Thursday, June 21, 2018
FFB: Horns for the Devil by Louis Malley
It is the story of Severio Lebbrosa, a rising star in the New York Mafia of the 1940s and 1950s. At 23, he runs an illegal, high-stakes gambling joint frequented by celebrities, politicians, judges, and mob bosses.
Severio hates the local mob lieutenant who oversees all the neighborhood’s activities, including Severio’s game. He has been having run-ins with this low-level boss since he was a kid, and worse, the guy is married to his sister. After the mobster beats his sister, Severio sets out to kill him, which he does early in the book. This sets off the tense story of Severio trying to survive despite the Mafia’s law that anyone who kills a boss will himself be killed – no exceptions. If they catch on that it was Severio, even his godfather, Don Saldona, won’t be able to help him.
Louis Malley gets many things right about the inner workings of the Mafia, which is an achievement since most of the country had no idea what actually went on behind the scenes of organized crime until a hit man named Joe Valachi testified before Congress in 1963. Peter Maas wrote about the real-life gangster in his 1968 book, The Valachi Papers.
Severio could be an earlier version of Sonny Corleone, the volatile oldest son of Don Corleone in Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather. He also seemed like one of the wiseguys in Nichols Pileggi’s 1985 non-fiction book, Wiseguy.
The sketchy information available about Malley suggest he grew up in a section of New York City dominated by mobsters. Horns for the Devil is set in Manhattan's Little Italy and as much as it is a suspenseful crime story, it is also a portrait of that neighborhood in the mid-20th century.
Malley’s writing is blunt and forceful and his knowledge of the place and the people comes through on every page. Some of it is so tough it is funny, as when Severio tries to charm a hat-check girl in a nightclub. “Muriel turned around and gave him a look like someone forgot to flush the toilet.”
The title, Horns for the Devil, refers to a symbol sometimes worn on a chain around the neck to ward off the devil.
In 1952, Gallimard published Horns for the Devil in France. The following year, Malley was awarded the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière for the best mystery of 1952, Publishers Weekly reported.
Malley wrote four crime novels: Horns for the Devil, 1951, which was later reissued as Shadow of the Mafia; Stool Pigeon, 1953, later reissued as Shakedown Strip; Tiger in the Streets, 1957; and The Love Mill, 1961.
(For more posts on books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)