A historical crime novel tells the story of a Mafia hit man with divided loyalties.
After the death of his father and mother, 8-year-old Frank Morris—who up to this point had lived in a tenement on the Lower East Side—is adopted by Mafia don Joseph Cabineri. Three decades later, in 1962, Frank is serving a 14-year sentence for burglary in Alcatraz. Scott Easten lives with his mother, a nurse at the nearby Presidio Army base, and accompanies her during a three-day assignment at the prison. When Frank happens to meet the boy through the prison fence, he sees the dog tags around Scott’s neck: those of his dead father, Roy Easten. Unknown to Scott, Roy is the man who saved Frank’s life during the Korean War by selflessly leaping on a grenade. “He knew this question would haunt him for the rest of his life or at least until God revealed the answer,” Frank thought at the time. “Was I saved for a reason? Or was it just chance, pure chance, an event without meaning?” Frank soon escapes from Alcatraz and resurfaces in New York, where—after cosmetic surgery to alter his appearance—he becomes a “ghost hit man” whose very existence is known only to a few. By that time, Scott has grown to manhood and been named assistant district attorney of New York. Part of his job is to rein in the city’s organized crime families, including the one that Frank serves. When push comes to shove, will Frank stay loyal to the system that raised him or pay back the sacrifice of the man who saved his life?
Gratsias’ (Rootless Roots, 2016, etc.) prose is simple and direct, communicating his images with efficiency: “His now-long, dyed hair protruded from under a black New York Yankees baseball cap. Not even his best friends from the old neighborhood would recognize him. Fifteen years had passed since his metamorphosis, and aging only added to the plastic surgeon’s handicraft.” But the author displays a perplexing lack of imagination when it comes to names. There are five characters named Sam and three others called either Simpson or Simson. While Gratsias’ inclusion of the 1962 Alcatraz escape (which really did feature a man named Frank Morris) is an impressive narrative trick, it feels somewhat irrelevant to the main story of the protagonist’s dilemma. Much time is wasted in the first half of the book, both on Alcatraz and on the character of Scott, who never quite feels fully formed. While the author manages some surprising turns over the course of the book, none of them feel terribly meaningful, and his attempts to sell readers on the nobility of the Mafia and Frank in general feel romantic and disingenuous. When the great concluding moment comes, readers will have trouble feeling much at all.
A mob tale that occasionally entertains but never satisfies.