Book World: Patrick Anderson reviews 'Rizzo's War' by Lou Manfredo

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By Patrick Anderson
Monday, November 16, 2009


By Lou Manfredo

Minotaur. 290 pp. $24.99

Lou Manfredo worked for 25 years in Brooklyn's criminal-justice system, first as a uniformed court officer, then as a court clerk, and he tries in his first novel to convey the moral complexities of police work. He tells his story through the eyes of a veteran detective named Joe Rizzo, whose guiding philosophy is "There is no right, there is no wrong, there just is." Rizzo is a mentor to his partner, a young detective named Mike McQueen, who by the end of the story will have to choose between being a straight arrow and compromising his principles to advance his career.

For the first 100 pages, Manfredo shows us the nitty-gritty of police work. In an early scene, the partners help a beautiful young woman who has been groped in a subway station. McQueen develops a crush on the woman and vows to find the man who abused her. Aided by Rizzo's street smarts, they locate the man, but he is a junkie who has just OD'd. Rizzo tells his young partner what they must do: report that the man confessed to the assault before he died. That way they get credit for closing the case.

"Jesus, Joe," the younger man protests.

"Jesus got nothin' to do with it," Rizzo replies, and they carry out his plan.

We learn more about Rizzo. He was raised by his Italian American grandfather to be a Roman Catholic, a Mets fan and a Democrat. Unfortunately, he's the sort who, when obliged to visit Greenwich Village, quips, "Let's get back to Brooklyn before I start picking out mauve socks to go with my teal sweater." Rizzo has had 26 years on the force but can't retire because two of his daughters are still in college. One is threatening to quit school and become a cop herself, which Rizzo bitterly resists. He loves his wife but has played around a bit in the past. At times he exhibits a heart of gold, but all in all it's a realistic portrait.

Rizzo tutors McQueen in the art of cutting corners. They accept a free meal from an Italian restaurant, and later they escort the restaurant's owner when he takes the night's receipts to the bank. Still, Rizzo is considered a first-rate detective. He has turned down invitations to work homicides because he thinks it's more important to go after robbers, muggers and rapists: "That's what scares people," he tells his partner. "It's like a cancer eating away at the quality of their lives. Me and you, we're the chemotherapy. We fight the cancer, keep it at bay."

Eventually, Rizzo and McQueen are given a delicate assignment: to find the runaway teenage daughter of a powerful city councilman. It develops that the young woman is deep into drugs and has run off with a thuggish member of a particularly violent motorcycle gang called the Dutchmen. Diplomacy is needed here.

Rizzo first meets with the local leader of Hell's Angels, who's portrayed as a statesman who can help the policemen gain access to the Dutchmen. Next they meet with the leader of the Dutchmen, a nasty piece of work known as the Surgeon, because he cuts off an earlobe to initiate each new member of the gang.

The search for the wayward daughter and the negotiations with the biker gangs seem to be the novel's dramatic highlight, but they lead to its real climax, in which the detectives obtain evidence implicating several city officials in corruption. Taking this to the feds would be the right thing to do, Rizzo admits, and he could retire and be safe, but McQueen would surely face retaliation from within the police department; he would probably lose his job and possibly his life. Predictably, the partners disagree about the way to proceed. Less predictably, Rizzo, who's emerging as a Brooklyn Machiavelli, devises a way out that's as brilliant as it is morally ambiguous.

For the most part, Manfredo tells his story well. There are nice details, like a corpse wearing "black, gold-toed socks" and Rizzo and his wife snapping the ends off string beans in their kitchen. Sometimes Manfredo telegraphs his punches: The villainous councilman sports "pearly white but chillingly caninelike teeth." My main beef was the Chesterfields. Rizzo is a chain smoker, endlessly pulling out, lighting, puffing and putting out not just cigarettes but Chesterfields. I counted 30 uses of the brand name, and I surely missed some. At a certain point that ceases to be vivid detail and becomes an annoyance. Chesterfields aside, however, "Rizzo's War" is a solid debut.

Anderson reviews thrillers and mysteries regularly for The Post.

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