Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mafia: Operation Hit Man

Mafia: Operation Hit Man, by Don Romano
October, 1974  Pyramid Books

Allan Nixon and Robert Turner deliver their final installment of Mafia: Operation. Technically this was the fourth volume of the “series,” with Operation Hijack by Paul Eiden being the third one, but Mafia: Operation has more in common with the crime thrillers “produced” by book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel than the actual series he oversaw, like John Eagle Expeditor or The Baroness. There is no continuity in the five volumes of Mafia: Operation, with each book really just a standalone crime novel. 

While Operation Hit Man is pretty cool and sometimes attains the sleaze level of the previous two offerings from these authors, it sadly fails to live up to expectations, and is nowhere as phenomenally lurid as Operation Porno. More than anything Operation Hit Man reminds me of Scorpio, a BCI crime paperback that was written by Robert Turner on his own. Like that novel, Operation Hit Man is mostly made up of arbitrary narrative digressions, with lots of background histories of one-off characters, usually shoehorned willy-nilly into the plot. It also lacks the sleazy drive of the previous two installments by Nixon and Turner, and comes off like something quickly banged out to meet a deadline. Given this my suspicion is Nixon was the main writer of Operation Porno and Operation Cocaine, and Turner wrote most of Operation Hit Man. But I’ve been wrong before, as my wife likes to remind me.

Turner got his start in the pulps, editing The Spider and writing scads of stories himself, and he did tons of crime short stories in the ‘50s for publications like Manhunt. It seems to me that he brought the short story aesthetic to his novels: lots of scene-setting and character-building before getting to the action. In other words there’s a lot of telling before showing; Operation Hit Man is filled with a lot of backstories and background setup before we get to “the good stuff,” which was also the case in Scorpio. I mean in point of fact, the novel is ostensibly about a Mafia hit man, yet we only see him carry out a handful of hits – and there’s no pure action stuff, like shootouts or whatnot. I assumed this installment would have more action than the previous two books by these authors, but as it turns out Operation Cocaine was the most action packed.

Also, sadly, the sleaze is kind of gone too, this time, which I think is more indication Turner was behind it; whereas the previous two books had all kinds of hardcore shenanigans, Operation Hit Man only gets down and dirty a few times; I knew something was up early on when a Mafia capo had sex off-page. Off-page!! This same sort of thing happened in Scorpio. And speaking of which when we meet our “hero,” Dominick Caressimo, he’s just gotten lucky with the landlord’s slutty wife in the sleazy Manhattan hovel he’s staying in. Caressimo is 25, a ‘Nam vet who ran a suicide squad, where he was nicknamed “The Noose” for his proficiency with strangling Charlie in the dead of night with a garrotte. (Unbelievably, the authors do nothing with this in the story that follows – I thought it would be a given that Caressimo would carry out a Noose-style hit at some point, but it never happens.)

Caressimo is offered his hit man job within the first few pages, proposotioned by Anthony Vicarella, the aforementioned capo. Vicarella’s been monitoring Caressimo, noting he’s a former ‘Nam badass who has had a hard time transitioning back to “the world.” He offers him the chance to make big bucks killing people for the Mafia; Vicarella wants to start a new Murder, Incorporated, which he will name “Operation Hit Man.” Caressimo would be the first assassin he’s hired, but if it all goes well Caressimo could be the top guy with his own legion of hitmen. The authors don’t waste the reader’s time; Caressimo accepts posthaste.

Whereas the previous two books were mostly ensemble pieces, hopscotching around a large group of characters before settling on one (or two) in the final chapters, Operation Hit Man keeps Caressimo in the spotlight for most of the narrative. Unfortunately he’s kind of a cipher…he literally becomes a Mafia hit man because he needs the cash, and there but few moments of introspection or self-doubt. But he’s definitely the man for the job; Vicarella clarifies that most of these assignments won’t be simple gun-them-down deals; Caressimo will need to show some invention in his work. He also must follow an elaborate method of getting his jobs, going to a dead-drop box when notified, collecting the dossier left for him, and studying his latest target.

His first job has him taking out a CPA who has somehow run afoul of the mob; since Caressimo himself isn’t in the Mafia, he is never given the reason why he must kill. But usually he figures it out. This first job takes up a good portion of the opening quarter and has Caressimo shadowing his prey, discovering that he has a hotstuff mistress on the side, and deciding to kill them both when they go away for an illicit weekend in the countryside. On the job Caressimo drafts a fellow vet, a black dude named Hampton Jarvis who was in Caressimo’s suicide squad. This one involves a lot of setup as Caressimo, using a cheap rifle, figures out the range and distance to blow out the CPA’s tire as he drives up the mountain; he ends up killing both the CPA and his mistress in a tire blowout that sends their car flipping down the mountain.

