Crime Fiction: Bloody Martini
by William Kotzwinkle

(Editor’s note: This review comes from Steven Nester, host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine. He last wrote for January Magazine about Wallace Johnson’s 2018 non-fiction book, The Feather Thief.)

American writer William Kotzwinkle won plentiful praise for his wryly humorous 2021 crime novel, Felonious Monk, which introduced readers to mafioso scion Tommy Martini, an ex-bouncer with an anger-management problem, who was exiled by the family to a Benedictine monastery in Mexico after he accidentally killed a man. Brother Tommy, as he’s now known, makes his reappearance in Bloody Martini (Blackstone), which finds him being lured away from his contemplative seclusion by a friend’s plea to look after his wife—a tough favor to fulfill, since that friend, crusading TV station owner Finn Sweeney, is now dead, and the spouse, Bridget Breen, has disappeared. Although he’s determined to track down Sweeney’s killer, Tommy must first locate Bridget, a former high-school flame, who—very much like Tommy—has in her own fashion hidden herself away from the world.

To get that job done, Tommy must return to his hometown of Coalville, Pennsylvania, a (fictional) place manifestly bursting with mine fires, as if hell was breaking through—which it appears to have done already. Drugs, alcoholism, and crime pervade the once sleepy streets. In Coalville, Tommy reacquaints himself with old friends, but he must also remain wary: the Muldoon brothers, whose sibling was the guy Tommy did in eight years ago during a bar confrontation, are still looking for payback. Most significant among those with whom he reunites is Queenie O’Malley. She’d been fond of Tommy in high school, when he was a football star, but she had made much less of an impression on him.

“He doesn’t recognize her at first … the transition she’s made,” Kotzwinkle said during an interview I did with him last month for my radio show, Poets of the Tabloid Murder (the second time he’s been my guest on that program). “She’s learned the arts of seduction, very subtly. And when he does recognize her, it’s a tidal wave of emotion. … Here is this beauty who he overlooked. He doesn’t even recognize her … She was introverted [in high school], and the obvious beauties—the cheerleaders, the majorettes—they were the ones who grabbed his eye. … And then she appears in this miracle of transformation.”

Queenie is a handful, and she’s a temptress, but she is not tempting Tommy overtly. She’s slated to wed the local produce seller, but has doubts about that, and the bond between her and Tommy is strengthened when they are slightly complicit in the deaths of the Muldoon brothers. Yet Tommy remains on his guard. “If I moved in on Queenie it would break the closeness we already felt,” he tells himself. More important than romance, he has a mission to fulfill.

It works to Brother Tommy’s advantage that he’s quite comfortable resorting to violence (“I’m always angry. It saves time,” as his grandfather Primo advised him). He had started with the assumption that Sweeney’s demise was related simply to that muckraking journalist nosing around plans to construct a casino in the area. But when goons, cops on the take, and shifty politicians begin exerting pressure upon him, Tommy realizes there’s more at stake. That becomes acutely clear when he suffers a pummeling by Brian Fury, the aptly named, axe-grinding local district attorney who failed to convict him of murder eight years before. To do harm and retaliate, or not; to enjoy the sensuality of the corporeal world, or remain true to his vows—these are choices Kotzwinkle’s Benedictine bruiser must weigh as this tale progresses, bearing in mind along the way that there’s more to accomplish in lowly Coalville than solve crimes.

An inveterate do-gooder, Tommy invests in human lives in the wheezing burg of his childhood. He hires a young Hispanic boy to wash his car; he turns an old pal from a hopeless drunk into a sober, productive citizen; and he manages to clean up the act of a heroin-addicted hooker he knows from his high school days. Sending her off then to Las Vegas might sound like a big step backwards, but Tommy Martini, while sometimes too quick with his fists, never seems to make an incorrect call when it comes to human behavior.

“I might be done with Coalville,” Tommy says at one point, “but it would never be done with me.” Fortunately, William Kotzwinkle isn’t done with his pugnacious protagonist, either: there’s a third Felonious Monk novel already in the works. Of its plot, the author told me: “Tommy goes to Las Vegas, drawn into the life of a professional wrestler. His cousin reaches out to him in a moment of desperation, like with Finn Sweeney in Bloody Martini … The last thing Tommy wants in the world is to be a professional wrestler. He understands how brutal it is—I know a professional wrestler, and when they hit the mat it’s like hitting concrete, every bone in their body shakes. And that’s where [Tommy’s] headed for. So I will keep the secular world active in his life, and he’ll be longing for the peace and quiet of the monastery.”

Fans of this series will be praying that next chapter arrives soon. ◊

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