Fast-paced crime fiction of Prohibition Philly
Blind Moon Alley
By John Florio
Seventh Street Books.
222 pp. $15.95. Paperback
Reviewed by David Hiltbrand
One way to ensure that your book gets reviewed is to drop the name of your target publication prominently in the first paragraph.
Here's the opening to Blind Moon Alley: "Newspapers create heroes. Six months ago, they created me. On Christmas, The Inquirer turned me - a twenty-four-year-old albino with chalk-white skin, kinky yellow hair, and fluttering green eyes - into the toast of Philadelphia."
That's Jersey Leo speaking. The year is 1931, and the city is stumbling under the double whammy of Prohibition and the Great Depression. It's tough for a man to make a living, especially if he's a mixed-race albino working on the wrong side of the law.
Allow Leo to introduce himself:
"I'm Jersey Leo, a walking cup of coffee with a splash too much milk, a steaming mug of cocoa with one too many marshmallows, a sideshow attraction in a circus that rolled into town when Prohibition started eleven years ago."
Leo's bravery at the end of his engaging first outing, Sugar Pop Moon, earned him front-page coverage in Philly, where he had traveled to hunt down the maker of a shipment of phony hooch. Now he's bartending at the Ink Well, an African American speakeasy at the corner of Vine and Juniper.
His sudden notoriety leads to an old friend's contacting Leo, asking whether he wants to get together for a bite. The setting is a little foreboding: Eastern State Penitentiary in Fairmount. So is the occasion. It's the last meal for Aaron Garvey, who is about to be executed for killing a cop.
Garvey has a favor to ask of Leo. And before you can say Cab Calloway, our sun-sensitive hero is stuck between an aggressively crooked cop and the city's most vicious gangster, Mr. Lovely. (Hint: He's not.)
Leo is also in over his head with a glamorous nightclub singer who plies her trade at a more upscale saloon: "The Red Canary is only a couple of miles from the Ink Well, but it might as well be in another universe. The joint fills the upper-half of a brick building off Rittenhouse Square on Pine Street. It's two floors of gambling, music, booze, and women - right in the swankiest part of town. Still, if you didn't know it was there, you'd never find it. Heavy burgundy curtains kept the Feds from seeing through the windows, and thick plaster walls stop the music and laughter from hitting the street."
Jersey Leo is not an easy character to pull off, but Florio, a Brooklyn writer, does a good job of making him sympathetic. In fact, you quickly come to enjoy the way he bends your ear. The period details and lingo are handled well without becoming overbearing. And the tone hits a comfortable niche between hard-boiled and breezy.
This is how Florio sets the scene for the big confrontation: "The neon Billiards sign had stopped glowing over an hour ago. The hustlers have come and gone, as has the rain. Bobby Lewis' is a two-story joint; it's at the intersection of Fitzwater and the grift."
Blind Moon Alley is a fun, fast read that bodes well for another Jersey Leo installment. And next time, Mr. Florio, can you try to get The Inquirer into the first sentence?