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My father—who was actually my stepfather, if you want to get technical—was named Vincent Russo. He was sixty then, but he moved around like someone twenty years younger. His muscles weren’t the kind you got from lifting weights, but from ripping open shipping containers with your bare hands. His face was a record of every beating he’d ever caught in a police station or a prison yard without breaking down and giving someone up. When he smiled, he showed rows of broken, snaggled teeth on the top and bottom. He was the most loyal man I’d ever met. If he liked you, he’d take a nail through the heart for you. If he didn’t, he’d never rest until he got you around the neck with chicken wire.

A little over a year ago, I went out of my way to read some newer Hard Case Crimes—novels that have been written within my lifetime—to see what the other end of the crime spectrum is like. Those books would be Gun Work, Fake I.D., Robbie’s Wife, and Casino Moon. Overall, I was pleased to find they were better than many of the old-school ’50s and ’60s novels, a great selection of new talent. Talent like Peter Blauner, who won the Edgar Award for his first novel, and followed it up with Casino Moon. It’s taken me a while to finish writing this review; I saved the best one for last, and I hope it’s been worth it.

HCC 055 – 2009 – Ricky Mujica. Rosemary and boxer Elijah Barton in the ring, while Anthony Russo watches on.

The last thing Anthony Russo wants to be is yet another Mob hood, especially in the dying backwater of Atlantic City. But his Sicilian blood has bound him to that life: his father Vin is a Mob enforcer, right-hand man to Teddy, the Mafia man in charge of the town. But he’s come up with a plan. To escape his life of crime, he’s backing Elijah Barton, a washed-up boxer on his comeback bid, and putting all he has on Barton’s victory. That comeback bid relies on Rosemary, a tired waitress turned round card girl, the boxer’s ex—and Tony’s new love interest.

But Anthony’s life is shaping up to torment him further, restraining his escape at every turn. Teddy wants to get in on this boxing action to raise his standing with the Mafia, and make some money from the town for a change, so he has Vin worming his way into Anthony’s heart. And Anthony’s failing marriage—to Teddy’s daughter—is getting complicated because of his fling with Rosemary… who’s got a family to support, and won’t let failure—or double-crosses—get in her way.

Blauner’s writing is almost literary: a compelling prose that has its moments of humor, and strikes with clarity. The pacing never once wavers or slows, keeping up the assault over the course of its rather long length. Even better, the dialogue is sharp enough to give me papercuts, rich and convincing. That dialogue and stylistic approach to the dark, gritty side of life come with a firm grasp and strong integrity; this isn’t the glamorous Mafia life you’ve seen in films. This branch of the Mob, along with the Atlantic City setting, is burnt out and beyond repair, a rats’-nest warren of dilapidated infrastructure. Anthony’s attempt to escape this rotting life of crime echoes down abandoned hallways and dead-end streets, metaphorically and in its prose:

But pride and ambition were no match for seven hundred years of tradition and the lessons Vin had drummed into me. If you’re brought up a certain way, you can spend your whole life denying it, but eventually some part of it’s going to come out. All the houses seemed low, gray, and falling apart. No matter how much I’d struggled and hustled, it seemed I hadn’t really gone anywhere.

But Blauner’s biggest strengths are his characters—his ability to develop them into real, fleshed-out characters; his prowess at making you sympathetic to their many trials and tribulations. These flawed lumps of human clay have their own goals and motivations, their own voice in the greater narrative, and their own miseries which continually bring them down. The novel leers toward the melodramatic in its portrayal of human suffering, with layer upon layer of guilt and scheming and failed dreams compacted into three-hundred and thirty pages. But I found it endearing because of that: crime fiction is seldom a cheery genre, and it’s rare to see such well-formed characters as these.

Anthony isn’t the one carrying the book, but he is the one moving it forward. He may be the character getting all the ducks in a row, preparing for his great escape, but he’s not the one who creates the action or the tension—he’s more of an observer, going through the motions as other people make the play. Rosemary and the boxer Barton are one half of the equation, Vin and Teddy and the mob angle are the other half, leaving Anthony the linchpin. He’s something of an anti-hero, but even then, he’s not the one creating the action, and is more the point where the tension and scheming focuses.

There’s also a near Shakespearean quality to Tony; given the novel’s style, it’s not unrealistic to call it a Shakespearean tragedy. The issue of his blood-father’s murder crops up, along with a grungy and soiled private eye re-opening the cold case. His miserable marriage—a product of his high-school days as a hired hood, pressed on him by Vin and Teddy—is about to implode. Tony is full of complexities—well, all the characters are, and it’s their complex relationships that bring the novel together.

Simon & Schuster – 1994 – cover artist unknown. Note the heavy noir influence on the cover, displaying Atlantic City in all its seedy glory.

The best description I have for Casino Moon is literary noir, and a damn good one at that. Blauner was firing on all cylinders right out the gate, making Casino Moon a delightful read. Also a bitter one, with its portrayal of the pathetic seedy underbelly of a decaying Atlantic City. It’s a novel rich in characters, in prose, and in plot, a corrupt and decaying American Dream that excels on every page. An excellent book, and my favorite Hard Case Crime yet. Do yourself a favor and look into this one; it’s a one-hit knockout from an underrated writer with brilliant capabilities. Blauner jumped onto my to-buy list with a vengeance, and I have another of his novels lined up on my TBR pile, something I’ll get to this summer (knock on wood).