Until a few days ago I'd never read a Charlie Stella novel. I'd heard of him of course, hard not to when (as it turns out) he's this damned good.
For all the comparisons he gets to Elmore Leonard, the writer I thought of when I first started reading Shakedown was George V. Higgins and not just because of the idiomatic dialogue but because like Higgins--and early Leonard--the dialogue is layered in such a way that it's not just the usual mina bird tough guy stuff but talk that reveals character and milieu and history. That a good share of it happens to be hilarious makes it even better.
The story has one Bobby Gennaro, ambitious former bookmaker for the mob, trying to get away with a good share of the money he's been skimming. Eager to grab some of Bobby's money for themselves are a pair of wiseguys named Tommy Agro and John Forzino, Agro's deadliest weapon being his penchant for malaprops that deserve a quote book of their own. They are joined by a friend who is best known for a certain body part; a charmer of course. Bobby's fiance Lina Yao, an especially well detailed character, leads the secondary cast that is largely defined through Stella's masterful dialogue. And then Stella gives us a cunningly staged twist that makes Bobby's life much more difficult.
All this takes place a few days from he City's Feast of San Gennaro, an event that allows an old ethnic tradition to be contrasted with the changing colors, values and aspirations of the neighborhood. Agro's bursts of bigotry offer us a look at a wiseguy's op-ed piece on the new melting pot.
Stella is a major talent, a bone-crusher of a storyteller and a genuine street poet. A whole lot more people should be reading him.