Picks and Pans Review: Big Time

updated 09/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Marcel Montecino

Salvatore D'Amore, the protagonist of this first-rate crime novel, is a pianist-songwriter about to face the sobering music of mob muscle. While he has a sensitive ear for a sweet ballad, his nose for the sure thing has put him in a $180,000 hole to the Venezia crime family, a New Orleans gang dedicated to inflicting pain on those who owe them.

Sal does his best to duck and dodge the bad boys, bouncing from one piano bar to the next, the promise of his musical abilities lost in a gambler's haze of smoke-filled rooms. He knows the Venezias will, sooner or later, take out their revenge on his body. He's resigned to this inevitability, his will to live as seemingly lost as yesterday's daily double. Then he meets Isabel Gemelli, a sexy torch singer, who puts magic into his lyrics and a purpose back into his life.

A new woman, a new lease. Sal D'Amore is finally poised to change his ways. Yet he knows this is something the vindictive Venezias will never allow to happen. Here, Sal listens to a panicky friend's advice:

" 'Sal,' Santo said, 'lissen to me. Wherever you are, you stay there, you hear me? You can't ever come back home. You can't ever come back here. And, Sal, don't call me again. I'm not gonna be waiting here Saturday nights anymore. You take care of yourself, but I gotta think of Cathy and the boys, you understand what I'm saying?'

" 'Santo—'

" 'I told you these people were animals, didn't I? I told you not to f—with 'em, didn't I?'

" 'Santo-'

" 'Good-bye, Sal,' Santo said, and hung up. Sal sat on the edge of the bed, shivering in the warm night."

Among the attributes of Big Time is that it's one terrific read. Montecino, who in 1988 published the equally terrific The Crosskiller, structures a novel with an architect's skill and practiced eye. His characters are fully developed and as real as a set of brass knuckles to the teeth. His sense of place (New Orleans in particular) is down-to-the-last-jazz-riff accurate.

The feel that Sal and Isabel have for their music is a passionate match for the daily violence engulfing them—their only freedom and escape found in a number of sexually fleeting but highly erotic moments.

Montecino, a New Orleans native, writes with a flair and energy lacking in many of today's crime novels. There isn't a lull anywhere as the story barges its way to a stunning climax. (Morrow, $19.95)

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