Vicarella isn’t happy that Caressimo has taken out an innocent, and advises that if something like that happens again, Caressimo himself might end up dead; the Mafia only wants the person in the dossier dead, no one else. But otherwise Caressimo did great and is on his way to money, with ten thousand and up for his hits, even more for big jobs. Vicarella cautions Caressimo not to go overboard with the high life, which ultimately leads to a subplot in which Caressimo develops an alternate identity for himself. He has a hidden door built in his apartment – again, all of it described via page-filling backstory summary – which leads into an apartment in the high-class building that happens to be on the other side. Caressimo merely slips through the hidden door and becomes a high roller; a pulpish vibe from former pulp-writer Turner.

More jobs follow, each of them playing out more as interesting obstacles Caressimo must encounter and overcome rather than slam-bang pieces of action. Caressimo takes out a pair of brothers who have been notorious thorns in the Mafia’s side by electrocuting them in their pool, and another guy, who has been skimming the Mafia’s cigarette-tax-scheme profits, he bulldozes right in front of his employees. This latter one definitely has the feel of a short story, all of it being relayed through the perspective of the witnesses. Eventually Caressimo does head up his own execution wing for the mob, with Hampton Jarvis as his right-hand man; the other killers are taken from Caressimo’s old ‘Nam unit.

After that first kill, of the CPA, a horny Caressimo picks up a married cougar-type babe; he’d once been told that if a guy wants to score quick, look for an older, married woman, as most of ‘em are super-horny thanks to husbands who no longer screw them. Caressimo does just that, leading to the novel’s first explicit sex scene, which brings to mind similar sequences from the past two books. Caressimo doesn’t even learn her name – but he does learn it, memorably so, when the same woman turns up in the drop-box dossier some months later. The Mafia wants the woman dead, despite the fact she’s just some random wife and mother of two teen kids; Caressimo deduces on his own that the husband has set up the hit, likely to get her out of the way and cash in on life insurance.

Not that this stops Caressimo from carrying out the hit. As yet a reminder of the cretinous cur we’ve been presented for a protagonist, Caressimo not only kills her – but makes it look like the work of a rapist-murderer who is operating in the vicinity! In one of the more bizarre segments I’ve ever read in a novel, Caressimo calls the lady up, tells her he’s looking to rekindle that one-night stand they enjoyed months ago – but first wants her help trying to make a break in that whole rapist-strangler deal that’s going on in her neighborhood. Caressimo tells her this tall tale about being a psychic who has helped the cops break similar cases; he needs to go to the rape-murder scenes with a woman, concentrate, and let his psychic skills tell him who the rapist was(!).

The woman goes along with him, and Caressimo ends up raping her – not that she doesn’t enjoy it. Then he strangles her! He tosses her nude corpse aside, wondering if he’s impregnated her…meaning, if so, he didn’t just kill her but also his unborn kid(!). Folks, nothing beats the sleazy vibe of these ‘70s crime novels. But even though Caressimo ends up killing the husband in vengeance (on his own dime, and without the Mafia’s knowledge), he is so unnerved that he’s unable to have sex…three weeks later and only a talented hooker can get him to rise to the occasion. He takes a trip to Europe, where a horny American governess takes him to a torture-sex show in Amsterdam; Caressimo’s so excited he loses it in his pants, relegating a hasty retreat back to the hotel for more explicit sex.

Gradually Caressimo learns that he can only overcome his limp hangup by getting whipped and beaten every once in a while; this he learns via a hooker Hampton knows. Once she hears Caressimo’s problem, she gives him a phone number, which leads Caressimo to a strange interview with a professional-looking lady in some business office. From there he’s sent to a location where he’s blindfolded, taken somewhere else, and then whipped and sodomized by a gorgeous nude dominatrix and her teen accomplices, after which Caressimo screws them all. At this point the novel is far beyond a Mafia yarn and into the realm of pure sleaze.

Eventually the don of Vicarella’s family gets wind of Caressimo’s quirk (the whips and chains hooker service being yet another Mafia venture), and he doesn’t like it; he summons Vicarella and tells him Caressimo is now an asset, as you can’t trust a guy who gets off on being whipped and tied up. As Zwolf said, “Murder doesn’t phase these guys, but a liltte hanky-spanky gives them the vapors?” But this takes us into the homestretch, as one evening Caressimo goes from his high-class secret apartment into his Vicarella-appointed one next door and spies Vicarella’s henchman waiting in there for him. Promptly Caressimo realizes the man is here to kill him, and blows him away. Next he takes care of a traitorous “best friend” before (almost anticlimactically) dealing with Vicarella himself.

But Dom Caressimo has done too many evil things to get a Happily Ever After. Justice finally finds him months later, living on the beach in Cannes, delivered via a submachine gun salvo to the crotch and sternum – a fitting finale, but an unexplained one, given that the authors have informed us that Caressimo is here in Cannes under yet another fake name, one that no one knows about. So how did the Mafia gunners find him? The authors hope we’ll overlook this, more intent on giving their series-mandatory downbeat ending in which everyone dies.

I guess Mafia: Operation didn’t do well enough to continue past five volumes, which is a shame; these two authors certainly could’ve come up with a sleazy fourth book together. Anyway next time I’ll move on to Paul Eiden’s two contributions; having now read Crooked Cop, which I think was by Eiden, I’m game to read anything he wrote.

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