A foreword to Dylan Struzan′s new book A Bloody Business notes that it “isn’t purely fiction.” In Struzan’s introduction, she remarks, “What I’m about to tell you, I heard mostly from Jimmy Alo… This is the story of Meyer Lansky and the beginning of organized crime. I’m telling it to you the way Jimmy told me. I’m telling you this up front so you won’t be surprised later on. You be the judge of whether or not it’s bullshit.” And therein lies the rub. Is this even a novel, or is it non-fiction? A Bloody Business is a painstaking, excruciatingly detailed account of a decade of organized crime kingpins Lansky and Charlie “Lucky” Luciano–640 pages of dialogue and set-ups for dialogue, so the reader’s inner ear can hear the account as actors might recite lines in a 1930s mobster movie.
The book is based on 50 hours of discussions Struzan had with Jimmy Alo, a kid at 15 when he started working deep inside a life in the crime world with the key players in the book (he was well-known in his day, and the basis for the character Johnny Ola in The Godfather, Part II). Alo told Struzan the stories in the book beginning when he was 91 years old, with the understanding she would only write the book after he died. It’s written as fact, and if it had footnotes with citations to authority or other substantiation, then the book would be far more effective. As written it provides great color for the times, connecting the constellation of events that led to the era, and for anyone writing their own 1920s-1930s fiction the book would be immensely useful. It would also be a good study piece for diehard historians specializing in the era–they are best positioned to pick and choose the fact from the fiction. For everyone else there’s a “take our word for it, or don’t” quality. Without further research by the average reader, and without elaboration on the context for the events of each chapter, the book may be a struggle.
For many the best reason to get A Bloody Business will be the artwork. Dylan Struzan is the wife of Drew Struzan, the world-famous movie poster artist, and here he partnered with his wife on her first book to supply 25 (including the cover) original poster-worthy illustrations featuring 1920-1933 crime figures including Lansky, Luciano, Al Capone, and contemporaries like Mae West, the Marx Brothers, and Duke Ellington. A color version of this hardcover edition would have been welcome by fans of the artist (see our discussion of Struzan before here and here), known for the original movie posters for major films including Star Wars and Back to the Future.
As pure storytelling goes, as a work of fiction A Bloody Business would be more compelling at a half or a third of its size. Scenes seem to repeat themselves, and although we know living people have daily, monotonous discussions before they take an action, most books would edit these down to more encapsulated illustrative scenes, apt here to the extent the book claims to be a novel and work of fiction. It’s written in the present tense, which will be unusual if not entirely new for most readers of the crime genres–either fictional crime noir or true crime. The structure is more like a recitation of facts than a story with a plot, motivations, character development and changes, those things found in most fiction (Who should we cheer on? Who should we have empathy for?). When context is provided, it’s often included in the dialogue between players. The author relies on the reader to have some knowledge of all the characters, and keeping track of the big and bit players is a challenge without more to differentiate them. Ultimately it may have helped to eliminate several dialogue tags per page. Sometimes these are of course necessary, but “he says” or “she says” after every other line gets old quickly.
Without question, readers will get a feel for the crime world and events that tied liquor, Prohibition, and 1920s crime altogether. The effort to put together A Bloody Business must have been great. With more streamlining it has the kind of content that would be worthy of a documentary of the Ken Burns variety. An annotated version of A Bloody Business would also be really useful for historical research and reading.