Friday, July 20, 2018

Forgotten Books: WAR OF THE DONS by Peter Rabe (1972)

Some years back I read a fine Stark House duo by this guy, Kill the Boss Good-by and Mission for Vengeance, and talked about one of them HERE. I was an instant Peter Rabe fan. Then came the Manny DeWitt trilogy, Girl in a Big Brass Bed, The Spy Who was Three Feet Tall and Code Name: Gadget, all of which failed to float my boat. And I was no longer so sure. 

Now comes War of the Dons, back from the dead in another Stark House volume, and I'm a Rabe fan again. This one originally appeared in 1972, sixteen years after Kill the Boss Good-by and five to seven years after the DeWitt stuff, and shows a mature, truly accomplished writer at the top of his form. Unfortunately, as Rick Ollerman's Intro tells us, this book and it's Stark House mate Black Mafia were the last two published under Rabe's own name, and in his own style. Now I'm bummed again. 

War of the Dons was published (and apparently written) in the wake of the Godfather frenzy. Whether Rabe was at influence by Puzo is doubtful, but the connection probably helped sell a few more copies, which is a good thing. 

There are two real Dons here, one current and one retired, along with a sort of mini-Don and three mini-Don wannabes. The current Don is a pragmagtic guy, willing to work with just about anyone who can keep his money machine operating smoothly. The retired Don cherishes the old traditions, misses the action, and wants back in. The min-Don gets lazy, ceding too much authority to mini-Don wannabes, and pays the price, setting up an intricate battle for control of his regime. 

Though this is an ensemble cast, the characters we spend the most time with are the wannabes, the Guarda brothers Marco, Nuncio and Pepe. Marco, the most level-headed, is the natural leader, while Nuncio is a semi-competent weasel and Pepe is a brutal, ignorant dope. As the story plays out, we find them working sometimes together, sometimes at cross-purposes and sometimes in direct oppostion as they strive to hold on to their crumbling regime. 

The plot is intricate, the characters are complex, the dialogue is tough and the prose is everything you could ask for. There are a lot of good lines, but one of my favorites tells of a Los Angeles neighborhood has "all the charm of greasy dishes." 

How many of the tough guys in this book will come out alive? Not many. But you'll have to read it yourself to sort the living from the dead. 

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