in desperate need of a psychic kick in the pants. Luckily for him, he’s jolted from the middle-aged blues when violin player Fritz Stern asks for Jack’s assistance, making the summer of 1950 the most interesting one in his life.

Stern is a tentative, self-effacing, German immigrant who possesses “the nervous attentiveness of a refuge who had never stopped escaping.” His manner doesn’t give LeVine much confidence in his story, and it’s a whopper: Stern and several others in the world-famous NBC (Radio) Symphony Orchestra believe their maestro, octogenarian Arturo Toscanini, has been kidnapped and replaced with a look-alike. This might be too preposterous for anyone to swallow, especially since Toscanini is one of the most recognizable men in the world. However Jack needs to get his act together and start making some money, so he takes the case.

LeVine’s initial stop is at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (aka Radio City), the home of NBC, to pay a visit to Sidney Aaron, the executive who oversees the orchestra. Aaron looks like he “had made it on his own, leaving numerous casualties in his wake,” and he’s the first of many barriers LeVine will face in his quest. Aaron pooh-poohs the notion of Toscanini’s snatching; however LeVine, ever the skeptic, just has to ask: “If you’re so positive this claim is bullshit, why did you want to see me?” Aaron fast-talks around that point, but LeVine knows a lie when he hears one. So the next morning, he and Stern try to drop in on the Maestro at his Westchester home, only to be put off by a couple of torpedoes. When Jack spots those two guards tailing them back to Manhattan, he’s convinced something is actually amiss.

His suspicions are fatally confirmed when Fritz Stern is murdered on a deserted west side dock later that same day. Aaron then finally tells Jack that Toscanini has been grabbed, and he hires Jack to look into the matter, showing him a ransom note written on stationary from a mob-owned hotel in Havana. When Jack flies down to Cuba to investigate further, this tale becomes interesting, developing a convergence between its plot and the theme of old-school criminals who, to survive, must adapt to a fast-changing crime-scape, involving the rising gambling town of Las Vegas.

Tender Is LeVine is long on action and plot twists, but as with Bergman’s first two LeVine novels—The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 (1974) and Hollywood and LeVine (1975)—it’s also a nostalgic appreciation of a place that no longer exists, post-World War II New York City, and is therefore a lamentation on the passage of time; yet this story is more so, because the cultural changes are not only evident but imminent—and deadly. In Havana, notorious American mobster Meyer Lansky allows the P.I. to connect some of the dots he’s encountered. The NBC Symphony, LeVine learns, is a money-losing organization, and in 1950, television is beginning to overtake radio as the premier in-home source of entertainment. NBC wants to jettison Toscanini and, to add a little class to Las Vegas, it hopes to relocate the NBC Symphony to a hotel that Lanksy, his criminal associate Lucky Luciano, and executive Aaron are planning to build in Nevada. Toscanini would never go for such an idea. Hence, the plastic-surgery-altered stand-in. The bonus from this scheme is a quick fortune the ransom demand would provide to all of those involved.

As LeVine talks with Lansky, he’s astounded to find violinist Stern’s college-age daughter, Barbara, approaching their table. LeVine had already met Barbara in New York, and she’s as intelligent and calculating as she is comely. (“She had thick black hair, brown, almond-shaped eyes, a beautifully sculpted nose, and a mouth you couldn’t look at for long without becoming thoroughly ashamed of yourself.”) Barbara admits that at a tender age, she’d been the elder Lansky’s lover. It was a time in her precocious youth which she calls a “totally fascinating episode.” Their affair, though, is long over, and she and LeVine embark on a tryst that very night. But they’ve hardly pulled down the bedsheets, when LeVine is extracted from the hotel with help from a blackjack. He awakens aboard a yacht bound for Miami, Florida, and discovers his fellow passenger is the real Toscanini, who believes the FBI is protecting him from Italian fascist gunmen. From that point onward, things move very quickly and in much better focus, beginning with the next stop: Vegas.

(Right) Author Andrew Bergman

There, LeVine manages to escape his captors, and—disguised in a hideous toupee—commences to snoop. He realizes how deep in trouble he is when he sees Lucky Luciano gambling in a casino. The putatively persona non grata mobster, and Lansky’s wingman—deported to Italy back in 1946—is in the country illegally, and without a doubt is conniving with both Lansky and NBC’s Aaron. After Barbara shows up in Sin City herself, she and LeVine grab Toscanini and then negotiate a cross-country obstacle course to get the genuine Maestro back to New York, and safety.

Released in 2001, this third installment in the LeVine series was a definite late-comer, arriving in bookstores 26 years after the publication of Hollywood and Levine. No doubt that delay was due to Bergman’s intense work schedule as a Hollywood screenwriter and director. His film credits include Blazing Saddles, The Freshman, and Honeymoon in Vegas.

Whether the now 75-year-old Bergman will ever offer up a fourth LeVine yarn is anybody’s guess. Perhaps he’s sequestered Jack in some literary Witness Protection Program until it’s safe for him to emerge once more. After all, in Tender Is LeVine, that Jewish gumshoe managed to foil the grand plans of the most powerful criminals in the world and, at the end of the book, reached an unspoken and undefined détente with them. But isn’t two decades of his silence long enough? With the world as crazy as it is these days, it would seem an excellent time for Bergman to bring Jack LeVine out of the shadows and back onto the gritty streets of Gotham.

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