By Phil Mann
“Mobtown” is Rochester, New York, circa 1959, and the head mobster seems to have a piece of just about everything and everyone, including private eye Ike Van Savage’s client, who has the misfortune of being the third wife of the twice widowed mobster and is convinced her husband plans to make her his third late wife. Van Savage is also involved in two other cases as he is hired by a woman whose philandering husband is involved with a sixteen-year-old girl and tries to track down the cause of several arson fires hitting a slumlord’s tenements. For Van Savage, the jobs are hardly easy. His clients, like nearly everyone else in the town, are not necessarily to be trusted. Moreover, Van Savage seeks to maintain a relationship with his ten-year-old daughter, the product of his now defunct marriage.
MOBTOWN is firmly in the noir tradition, generally to good effect. Kelly effectively strips the 1950s of the veneer of civility and family values with which nostalgia has endowed the decade. Rochester emerges as a thoroughly corrupt town. Even heroes, such as boxing great Rocky Marciano, seem tainted and disgusted by what they see. Kelly does an especially admirable job in portraying the race relations of an era poised between a conflict in Korea and the domestic upheaval of the 1960s.
Whether MOBTOWN succeeds in emulating the tradition of Chandler, Cain, Hammett, or Spillane is doubtful. Kelly’s style and writing, though clearly polished, lack the bite of his noir predecessors. But there is something more to MOBTOWN, something important. The novel is part history lesson, and that lesson is itself a dichotomy. On the one hand, there are the names, dates, and events with which Kelly liberally endows the novel. These references are to be expected in any period piece, but they hardly establish the novel’s credentials - nor should one expect them to. Still, Kelly does a solid job placing the reader in 1959 Rochester and conveying his knowledge of the city and its history.
What is more important, though, is the second portion of that history lesson. History is, of course, a malleable quantity. Whether written by the winners or skewed through ideological eyes, history is often largely what the teller wishes to convey. From this standpoint, MOBTOWN emerges as an exceptionally interesting novel. That an American city has a problem with organized crime, even in 1959, is hardly earth-shattering. The mobsters themselves are not especially absorbing as they do what mobsters tend to do. But beneath the obvious, hidden behind the action and the double crosses and the deaths, Kelly is doing something more. MOBTOWN is about the America of the 1950s or, more accurately, a common perception of that America and several characters who hide their darker selves beneath a façade suitable to the time. Whether Kelly succeeds in removing the veneer to expose a substantially darker time and place is, of course, subjective. I, at least, found that MOBTOWN left me with something to consider after I had finished the final page.