Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Pierce’s Picks: “The Confessions of Al Capone”

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

The Confessions of Al Capone, by Loren D. Estleman (Forge):
One can’t help but admire Loren D. Estleman’s authorial versatility. For the last 33 years--beginning with 1980’s Motor City Blue--he’s been writing up the adventures of unreconstructed Detroit gumshoe Amos Walker (last seen in Burning Midnight). But the now 60-year-old writer has also turned out smaller successions of books about hit man Peter Macklin, Old West marshal Page Murdock, and “film detective” Valentino (Alive!), and he’s concocted historical novels around real-life figures such as “hanging judges” Isaac Parker (The Branch and the Scaffold) and Roy Bean (Roy & Lillie: A Love Story). The Confessions of Al Capone adds to this last category of his storytelling.

Set in 1944, this new yarn introduces Peter Vasco, an FBI “drone” who’s typically “assigned to proofread non-classified instructions to Special Agents in Charge and the odd innocuous press release for errors of spelling and grammar.” One day, though, Vasco is summoned to Director J. Edgar Hoover’s office. He fears that Hoover is going to dismiss him for some incidental slip-up; instead, the director wants young Vasco--posing as a Catholic priest--to infiltrate the guarded inner circle around mob boss Al Capone, who has recently been released after a seven-year prison stint (part of it spent at Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay) brought on by his 1931 conviction on federal charges of tax evasion. Capone has returned to his estate in Palm Beach, Florida; however, he’s suffering from syphilis, only irregularly lucid, and prone to spontaneous rants. It’s up to Vasco to gain the declining gangster’s trust and elicit from him as much information as he can about Capone’s confederates before “Scarface” kicks the bucket (which he will do in 1947 at age 48).

Running more than 400 pages in length, this is a big book for Estleman, and one that displays his narrative-writing skills and comprehension of U.S. criminal history most effectively. Its chapters shift back and forth between third-person action and the first-person recollections of Capone himself. Along the way, Estleman provides readers with sharp portrayals of the mobster’s underappreciated wife, Mae, top Capone henchman Frank Nitti, and other members of the so-called Chicago Outfit. One gets the impression that Estleman invested more than mere time in this novel, that he had a genuine connection with the era and people about which he writes. As he told an interviewer recently, his biggest challenge was in capturing Capone’s voice. That, he said, “was the very kernel of the idea of what I wanted to do. ... [Capone] had a fascinating cadence of speech. He loved to tell a story; he loved to talk about himself; he loved publicity. ... I wanted that version of Capone to come through.” It’s only one critic’s opinion, of course, but from what I’ve read of this book so far, I think he succeeded in that task, and more.

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Also new and worth tracking down is The Rules of Wolfe (Mysterious Press), by James Carlos Blake. It rolls out the increasingly tense tale of Eddie Gato Wolfe, a too-impulsive member of a Texas gun-running family, who signs on to work security for a Sonoran drug cartel--only to fall hard for a cinnamon-skinned beauty he should never have touched, and with whom he soon flees, pursued by a pack of killers. A great chase thriller. ... And Brits should look for The Resistance Man (Quercus UK), the sixth entry in Martin Walker’s heralded series about small-town French police chief Bruno Courrèges. Here we find the food-and-wine-loving Bruno investigating a cache of old bank notes and dealing with burglaries, one of which concludes in murder.

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