Charlie Stella,
Johnny Porno
(Stark House, 2010)

In 1973, a New York criminal court banned the pornographic film Deep Throat, thereby insuring that people who would ordinarily ignore porn movies heard of it, became curious and wanted to see it. Since the mob had financed the film and was racking up all the profits -- the filmmakers never saw a penny of the take -- the mob took over distribution of the film. Which brings us to Johnny Porno, the first contemporary, original novel issued by Stark House, the West Coast reprinter of hard-boiled novels.

In it, unemployed carpenter John Albano, who has been blacklisted by the union for hitting a foreman, has his problems. Unemployable in his field, he is getting by, picking up the child-support money by driving, and he has managed to pick up a few extra dollars collecting the take for showings of Deep Throat for the mob that refers to him as Johnny Porno, a name he hates. Occasionally he drives the movie to a new location.

It isn't the simple work it appears to be. The last man to have the job, whom the mobsters called Tommy Porno, wound up in a dumpster with his hands cut off, a sure sign he was skimming the take.

Porno quickly finds himself in trouble. A mafia wannabe wants to kill him, as does a drugged-out former cop who was forced to retire after he picked a fight with Albano in a bar and got his lights punched out. Albano's ex-wife's first husband intends to rob him when he's delivering the mob's money and a bunch of cops, crooked and otherwise, are building a case against the mob boss so that they can rid the city of pornographic movies, especially Deep Throat and the soon to be released Behind the Green Door. In the center of it all is John Albano, who simply wants steady work and enough money left over after the bills are paid to take his son to the occasional Yankees game. If he isn't careful, Albano can find his clock punched at any time.

Charlie Stella, who has been compared to the masters Elmore Leonard, George V. Higgins and Donald E. Westlake, is fast on the colorful dialogue. In fact, readers who need a fast-moving plot are going to have to adjust their expectations to appreciate Stella. The action builds slowly as the conflicts rise and become more and more complicated. Finally, the complications resolve themselves in furious bursts of action near the end of the book.

What Stella does best is move you into the center of a world, in this case, the outer boroughs of New York City in the early '70s, introduce you to a subculture, minor-league mobsters and the cops who either profit off of them or try to shut them down, and let you experience what it must have been like in there. It's a trip worth taking.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

29 May 2010

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