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GANGSTERLAND by Tod Goldberg: Book Review

What does it say about me that I was rooting all the way for Sal Cupertine to come out on top?

Of course, you have to know that Sal is a stone-cold killer, a man who has actually lost count of how many men he’s “offed.”  More than fifty, certainly, he thinks, possibly up to one hundred.  And yet, and yet….

I’m hoping that what it says about me is not that I’ve lost my values and morals but rather than Tod Goldberg has written an extraordinary novel with a protagonist who does the most vicious things but somehow keeps you (or at least me) on his side.

Sal is a member of the Chicago Mafia, not a big-time gangster but more of an errand boy who is called when someone needs to be killed.  The victim might be another Mafia member or just someone who knows or sees something that might be dangerous to the mob.

He’s always been careful, which explains his extraordinary success rate, but one night something goes terribly wrong and he kills three F.B.I. agents and a confidential informant in a hotel room.  He contacts his cousin Ronnie, who is much higher up on the command chain to tell him the bad news, and Ronnie comes up with a plan.  The next thing Sal knows he’s in Las Vegas with a new face and a new identity.

Meet David Cohen, youth rabbi at Temple Beth Israel.  This is Sal’s new identity, 1,747.5 miles from the Windy City.  He also has a new religion, which he has to learn about very quickly, but luckily for him he’s known in mob circles as the Rain Man because he never forgets anything he’s seen or heard.

That will certainly come in handy when he has to learn everything in the Torah, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the thousand other books of commentary and history of the Jewish peopl.  After all, on the Jewish calendar it’s now 5,781, so there’s a lot of backstory involved.

David’s Las Vegas minder is the son-in-law of Temple Beth Israel’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Kates.  Just what has the mob got on Kates, David wonders, to make him go along with this charade?  A lot, as it happens.

As all this is happening on the gangster front, Special Agent (soon to be ex-agent) Jeff Hopper is doing his best to find Sal; Jeff of course doesn’t know that Sal no longer exists and has become Rabbi Cohen.  The agent has become a pariah in the agency because it’s seen as his carelessness in putting the hotel room in his own name and thus causing the deaths of three of his fellow agents and one C. I.

Hopper has been demoted and forbidden to look for Sal, and when he disregards this order he’s fired.  But that doesn’t stop him, and he and a new recruit to the agency continue to search for the killer of their comrades.

Tod Goldberg has written a fascinating novel about killing as a way of life and a man who does it without apparently a shred of remorse.  It’s not even that Sal believe all the people he’s killed deserve it, it’s simply that killing them is his job and he does it efficiently.  But still there’s something human about him, as the reader sees in his desire to be reunited with his wife and young son after his forced move to Vegas.

You can read more about Tod Goldberg at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

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