January 18, 2008
Loren D. Estleman's
knife-edged serial-killer thriller, Gas City is pared to its
very bone. As a murderer's spree continues, the tensions simmering
in a quiet oil-company town boil to the surface. Suddenly a powerful
mafioso, a corrupt police chief, and the reporters covering the
story find themselves pitted against one another in ways they
never could have imagined. Estleman, in the leanest prose possible,
brings to life not just his characters but the vices that fuel
them and, in the process, exposes the gritty, ragged, sordid
underbelly of urban life. He's been called an heir to Chandler
and it's easy to see why.
NEW YORK TIMES BOOK
by Marilyn Stasio
Review date: January
Shades of the Muckrakers
The shades of Frank
Norris and Upton Sinclair must have been looking over Loren D.
Estlemans shoulder when he wrote GAS CITY (Forge, $24.95).
Set in a Midwestern metropolis that grew up around a refinery,
his muscular novel initially takes a long view of the cynical
bargain struck between civic leaders and organized crime
and only moves in for the kill when a key figure in this devils
dance decides to reform. Like earlier muckraking writers, Estleman
is always looking for the tipping point where our frontier values
of independent entrepreneurship and community justice tumble
into criminality. And his characters never stop asking whether
its possible to go back and get it right.
Everyone in Gas City seems to be in on the deal that keeps crime
and vice confined to 10 downtown blocks, well away from the commercial
and residential districts. Francis X. Russell, the corrupt chief
of police, is actually best friends with the mob boss Tony Z.
But when Russells beloved wife dies, he goes into mourning
for the lost ideals of the generations of immigrants who built
his working-class city and resolves to make peace with his conscience.
Police raids close down the most notorious criminal establishments.
Illicit income dries up for gangsters and cops on the take. Fortunes
shift in the coming mayoral race.
But once the delicate power-sharing mechanism held by Gas Citys
legal and illegal bosses breaks down, so does municipal order.
At this point, Estleman has to ask whether one crooked cops
personal reformation is worth the chaos it causes. Its
a loaded question, since the author has made individual (and
perhaps national) redemption his central theme, even to the whimsical
point of extending it to a serial killer known as Beaver Cleaver,
who has shifted his pattern of butchery. (My theory,
a criminal profiler says, is hes trying to cut down,
like a smoker or an alcoholic tapering off his intake until hes
beaten the addiction.) While this parallel plot isnt
entirely integrated into the main story, it lets more raffish
downtown characters into the mix, adding their irreverent voices
to the higher debate over how much it profits a man to build
a shining city and lose his faith in himself.
January 1, 2008
Francis X. Russell is Gas City's chief of police. For many years,
he has maintained a gentleman's agreement with the local Mob
boss, Anthony Zeno. The drugs, the illegal gambling, and the
hookers stay within a small, clearly defined area of the city.
In return, Russell receives financial consideration, and the
city at large remains relatively crime free. When Russell's wife
of 30-plus years succumbs to cancer, the chief has a crisis of
conscience and begins raids into the restricted area. The repercussions
are significant with a mayoral race approaching. Political alliances
are altered, Zeno loses the endorsement of the out-of town
crime hierarchy to which he reports, Mob-controlled unions threaten
strikes, and even the city's powerful Catholic church is knocked
off balance. Mix in a serial killer dubbed "Beaver Cleaver"
by the media and a doomed love affair between a disgraced cop
and a hooker for what may be the prolific
Estleman's most thought-provoking and emotionally engaging novel
among the 60 or so he's written. Its subject is contemporary
rust-belt politics as a human phenomenon and the way that a politician's
compromises can affect both the citizenry at large and the individuals
who make up that citizenry. Each of
the half-dozen plotlines is executed flawlessly and presented
in a context of moral ambiguity in which every choicewhether
self-serving or altruistichas consequences both good and
evil. A magnificent crime novel.
NOVEMBER 15, 2007
(A star is assigned
to books of unusual merit, determined by the editors of Kirkus
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
rudderlessuntil, in some quite mysterious way, an epiphany
happens. Russell becomes not only a changed man, but, to the
dismay of certain entrenched interestsin and out of the
Circlea 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 ( American Detective, 2007,
etc.) serves up what just might be the best novel about urban
political corruption since Dashiel Hammett's The Glass Key.
NOVEMBER 5, 2007
best known for his hard-boiled Amos Walker series (American Detective,
etc.), creates a new, morally complex world in this razor-sharp
tale of crime and corruption in a fictional eastern U.S. city.
Gas City, once known as Garden Grove, has enjoyed stability as
a result of understandings among the politicians, the police
and the local gangsters. An enclave known as the Circle serves
as the community's vice outlet, while the rest of the metropolis
is virtually crime free. Police chief Francis Russell, after
his wife's death, begins to question the devil's bargain he'd
struck years earlier with mob boss Anthony Zeno. When Russell
resumes acting like a lawman, virtually everyone in town feels
the repercussions. Estleman masterfully creates a wide and diverse
cast of characters, and sympathetically portrays their struggles
to survive on the mean streets. A superfluous serial killer subplot
doesn't detract from the author's achievement, which will justly
be compared with that of James Ellroy's Los Angeles noir mysteries
and John Gregory Dunne's True Confessions. Admirers of unsparing
crime fiction will hope that Estleman plans to visit Gas City