The novel The Last Days of Il Duce from Domenic Stansberry opens with convicted killer, Niccolò Jones telling his story from Coldwater Penitentiary. We’re told: “Three people I used to know are dead. Two of them I loved, the other I hated–though lately I am less sure about the difference between these feelings.” The crux of this story becomes who was murdered and more importantly, why, and Nic’s story, told in the form of a confession to the reader, gradually fills in that missing information.
Nic Jones and his brother Joe grew up in North Beach with a glamorous Italian mother and a disabled WWII veteran dad. Even though their father’s name was Jones, they were known in the tight-knit Italian community as the Abruzzi boys. Both boys are deeply attracted to an Italian girl called Marie Donnatelli, and the three youngsters spend a lot of time together. There are some ugly rumours about the boy’s mother and the affluent, reptilian Italian lawyer, Micaeli Romano, and while this man casts a shadow over the boys’ childhood, it’s a shadow that neither brother can quite shirk off as adults.
All this information is given as a short introduction to the main players before Nic moves the story ahead thirty years to 1986. In spite of the fact that Nic eventually became Romano’s protégé and attended UCLA, he’s now, at forty, broke, a washed-up lawyer who specializes in evictions for local slumlord, Jimmy Wong.
This is an incredibly atmospheric novel set in San Francisco with an emphasis on the erosion of the Italian community and the ascendency of the Chinese, with the elderly Italians full of opinions about Mussolini and his mistress, and somehow Nic Jones has become an emblem of the fall of the Italians, a man who has turned on his own people.
All this while I stared down into Chinatown, where the men in their gray suits, and the women in their smocks and the little children with their black eyes all filled the streets, more and then more of them it seemed to me, while overhead the Chinese characters filled the signs, neon blinking in the mid-afternoon, all those indecipherable letters rolling and tumbling into an upended martini glass over the liquor store.
We get a few glimpses of Nic’s past, his desire for Marie, and his relationship with the long gone Anna-a woman who probably represented the type of life Nic half-heartedly aspired to. It’s not quite clear when Nic’s career started to fail, and he’s not a particularly pleasant or sympathetic character. There’s never enough money, he drinks too much, visits prostitutes, and tries not to think too much about some of the shadier aspects of his job.
It had been five years since I’d had an office bigger than the desk in my apartment, even longer since I’d done anything those in the profession might consider the practice of law. I hadn’t been disbarred though so I guess this counted for something.
Nic’s life begins to turn nightmarish one night when he meets his brother Joe. Joe married Marie years ago, but they divorced and now he’s remarried. Joe, a former coke user, has cleaned up, and as a carpenter he makes a marginal living, but this night Joe has big plans and hints that he has “leverage” to land an exclusive contract on a condo deal. Joe won’t elaborate, but then a few hours later, Joe is murdered. Investigating Homicide Detective Leanora Chinn has two theories: this is a drug deal that went wrong. That’s the theory that’s discussed, but there’s another implied theory–that due to the brothers’ shared history with Marie, Nic, the last person who acknowledges seeing Joe, is the murderer. Since Nic doesn’t buy the first theory and knows the second is false, he starts investigating, and this takes him to a trail that leads back to WWII and Il Duce.
The novel’s strength is in its atmosphere and its descriptions of San Francisco:
I walked with her across Columbus Avenue, past the Ling Wei Hotel and into Chinatown. We jostled down Stockton Street where the crowds are always shoulder-to-shoulder, and the shop bins are filled with plastic chopsticks and paper fans and nylon kimonos, and the grocery windows are strung with half-cooked chickens, plucked and shiny, hanging from their bright read feet. Up above, in the second story knock-outs, the women were working behind sewing machines, just as they have worked forever, only these days there were competing with sweatshops in Bangkok and Hong Kong, and the little spools of thread spun on their spindles deep into the night.
The formulaic solution to the crime (which I guessed), and the characters who go through the motions of a dark dance of deceit, were the weakest parts of the novel, and I am left with a sense that the book’s marvelous framework excelled the crime and the characters:
There is farmland beyond the walls of the prison, and I know that, and beyond the walls too are neat little stucco houses and palm trees, and it’s true that sometimes I imagine myself walking down one of those roads. Perhaps someone whispers my name, and I hear the voice of Homicide Detective Leanora Chinn, and I walk beside her straight and true.
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