A tale of crime and punishment - Peter Blauner's Casino Moon (1994).
Casino Moon was originally published in 1994 and then picked up by Hard Case Crime in 2009. It is feels surprisingly epic for a Hard Case Crime selection, and, indeed, Casino Moon starts out like some sort of Tolkienian (or Martinesque) adventure. Our hero, Anthony Russo, is the prodigal son. His adopted father, Vin, is a sort of mid-level Mafia hood. Russo wants to go his own way. He sees the corruption and the grinding servitude of the mob life and he desires something better. Russo's ambitions are also overshadowed by memories of his real dad. Like any good fantasy novel, his true lineage is royalty. Michael Dillon was the prince of mobsters - a man with sharp suits, big dreams and, ultimately, a bullet in the face.
Swap bullet for sword and mob for throne and this really is the set-up of a fantasy doorstop. But that greatly oversimplifies the character of Anthony Russo. It rapidly becomes clear that Russo isn't disgusted with the mob life out of some moral principle. Russo crusades under one banner: Anthony Russo. He's crushed by debt to his kingpin uncle-in-law, his contracting business is rubbish, his wife and children are a stifling, unappreciative mess... Russo just wants out. He identifies with the "legitimate" casino tycoons of Atlantic City who saw their chances, took them, and now get to wear sharp suits and have great hair.
Russo's chance comes with Elijah Barton - an over-the-hill heavyweight boxer. Barton is savvy, angry ex-champion with the desperate need to prove himself one final time. Russo sees Barton's last chance as his own first step. Borrowing more money and throwing himself into the conniving world of boxing (and Russo thought the mob was dirty), he commits himself wholly to getting Barton the big fight. (And making himself rich out of it.)
Although Russo's ambition is strangely admirable, his methods are not. And the depths to which he'll sink in order to succeed soon have the reader questioning his motives as well. Is everyone around Russo really that awful? Is he really that trapped? Mr. Blauner further muddies the waters by populating the book with an admirable cast of dubious characters. Elijah Barton is perhaps the most straightforward, if only because he's distilled his entire life's ambition into a single physical, visceral goal. His success and failure rests wholly in his own (massive) hands - something that earns Russo's grudging admiration. But Russo's supposedly-stifling family - his step-father, Vin, and his uncle by marriage, Teddy - they're not purely malevolent figures in ill-fitting suits. They're murderous mobsters, sure, but they're also tough old men with their own health problems, financial struggles and growing insecurities. The author scatters the book with scenes that don't involve Russo at all, showing the reader that Vin and Teddy aren't the Machiavellian harpies that our protagonist thinks.
There's something of Hamlet in the family relationship, exacerbated when tales of Russo's (blood) father's murder suddenly resurface. Russo is utterly self-obsessed and blind to the consequences of his actions. Teddy and Vin are a generation away, starting to confess and regret their own immature actions, gradually learning to prioritise family over ambition. And Russo's poor wife, Carla, is the Ophelia of Atlantic City - adored by her uncle Teddy, abandoned by the relentlessly self-absorbed Russo.
I've always loved the Arthur Hailey school of institutional snuff porn - fiction that delves into the microscopic detail of a organisation and then shows what happens when it collapses under extreme circumstances. Casino Moon has the feel of the final chapters of a Hailey novel - the dying days of the Atlantic City mob with a bit of boxing sprinkled in for verisimilitude. But Hailey's books were about isolated people, interconnected by an impersonal system. Mr. Blauner's is the reverse - positing that people are invariably, inescapably connected to one another, no matter where they are or what they do. It makes for a tough book, as the protagonist's primary goal - escape - is immediately recognisable as unachievable. Russo will never be free of his past and his family, and the more he struggles to escape them, the tighter his binds become.
The requisite cover note. The 1994 edition, from Simon & Schuster, is pretty foxy. The silhouette of the Atlantic City landscape emphasises the book's sprawling scale, vaguely reminiscent of a James Ellroy cover (which isn't a bad idea - Ellroy readers would love this book). That said, Casino Moon does have a strong pulp heritage. As epic as it is, this is a character focused noir drama that doesn't shy away from contrivance in order to drive its message home. The Ricky Mujica cover for Hard Case Crime brings in this note with the bloodied boxer and the scantily clad girl. It is also thematically appropriate - Anthony Russo is on the cover, but only as a peripheral figure, the man outside the ring, watching two other people with his fate in his hands. Russo would be extremely unhappy at the notion that he's a secondary character on his own cover, but it makes for a daring piece of illustration.
(A sample chapter of Casino Moon is available for free from the publisher).
By Jared (@pornokitsch), who tried boxing for all of one summer yet still talks like he knocked out Mike Tyson.