Tuesday 27 July 2010

The Sicilian Specialist by Norman Lewis

I've been meaning to write a piece on Norman Lewis for some time now, having recently read and admired his 1974 Mafia thriller The Sicilian Specialist. What finally galvanised me into action was a news report on the radio yesterday about a Mexican prison where apparently they're letting inmates out, providing them with transport and firepower, allowing them to go off and perform contract killings and then letting them come back into prison to be locked up snugly again. (Naturally the prison officials expect to be remunerated for organising these little sabbaticals.) Startling? Well, it would have been if I hadn't just read about exactly the same scenario taking place back in the 1960s, in The Sicilian Specialist. I assume the incidents Norman Lewis describes in his novel are versions and variants of things that actually happened in Latin America. Lewis was a fine journalist, whose exposé of the genocide of Indians in the Brazilian Rain Forest in 1968 was a memorable classic which led to reforms and changed (and saved) lives. Graham Greene described him as one of the best writers of the century. Now, while I would never pay attention to Greene on say spiritual matters, I'm more than willing to listen to him about writers. So I've been on the look out for The Sicilian Specialist, and having now read it I'm keen to investigate Lewis's non fiction book on the Mafia, The Honoured Society. (The fact it originated as a series of pieces in the New Yorker makes me all the more keen.) The Sicilian Specialist explores the links between the Mafia and CIA in post World War II Sicily, moving on to America and then Cuba. The least interestingly evoked sequences are in Vermont. There is a fine chase from a roadhouse followed by a savage beating in an autumnal field, but give Lewis a hot, exotic locale any day. His feeling for the crueler sunbaked landscapes of the world is clear. The scenes in Sicily and Cuba are superb, so it comes as no surprise to learn that Lewis's wife was Sicilian or that he was sent to Cuba by Ian Fleming to interview Ernerst Hemingway (if you're going to visit Cuba, that's definitely the way to go). Norman Lewis is a master of sudden, violent action and the amazing, audacious succinctness of his descriptions rivals that of Charles Willeford. In The Sicilian Specialist the darkest and most disturbing of deeds are presented in a measured, beautiful and intelligent prose that is informed by a love and understanding of the far away parts of the world — and of the human psyche. It's like Jim Thompson meets Patrick O'Brian. The Sicilian Specialist becomes unstuck at the very end, when its brief and brutal saga dovetails with the Kennedy assassination in Dallas in 1963. It's hard to convey my disappointment at this development: oh god he even mentions the grassy knoll. Of course, there was no way Lewis could have known at the time he wrote this what an egregious cliche that would become. And this in no way spoils the novel, which remains a classic thriller. It's just that the last few pages seem an unworthy conclusion for all that has gone before. But even here Lewis throws in a moment of casual brilliance, describing a near fatal accident in the air with indelible terse vividness. Highly recommended, and I'm off to find The Honoured Society.