(Disclaimer: Charlie Stella is a good friend. Not just in the sense of liking him a lot, but in the sense of being a good friend to have, a man who takes his friendship responsibilities seriously and conscientiously. On the other hand, I was a fan of his writing before I ever met him, so, you know, not for nothing…)
Charlie Stella is the generally acknowledged master of mob fiction. He has examined that life from many different angles, and will revisit it again when his new novel, Rough Riders, drops in July. Mafiya released in 2008; sometimes it takes me a while to get around to things.
Mafiya may be the best of Stella’s seven novels, along with 2010’s Johnny Porno. (I’ve yet to read Cheapskates or Jimmy Bench-Press.) This is a good sign, as those are the two most recent, which shows he started out well and keeps getting better. (Even more reason to check out Rough Riders.)
Agnes Lynn is a former hooker, working as a word processor for law firms. She’s trying to overcome her issues with men, starting a fledgling relationship with Jack Russo, a former new York cop working as a private investigator. The book hits the ground running when Agnes’s best friend—Rachel, who is still a hooker—goes missing and Agnes doesn’t know who to trust as she tries to find her.
Stella’s writing owes a lot to the late George V. Higgins. His characterizations are done largely through dialog, and he has the confidence to allow important pieces of the story to take place off-stage, letting the reader catch up as the characters find out about it. The dialog is crisp--real people talking—and never falls victim to being too clever. The humor grows organically from the characters and situation.
As always, Stella provides a rich and varied character list. Agnes is a strong lead, though her issues make her a little hard to cuddle up to. Russo is as matter-of-fact about things as a cop would and should be, knowing what’s important to worry about, but not worrying about them to the point of inaction. The cops are distinctly drawn, as are the Russian and Italian mobsters. Standing out among them are two Russians: Viktor Timkin, head of the local Russian mob; and Vanya Koloff, another Russian expatriot who runs the NYPD’s Russian OC unit.
The book is more than just an action-packed thriller. Stella looks at the ruthlessness of the Russian criminals,and examines how much law enforcement can do with the available tools. Vanya is a fascinating character, deserving of a book all his own. (Hint, hint.) Some will question his methods, as well they should. How many of the stories about him are true is left open to some conjecture, which he encourages. He gets a lot of work done by allowing his reputation to precede him.
Stella does occasionally work a little overtime to make his endings come out happy; here he requires the reader to be content with a bittersweet and somewhat ambiguous conclusion. Get over it. Mafiya rocks from start to finish. If we’re lucky, he’ll let us take another look at some of these folks to see where they ended up.