Saturday, April 05, 2008

MAFIYA By Charlie Stella

Pegasus Books, $25, 978-1933648651

In tems of tone, Stella’s previous novels have been mostly described as darkly humorous, bearing particular comparison to the works of Elmore Leonard. The exception to this was Stella’s dark second outing, Jimmy Bench Press, a novel which attempted to probe the inherent darkness in Stella’s world more deeply than his other works.

Like Leonard, Stella refuses to allow himself to be pigeonholed and with his sixth novel, Mafiya, he abandons some of the lighter aspects from novels such as Cheapskates and Charlie Opera, doing so this time with a ferocity and complexity that not only takes the reader by surprise but also drags them willingly into the dark world Stella creates. Like, for example, Elmore Leonard’s novel, Killshot, the shift in tone from what the reader might expect is marked and surprisingly effective.

The banter with which Stella has made his name is not missing, but is pushed more into the background, creating a decidedly more sombre tone. Not that his ear for dialogue has gone – he’s still the best in the business – but he knows instinctively the kind of tone he’s shooting for and as such his characters are more introspective here, less prone to cracking wise than they were before. Not that the novel is entirely devoid of humour. His cast of prostitutes, Russian Mafioso and police detectives have a particularly grim sense of humour that serves as a release from the dark subject matter both for them and for us. And while his Russian dialogue at times threatens to teeter over into a kind of strange stereotyping (but thankfully stays the right side of believable, the comic relief never overtaking the character), it’s a testament that he makes these characters come so completely to life through their interaction and dialogue.

The plot itself is not for the squeamish, delving into the world of prostitution, snuff movies and various other nasty pieces of business. As ever Stella does not paint simple morality tales, but lets his characters tell their own tale without pushing his own agenda too hard.

In fact, it’s a testament to Stella’s artistry that he makes Agnes Lynn – an ex-hooker trying to turn her life around – into such a compelling and empathetic character. She’s not quite the “hooker with a heart of gold”, thank God, but she is intriguing and alluring. It’s not hard to see why her on-off lover is at once attracted and repelled by parts of her personality.

In fact, the novel does a very good job of making the darker aspects of Lynn’s life – specifically her involvement in the sex trade – less sensationalised than a lesser writer may have attempted. There is tragedy in her story, sure, but ultimately her motivations and her attitude to the world come from a very human place and are rarely melodramatically presented to the reader. She’s a grounded character, takes everything in her stride as best she can and this is what ultimately creates our empathy and connection with her. Her own “crimes” are simply very human mistakes, one which anyone could make given the right set of circumstances.

Agnes’s world is thrown into turmoil when one of her friends is used for a movie and then thrown into the ocean. The crime is graphic and disturbing, and yet Stella uses as much implication as he does explication, making the sequence more disturbing than out and out gruesome. Psychological rather than physical pain makes the scene ultimately unsettling to read and yet fully justified in light of the feelings it evokes.

Mafiya is a fast, dark and compelling novel from an author whose work, if there is any justice, will be being read years from now as one of the classic authors of modern crime fiction. It’s already been said that Stella deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the greats of the genre, but as he proves his versatility and ability with this, his sixth novel, such statements become superfluous: Stella may just be the best crime writer you have yet to discover. His novels are imbued with an essential humanity, and an understanding that sometimes the world just throws us a curveball and all we can do is try our best to survive.

Like Agnes Lynn.

Russel McLean for Crime Scene Scotland, 05/04/08
Buy Mafiya: A Novel of Crime from