Portrait of a city by an old master.
Police Chief Francis X. Russell has made his big, complex, oil refinery-dominated city among the most livable in the United States, according to some. He’s also made a pact with the Devil, according to others. Newspaper publisher Joe Cicero puts the case this way: “Just because the trains run on time is no excuse to leave the crooks in charge.” The crooks, in this case, are the Mafia, embodied locally by opera-loving Anthony Zeno, whose exterior only partially conceals the mind-set of an unregenerate killer. In cozy cahoots, the cop and the thug have long since arrived at an entente: Russell keeps his minions away from Gas City’s seamy, steamy underbelly, aka the Circle, and in return he gets the rest of Gas City as a no-crooks zone, where wives, daughters and private property have been rendered sacrosanct. Moral codes aside, it’s an obvious win-win situation. The bad guys roll in money; respectable Gas City breathes crime-free air. From time to time, it’s true, there will be a bit of editorial fuming, but who takes newspapers seriously anymore? And then suddenly Russell’s beloved spouse dies, leaving him bereft and rudderless—until, in some quite mysterious way, an epiphany happens. Russell becomes not only a changed man, but, to the dismay of certain entrenched interests—in and out of the Circle—a no-holds-barred reformer. Reprisals follow raids, of course, and respectable Gas City, its Edenic period a thing of the past, learns the hard way that honest government comes with a price tag.
The chronically undervalued Estleman (The American Detective, 2007, etc.) serves up what just might be the best novel about urban political corruption since Dashiel Hammett’s The Glass Key.