Tuesday, March 13, 2012

14. War of the Dons by Peter Rabe

This was probably the find of last summer's trip to the Maritimes.  I still remember running my finger down the horizontally stacked (and badly organized) paperbacks in the mystery section of this rambleshack used bookstore run by an ex-ship's engineer in Lunenburg, N.S. (check the back of the Canadian dime) and seeing the Godfather-esque typeface and the name Peter Rabe.  I got all excited, but immediately tried to act cool when I saw the price was $2.  I actually was nervous when the proprietor was going through my stack of books to calculate the total price that he would say, "hey wait a minute, let me just check this on ebay..." Fortunately it didn't happen.

War of the Dons is the story of the three Guarda brothers, who are top-ranked lieutenants in mafia don Messina's southern California organized crime empire. Marco, the leader, sees Messina as weakening and wants to get him out of the way and take over.  The three brothers pretty much run everything anyways.  Then things get really complicated.  I don't mean a big mess, but just really complicated.  This book takes the idea of the outfit as a complex business organization and really runs with it. The conflict between the traditional family roots and the modern business structure of organized crime is a big theme here, anticipating the cynicism with which Stark portrays the mob (basically as the IRS with guns and equally hated).

Most of the book follows the Guardas, their sattelites and the big bosses at the top as the Guardas succesfully kill Messina but then have to try and hold on to the power in the vacuum they have created.  For the first half, I found it a cool and engaging narrative, exposing a fascinating world with lots of juicy details of personalities, locations and ways the mob works.  But I wasn't blown away, kind of feeling that maybe Rabe had mailed this one in a bit to cash in on some editor's request to cash in on the godfather craze.  But things take off in the second half and you get a taste of what makes Rabe such an interesting writer.

The book focuses here on the three brothers and their relationships, probing deeper than what we had previously seen on Marco in particular.  Pepe, the oldest, is the crazy, sexual strongarm.  Nuncio is the weaker business guy.  (I'm pretty sure there is some correlation here with the id, ego and superego but I'm too lazy to figure it out.)  Marco is the fascinating one.  He spends most of the book under incredible tension, trying to hold his increasingly-complex plans together.  He is cold and seems motivated by ambition but also a desire just to make the thing work.  But when it does all go to shit, he suddenly relaxes, desiring only to wreak havoc on his opponents just for the sake of the havoc.  He goes back and forth between this freedom from pressure to uber-tenseness several times in the book and it is this duality in his character that's the most compelling (and what the plot ultimately seems to be driving at).

It's not a perfect book.  The pacing is inconsistent, especially at the end.  I would have loved another 50 pages on what was wrapped up in one.  But I think students of Parker would do well to read this book.  I don't even know if this was one of Rabe's works that influenced Westlake, but there is a similar and maybe more complex relationship to power and authority here as there is in the Parker saga.  Good, intense stuff.


Unknown said...

Great book find and equally interesting review. Rabe was a really good writer and more complex than people give him credit for especially given that he mainly wrote crime fiction.

Glad to hear that a book from the tail end of his career was so good.

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Got a copy of this one waiting to be read, so I'm glad to hear it's a good'un. Rabe's pacing is a little odd, but that, I think, helps to make his books unpredictable. I'll be blogging about him again before too long – reviewing the essay Donald Westlake wrote about him – which was surprising to me insofar as the Rabe books Westlake really appreciated – and showing off some Rabe scores...