Picks and Pans Review: Love or Honor

updated 06/12/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/12/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Joan Barthel

Undercover cops, by the nature of their work, lead two lives. As actors playing a deadly role, they must convince their targets that they are players in the same game. As civilians, they must keep wives and lovers at a distance, never able to tell them the truth about what they do. In both cases, the undercover cop has a basic rule: Never get close to anyone. In 1978 Chris Anastos, as outlined in this true story, broke that rule.

Anastos was 33, an undercover cop who had infiltrated a Queens, N.Y., chapter of the Gambino crime family. Soon, Anastos ;was feeding the New York Police Department information on corruption, massage parlor transactions, gambling dens and drug movement. He rose through the Gambino ranks, earning the grudging respect of made mob members, making all the moves expected of a career criminal. Then he met Martina (Marty), forgot he was a cop and fell in love: "She was slim and lovely, wearing a pretty summer dress, silky and kind of floating, with a beautiful Florentine cross, blue enamel overlaid with gold, around her neck. Chris's first thought was that she looked more Irish than Italian. She reminded him of the actress Katharine Ross."

In one dangerous, if romantic, swoop, Anastos had broken the code of his job, betrayed his wife and put his life directly under the scope of Marty's father—a capo in the Gambino family.

Love or Honor, given its volatile subject matter, should be fascinating. It's not. The book is slow to start, the action poorly paced, the characters weakly drawn. Barthel (author of A Death in Canaan, about a teenager accused of murdering his mother) seems uncomfortable with the subject matter. The police action and street dialogue are stilted. The sense of danger Anastos must have confronted whenever he was close to being detected is never fully felt. His wife, Liz, and family are poorly sketched, while his affair with Marty seems lifted from a romance novel. It is not until the final pages that a real feeling for Anastos's emotional tug-of-war comes across. That's when Anastos decides to end the affair and concentrate on his undercover work. But he made his move too late. His wife divorced him because he spent so much time away from home, and Anastos himself faced a battle with cancer, from which he recovered. It is only here that Barthel's story takes off. It's too small a success and comes too late. I (Morrow, $17.95)

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