Reviewed by Ed Sarna.
Murder at Venegoni’s, Christopher Rutledge’s novel of the feuding Venegoni and Graziano Mafia families in Chicago, reads like a fast-paced movie. You can almost feel the bullets sailing past the pasta and marinara sauce. The cast of characters could be plucked straight out of Central Casting, with characters named Giuseppe, Dionisio, Primo, Gino, and Pope John.
The story starts off with a bang, literally, and accelerates from there. As in tragedies throughout history, the protagonists are made to suffer as a consequence of tragic flaws. In this instance, the fatal flaw is the inability to grasp the realization that they are fighting for a centuries-old perceived wrong, one that has nothing to do with them, the details of which many of them no longer even remember.
One of the strengths of this book is the dialogue, which is authentic and clever. Some of the scenes, especially within the families, made me laugh out loud; little things, such as the fact that an antique oil painting of ‘The Last Supper,’ hangs in the house of one of the Dons who goes by the moniker, Pope John. This same individual also has a lucrative side job involving the Church and real estate.
There are numerous levels of intrigue and misunderstanding in the story, some of which deliver, some which could be more fully explored, and a number of which could use more description to place us more fully in the moment. The scenes of violence are often described in general terms that distances the reader from the action instead of involving us. I would have liked to experience the story through the characters, rather than being told what happened to them.
Without giving too much of the plot away, the action revolves around two rival gangs in Chicago. These gangs have a history going back two hundred years to northern Italy, where both families were successful winemakers. The two families eventually merged their successful businesses into one, and for a while, it thrived. Eventually, through a series of missteps, misunderstandings, and the death of the head of one of the families, it fell apart, each side blaming the other.
This short novel came about through the author’s reengineering of his finished screenplay and at times, I felt as if the scenes were given basic stage directions, knowing the director would add depth and detail. I have no doubt that this would make a terrific movie. It is action-packed with an interesting plotline and recognizable characters. I believe it would have been a stronger book, though, if more attention had been given to fleshing out the characters, their motivations, and setting. That said, it was still an entertaining story and a quick read. I look forward to seeing what Mr. Rutledge has in store for us next.