Caesar’s Angel, by Mary Anne Amsbary (1952)

Regular readers of this site (both of you) know that I tend to save the books I want to really concentrate on for the Transatlantic flights I have to take 5-6 times a year. This last trip, I thought I’d really found a good one. “Corrupt Power! This is the blistering story of a ruthless political boss whose thirst for power corroded his soul and blinded him to evil” proclaimed the flyleaf of the Signet Giant paperback I found in the basement of my beloved Montana Valley Bookstore. I am a sucker for a good city novel, and this had some indicators that it would be a good one: corruption; realism; dense plot packed into one evening during a state political convention; tempting review quote (“Full of violent, dramatic drive”–New York Times). It also appeared to have an interesting structure, with the core of the story told sequentially through three of the main characters. And it was unknown to me, which is usually a good sign that it’s probably unknown to most folks. So I happily tossed it into my briefcase for the next day’s trip.

I consider myself a pretty forgiving reader. Some folks stop if the first page fails to grab them, others wait until the end of the first chapter, others until their patience gives out. I’m usually in the last category, and even then I will hang in to the very end on the off chance that it suddenly gets better. In the case of Caesar’s Angel, though, it was clear by the end of the first, mostly scene-setting chapter, that this was going to be predictable and pedestrian, something along the lines of, say, Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man or Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle.

Now, I know there are some–many, in fact–who consider these great books. And maybe there was a time when they were truly better than most of what was available. Kinda like the way Hill Street Blues seemed good when it first came out. But what seemed good, gritty, snappy and real when it was new can come to seem tired, thin and predictable when it’s got a few decades under its belt.

A simple run-down of the quartet of principal characters offers enough evidence for anyone to fill in the rest of the story without even reading the book:

  • Tony Maggiore, the tough, smart kid from the Italian ghetto who quickly realizes he gets more miles per gallon of political ambition with that special fuel additive: mob money.
  • Leo Stansky, the tough, smart kid from the Polish ghetto who becomes a prosecuting attorney with a special taste for busting hoods like the ones he grew up with.
  • Al Piazza, the idealistic, naive kid from the Italian ghetto torn between the heritage he shares with Tony and the black-and-white sense of right and wrong he shares with Leo. Oh, and who also carries a torch for …
  • … Jean Maggiore, the blonde angel attracted like a moth to Tony’s bright light of power and charisma but beginning to have her doubts.

It’s a little like Name That Tune: four notes are all it takes to identify the melody.

This was Mary Anne Amsbary’s one and only adult novel. Under the pseudonym of Kay Lyttleton, she wrote a series of novels for teenage girls about an earnest young woman named Jean Craig who grows up, goes to New York, becomes a graduate nurse, and finds romance. Or, at least, that’s what I assume happens given that these are the titles of those books.

She clearly tried to raise her sights to a much higher standard with Caesar’s Angel: a social message, the use multiple narrators, and a web of complicated relationships that I took the liberty to illustrate below.


But this illustration also shows what’s wrong with the book: a collection of stereotypes does not a convincing character make. I stopped reading comic books a long time ago. It takes a riveting narrative, stunning prose, or palpably realistic scene-setting to get me to hang in with cartoon-like characters (Hell, these days, even cartoon characters are more convincing than these mannequins).

Or a Transatlantic flight with nothing else to read. Which is the only way I got through Caesar’s Angel.

[In truth, the most interesting thing about the book was the list of other Signet Giants at the back. Just look at some of these titles: Invisible Man; The Naked and the Dead; Appointment in Samarra; Wise Blood. But even better are the lesser-known titles:

  • Street Music, the first novel by Theodora Keogh, whose edgy and odd sexual dramas have had something of a revival thanks to notice in the Paris Review and elsewhere.
  • Scalpel, by Horace McCoy, of the same hard-boiled school as Hammett and Chandler, better known for his Depression-era novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?.
  • The Descent, by Fritz Peters, which I mentioned here way back in ought six.
  • Heaven Pays No Dividends, a novel of postwar Germany by Richard Kaufmann. Frederic Morton wrote of this novel in the Saturday Review, “That a novel so grim in its setting, so formidable in its moral implications, can at the same time be so wonderfully engaging, is a tribute to Mr. Kaufmann’s skill. He has armed his hero with a perennially childlike resistance to ulterior motives, with an imperviousness to sophisticated compromise. The effect is not dissimilar to the one Mark Twain achieved when he let Huck Finn’s gusty innocence loose upon life’s devious rascalities.”
  • Down All Your Streets, by Leonard Bishop, a long, rough, macho novel, one of the first to deal with drug addiction and drug dealing. William Burroughs feared it would take away readers he hoped would read his first book, Junky.
  • Natural Child, Calder Willingham’s fifth novel, set in Greenwich Village, flirting with the issue of abortion, and still well-regarded for its dialogue and use of an unreliable narrator.

Oh, and there’s Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions. Well, they can’t all be great.]