Les Whitten, long an associate of investigative columnist Jack Anderson, has thrown into this appetizing choucroute, among other ingredients, the Mafia, Italy's Red Brigades, the international drug trade, detailed instructions for the bugging of your neighbor, sexual dalliance, and for good measure, some Mediterranean travel notes.
The hero of "A Killing Pace," George Fraser, does very nicely for himself as a private investigator. Industrial espionage and divorce work sully conscience but enlarge net worth. A street kid and sometime juvenile delinquent, George marries decidedly up. His wife, Anne, an enormously talented and physically attractive tax attorney, spends her time enlarging tax shelters for clients already richer than they have any right to be.
The plot revolves around George's mounting disgust with his nasty trade and the deterioration of his marriage because of his wife's rejection of his qualms and insistence upon his continuation in a profession nearly as lucrative as her own. Just as George is about to pack it all in, he is precipitated into a tangled mixture of gunrunning and drugs. Danny Surrett, the cop who rescued George from a life of crime, calls frantically upon his prote'ge' for help. By this time Danny is a prosperous mouthpiece for the Philadelphia mob. Its boss, one Bernie Magliorocco, is under pressure from younger rivals. To reassert his dominion over the local thugs, he arranges through the good offices of Danny to trade guns to the Red Brigades in return for drugs.
Bernie, a man of honor, is completely up front with Ernesto Calvacadi, the sinister representative of the Red Brigades. Ernesto double-crosses Bernie, Bernie threatens to rub out Danny unless Danny arranges somehow to take bloody revenge on Ernesto and recover the Mafia's half million. Only George can do the job. It is far from easy. The hunt for Ernesto takes George to Italy, involves him in an affair with Silvia, an Italian chemical engineer, requires him to pose variously as an artist and an altruist, and leads to a frantic gun battle with his childhood enemy, now a big man in organized crime.
After a fashion, "A Killing Pace" ends happily. George is free but at loose ends. He has no wish to return to his wife, who has whiled away the idle hours by shacking up with her unattractive but sexually powerful law partner. Although Silvia has cured George of his impotence and they love each other dearly, both realize that marriage cannot succeeed for them. Their worlds are separate. Life is more than a hotel bedroom and idyllic picnics in the Italian countryside. George is ready for new experiences.
All of this is good fun, presented in serviceable prose. I have one, rather unusual reservation. With the notable exception of George's childhood enemy, none of the major characters is sufficiently evil. Bernie is just a businessman on the skids. Anne regrets her sexual transgressions. Bernie's son, the Rutgers graduate, transparently wishes that he were a management consultant rather than a middle-ranking Mafia executive. Ernesto, when it comes to the point, shrinks even more from tormenting George than George does when the tables are turned.
George gets little enjoyment from either work or play. I much prefer Robert Parker's bulky hero Spenser who eats, drinks, fights bad people, and fornicates with equal enthusiasm. Still, there is hope. George has shucked his despicable trade. He has come to realize that his wife has clay feet and that his awe of her was misplaced. I can't deny a suspicion that Les Whitten is himself a decent sort who can't throw himself with genuine gusto into the extravagant violence and gruesome sadism commonplace in this genre. These are, when all is said, minor complaints. Although I was able to put "A Killing Pace" down from time to time, I did soon pick it up again. Play George again, Les.