Rizzo's War

By Lou Manfredo

Minotaur. 290 pp. $24.99

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Reviewed by Bill Kent


Rizzo's War

has nothing to do with Philadelphia's larger-than-life two-term mayor, but I have a feeling that Frank Rizzo would have enjoyed this police procedural set in and around Brooklyn's Bensonhurst neighborhood.

That's not just because author Lou Manfredo is an Italian American who, like the late mayor, had a long career in law enforcement.

Manfredo gives us more than enough insider insights in what seasoned, middle-aged NYPD Detective Joe Rizzo tells his new partner, the young, idealistic, freshly made Detective Mike McQueen. Why do you dress for winter if you're on a stakeout in the summer? Why are those empty Snapple tea bottles knocking around in the back of Rizzo's unmarked car?

There is also some brilliant, realistic detective work as Rizzo uses subtle clues, and knowledge of the immigrant Italian culture, to determine that an apparent murder might hide a sadder truth.

Manfredo has an unusual take on the grand theme of police procedurals: When cops find themselves part of a vast, corrupt, mutually back-scratching political machine, how can anything remotely similar to justice be done?

Manfredo starts his story in a familiar way: Joe Rizzo and Mike McQueen investigate a near-rape that Rizzo eventually clears by fabricating a deathbed confession. McQueen, who has developed a romantic attachment to the victim, finds this a little too expedient, but Rizzo points out that the evidence does point to the dead-guy pervert and both the police and the victim can find their own kind of closure.

Then Rizzo tells McQueen that Internal Affairs has been investigating him for several years over his relationship with a former partner who may have been responsible for the death of a highly placed organized-crime informant. Rizzo says he owes his former partner, but he won't reveal what that debt might be.

"There is no right. There is no wrong," Rizzo tells McQueen repeatedly like a motormouth, wisecracking Zen master. "There just is."

Of course, what makes police procedurals so fascinating, whether written by former cops like Joseph Wambaugh or skilled storytellers like the late Ed McBain, is the ironic contrast between ethics - what the law requires - and expediency - what police must do to keep the peace, their jobs, and their sanity as they confront the worst, and, occasionally, the best of the human condition, five days a week with overtime.

While most readers like a novel to start on the first page, Manfredo's really begins about a third of the way in, when the manic-depressive daughter of an influential New York City Councilman has removed the cash and some severely incriminating evidence from her father's safe and fled her upper-middle-class nest. If Rizzo and McQueen can find her and return what she's taken, McQueen will be transferred to a comfortable desk job at Police Plaza in Manhattan, and the Internal Affairs investigation against Rizzo will mysteriously disappear.

We've seen "little lost girl" story lines before. In cop novels, they usually bring on a tour of a city's seedier areas, with some action thrown in just for fun. Manfredo has the guts to offer a glimpse of how challenging and interesting genuine police work can be, without the dazzle and slime.

Nobody fires a gun in this book. There are no scenes in strip joints, no fistfights on subway cars, no high-speed chases in which the bad guy drives the getaway car through a vegetable stand. With the exception of a sadistic burglar's gruesome treatment of a family dog, the violence and derring-do that clutter police melodramas on television and in movies and hundreds of novels, happens far offstage.

What Manfredo shows us is how Rizzo uses the favors he's done, the relationships he's built up over a long career, to turn what could have been a hopeless wild goose chase into a careful, effective, and, at times, deeply disturbing exploration of New York's outlaw biker culture.

Along the way, McQueen objects to some of Rizzo's tactics, especially when Rizzo, in exchange for learning where the girl might be hiding, agrees to act as a go-between and clear up a potentially violent misunderstanding between a local mob boss and a biker gang.

The book builds to a difficult and complicated moral decision regarding the incriminating evidence. Rizzo leaves the no-win choice to McQueen, who has the most to lose. Rizzo's retirement is assured. What McQueen decides will affect the rest of his career.

And yet Rizzo always has a card or two up his sleeve. How he plays them will make all the difference.

Bill Kent's first novel was a police procedural set in Atlantic City. The author of six additional novels and two nonfiction books, he teaches novel-writing at Temple University.