It’s been four years since Charlie Stella—the Godfather of Italian Mob Fiction™--produced a new book. (Last year’s Dogfella was non-fiction.) His time away from the game has not dulled Stella’s talents. Tommy Red might be his best yet.
Tommy Dalton fell into the life of a hit man. He never had a chance to be a made man—Irish, you know?—which he always figured was good for him. He has little respect for the mob way of life and is content to make a living on its periphery. He worries about becoming too closely involved when his friend Doc Adamo asks him to do a hit on a protected witness someone has stumbled across in New Hampshire, but the money is too good and Tommy has a daughter ready to go to veterinary school.
The last bit there shows why Stella owns his niche in the mob fiction canon. The bosses are secondary players, and not too bright at that. It’s the wanna-bes and hangers-on and associates who do piecework who run Stella’s books, and they’re the far more interesting people. Not the kid who dreams of growing up and becoming John Gotti, but the guy with a house payment who maybe can’t get a better job because of a fall he took years ago. It’s an approach perfected by the late George V. Higgins and no one carries the torch better than Stella.
Speaking of Higgins—to whom I throw positive comparisons around as if they were manhole covers—Tommy Red is the book that shows the master’s greatest influence on Stella. Not afraid to allow action to take place offstage, he trusts his reader to put the pieces together from half a dozen points of view. What one party thinks he knows may not be what another party knows he knows, yet everyone acts in their own interests with whatever information they have, accurate or not. No one writes better dialog, nor allows it to carry the story more than Stella, nor pulls it off better. Tommy Red could deteriorate into a series of scenes of guys bullshitting, but every sentence is an insight into a character’s mind, and one never knows when a prime plot point will emerge from a discussion about the merits of hockey versus football.
There are no “men of honor” in Stella’s world. What honor there is comes from the individuals and their own concepts of loyalty to friends and family. Tommy Dalton is willing to die to help his family, but not to preserve someone else’s criminal version. How he responds, and how the other mobsters, cops, and feds react, makes Tommy Red a riveting tale told in an engaging manner. You know, just as you’d expect from Charlie Stella.