Harper Torch paperback ISBN:
Reviewed by Don Crouch, New Mystery Reader
Look up the word PROLIFIC in the dictionary. See that picture of the fellow with the Beatle-haircut and glasses? That would be Max Allen Collins. The guy publishes more books in a month than most people read in a year! And over the course of his entire repertoire, be it deeply researched historical mysteries like the Nate Heller series, or the quick-but-entertaining reads of his CSI novelizations, they are all hallmarked by vivid characterizations, exterior descriptive excellence, and plots that, simply, don't dawdle.
He also writes a lot of comic books--"graphic fiction" to some--and that, of course, is how he was inserted into the pop culture mainstream. The stunning graphic novel (traditionally distinguished from comic books as being written and drawn for one-time publishing, not serialization, with the appropriate length and depth), Road To Perdition, was adapted into the powerful film starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. It told the story of Michael O'Sullivan; hit man, family man, tortured man. When things went south with his employers, he took his surviving son, Michael Jr., on a "road trip" that, of course, ended badly.
With the success of both the graphic novel and film, Collins did what any smart guy would do, he wrote a follow-up prose novel. Which was then followed by another.
Huh? Unusual choices, perhaps, but inspired, if the end result is the judge.
Road To Purgatory drops us into the life of Michael O'Sullivan Jr. as he is once again knee-deep in bodies. This time, however, he's in the Philippines, and it's WW2, so of course we approve. He's grown up as Michael Satariano (long story, you'll find out why), and is known amongst the Filipino scouts of his unit as the Angel Of Death. Yeah, he's good at what he does. He saves his CO, comes home with permanent injuries and a stack of medals. He alienates his old girlfriend who waited for him, and goes to work for a post-Untouchables Eliot Ness, who is in a professional slump and hungry for some success, and hopes that Michael can help him finally shut down Al Capone, who has served his time and is now living in splendid isolation in Florida.
Michael infiltrates the mob in a stunning show of just how cold his blood is. But then a funny thing happens: He finds an emotional connection to, of all people, Frank Nitti--notorious button-man for Capone. Nitti has become nearly legit, and Collins does a rather amazing job of actually building some affinity between Nitti and the reader.
Did we mention a femme-fatale? Well, of course there is one. Her name is Estelle, and she is yummy. The scenes between her and Michael are tender, hot, and perilous. Just the way we like it!
Road To Paradise picks up Michael's life in the 70's. He's now running the legendary Cal-Neva casino in Lake Tahoe for the Outfit. And yes, we skipped a lot of time in-between on purpose, you'll thank us for it later.
Married to the previously-alienated childhood sweetheart, he has a son in Vietnam, and a daughter growing up. He's your basic American Dad. He's outrun most of the demons of his past, and has built himself a quality life as a legitimate, if somewhat scary, entertainment executive.
Into Michael's office strolls Sam Giancana, living a life of self-imposed exile in Mexico. Sam wants a favor. He wants the Angel Of Death to spread his wings again, and help grease the wheels for Giancana's return to America and control of the Outfit by snuffing out Mad Sam DeStefano, a particularly nasty human being.
Michael says no. He's done with that life. He has a family to think of. Giancana finds such reasons unacceptable. Threats are exchanged. Giancana leaves in a huff. There's trouble brewing.
When Mad Sam shows up dead in his own garage anyway, Michael realizes that he's been framed for the killing, and finds his way into the government's then-nascent Witness Protection Program.
If you think the pain stops there, think again. Life in Paradise (Arizona) is hardly that. Michael's life takes a turn for the painfully familiar, and once again, the Angel Of Death enters the game.
The result is a resolution that is both visceral and literate, and it places Collins in a whole new strata of authors.
Many have, and more will, draw comparisons between this trilogy and Puzo's Godfather arcs. That's both fair and a compliment to Collins. Actually, truth be told, Collins is a better writer that Puzo ever was. Puzo was able to hide his literary failings by telling a stupendously original story for its time. Collins has benefited from this, and created a trilogy of stories that can now stand firmly alongside Puzo for their historical accuracy, staggering plot turns, and yes, brutal violence.
The story of Michael (yeah, we noticed that too) Satariano's life, knitted into the cloth of 50 years of American history, is a fascinating excursion into the motivations of man. It's also a major literary adventure tale. Fraught with violence, passion, and the basic instincts that control all of our actions.
It's an amazing accomplishment, and you owe yourself the experience of reading it.