A novel of mobsters, madams, and manipulative lawyers in 1930s New York.
Greaves, who when using “Chuck” as his byline specializes in hard-boiled legal thrillers set in Southern California, publishes under his statelier moniker this fact-based, multilayered historical novel about the 1936 trial of Salvatore Lucania, aka Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the most powerful crime boss in America, who was charged with, and later convicted on, 62 counts of compulsory prostitution. The aforementioned layers are separate narratives, each with a distinctive tone and point of view, which are woven together to show how the destinies of four very different, driven people converged at that trial and were, to varying degrees, transformed by it. Chief among them is “Charlie Lucky” himself, who achieves his reputation—and his nickname—through a potent combination of hooded-eyed menace, coldblooded pragmatism, and an implacable aptitude for survival. Such gifts enable Luciano to outlast and outwit any and all challengers to his unofficial title of “boss of bosses” until he meets his most formidable (and unlikely) foe: Thomas E. Dewey, the young, prim, baritone-voiced special prosecutor, whose ruthless pursuit of Luciano’s conviction, if successful, could propel him to the governor’s mansion—and, quite possibly, beyond. Opposing Dewey is Luciano’s lawyer, George Morton Levy, an astute Long Island litigator whose meticulousness in preparation is often countered by a gambler’s attraction to the big risk. (“I never seem to know when to quit while I’m ahead,” he confesses to a colleague after a rare loss.) Last and certainly not least is one of the prosecution’s star witnesses: Cokey Flo Brown, a heroin addict and recidivist prostitute, who, despite showing the physical and emotional effects of a rough-and-tumble life, “is brassy and shrewd, with a wharf rat’s instinct for self-preservation.” Hers is the testimony that turns the tide against Luciano to the point where Levy reluctantly lets his client testify on his own behalf, “with foreseeably disastrous results”
Greaves’ impressive research illuminates many aspects of this long-ago legal spectacular. Yet he achieves his most telling effects with his imaginative renderings of the eponymous quartet—especially Lucky and Cokey Flo, though you wish there were some more of George.