GOLD MEDAL IN THE ‘70s: THE TRIGGER MAN by Richard Posner
A Review by Fred Blosser
GOLD MEDAL IN THE ‘70s: THE TRIGGER MAN
THE TRIGGER MAN, Richard Posner’s third Mafia novel for Gold Medal, following THE MAFIA MAN and a movie novelization, THE SEVEN UPS, was published in May 1974. I think this was one of the last Gold Medal ‘70s Mafia novels to carry the cover blurb, “From the publishers of THE GODFATHER,” if not the very last. In real life, Richard Nixon was holding on to the Presidency by his fingernails. In Posner’s story, the aging Dons of the Five Families maintain a similarly tenuous control over organized crime in New York City.
Like Mario Puzo’s Don Corleone, Don Pietro Adorante supervises an uneasy peace among the gangs, but “he’s sick, and he’s old.” the ambitious Don Vincenzo Sgambati reckons. “The day Don Pietro dies, we can move in and take it all.”
Sgambati’s secret weapon is Gaspare Marugo, a veteran hit man. When Marugo arrives in New York, one step ahead of a dragnet for a murder in Europe, Sgambati recruits him to assassinate Don Pietro. Marugo is the “trigger man” of Posner’s title, in two senses of the phrase. In the literal sense, he pulls the trigger in Sgambati’s subsequent hit on Don Pietro. Symbolically, in doing so, he precipitates the reprisals, ambushes, and massacres that drive Posner’s violent plot.
As in THE MAFIA MAN, Posner puts a conflicted character at the center of the story. Elliot Cohn, an undercover detective, infiltrates the Adorante family in the aftermath of Don Pietro’s murder and simultaneously takes steps to get next to Sgambati. He likes the testosterone high of the job, but he’s also at risk of being turned. He savors being close to big money, and he’s grown restless with his family life of a wife, two kids, and a house in the suburbs:
“We little guys shit around our whole lives and watch other men take the marbles. Why? . . . It’s just having the balls to take things.”
Elliot begins an affair with Don Pietro’s granddaughter Mary, incurring the anger of Mary’s lover Johnny Russo, the violent Underboss of the Adorante Family, and the wary suspicion of the Consigliere, Frank Sabatino. The reader isn’t quite sure whether the cop has gone full tilt to the dark side. Neither, it seems, is Cohn himself.
Fans of classic gangster drama may like THE TRIGGER MAN better than THE MAFIA MAN. It has more tommy guns, more hits, and more scenes of backroom intrigue between the rival Dons than the earlier novel did. Both books are distinguished by Posner’s pungent prose, narrative energy, and dramatic control. I particularly liked the way that he weaves all of the strands of the sprawling story into the violent final chapters, where the reader realizes that Elliot Cohn and Gaspare Marugo are more alike than different in a fundamental way, and Cohn makes a pivotal decision about the course of his life.
Posner is as good as Peter Rabe, Dan J. Marlowe, and other Gold Medal stalwarts who have enjoyed renewed attention in past years after decades of unfortunate critical neglect. He is due for similar reappraisal.