A comic crime caper debut novel, set in the Bronx in the late 1950s, features an engaging hero and a large cast of characters with nicknames such as “Sally Bats,” “Nicky Eyes,” and “Shmoogie.”
The story’s protagonist and narrator is known simply and aptly as “New Einstein.” He’s bright, resourceful, and likable, lives with his beloved grandmother, and is always willing to take a chance and make a buck. His only exposure to formal education was an accounting course, and he was brilliant at it. A corrupt cop—in this book, seemingly everyone is corrupt—gets him entrée to the mob at Mafioso Vinnie Ruggiero’s auto-wrecking yard. Soon he’s indispensable and gets noticed by Dom, the boss himself, who gives the young man various challenges to test his mettle and loyalty. These include moving a shipment of guns to Ireland, blackmailing a city commissioner who’s obstructing the mob’s interests, and finally, pulling off a diamond heist. During the last task, the protagonist takes it upon himself to sideline his mortal enemy, Nicolo DeMatta (the aforementioned “Nicky Eyes”), a favorite of Dom’s. Along the way, he also meets Merri Steagal, a blond Southern belle from Mississippi, and is instantly smitten, although it turns out that she’s working for Nicky. At the end, New Einstein, his grandmother, and Merri celebrate Christmas morning at Krum’s, a Bronx ice cream parlor. Overall, this book is clever, witty, and fast-moving. The caper setups are unbelievably elaborate and almost mesmerizing in their detail. One, in which the main characters set out to foil a crack squad of tax agents from Albany, is Byzantine in its complexity; author Stein is an accountant himself, and he must be a fearfully good one. In another, the comic situation is similarly elaborate and well-played, involving flatulence and other crudity. There are also some clever lines, such as “The carrot was cold, hard cash. The stick was cold, hard stick.”
The Marx Brothers meet the mob; recommended especially for readers who grew up in the Bronx.