Omerta, the third novel in Mario Puzo's Mafia trilogy, is infinitely better than the third Godfather film, and most movies in fact. Besides colorful characters and snappy dialogue, it's got a knotty, gratifying, just-complex-enough plot and plenty of movie-like scenes. The newly retired Mafioso Don Raymonde Aprile attends his grandson's confirmation at St. Patrick's in New York, handing each kid a gold coin. Long shot: "Brilliant sunshine etched the image of that great cathedral into the streets around it." Medium shot: "The girls in frail cobwebby white lace dresses, the boys [with] traditional red neckties knitted at their throats to ward off the Devil." Close-up: "The first bullet hit the Don square in the forehead. The second bullet tore out his throat."
More crucial than the tersely described violence is the emotional setting: a traditional, loving clan menaced by traditional vendettas. With Don Aprile hit, the family's fate lies in the strong hands of his adopted nephew from Sicily, Astorre. The Don kept his own kids sheltered from the Mafia: one son is an army officer; another is a TV exec; his daughter Nicole (the most developed character of the three) is an ace lawyer who liked to debate the Don on the death penalty. "Mercy is a vice, a pretension to powers we do not have ... an unpardonable offense to the victim," the Don maintained. Astorre, a macaroni importer and affable amateur singer, was secretly trained to carry on the Don's work. Now his job is to show no mercy.
But who did the hit? Was it Kurt Cilke, the morally tormented FBI man who recently jailed most of the Mafia bosses? Or Timmona Portella, the Mob boss Cilke still wants to collar? How about Marriano Rubio, the womanizing, epicurean Peruvian diplomat who wants Nicole in bed--did he also want her papa's head?
If you didn't know Puzo wrote Omerta, it would be no mystery. His marks are all over it: lean prose, a romance with the Old Country, a taste for olives in barrels, a jaunty cynicism ("You cannot send six billionaires to prison," says Cilke's boss. "Not in a democracy"), an affection for characters with flawed hearts, like Rudolfo the $1,500-an-hour sexual massage therapist, or his short-tempered client Aspinella, the one-eyed NYPD detective. The simultaneous courtship of cheery Mafia tramp Rosie by identical hit-man twins Frankie and Stace Sturzo makes you fall in love with them all--and feel a genuine pang when blood proves thicker than eros.
This fitting capstone to Puzo's career is optioned for a film, and Michael Imperioli of TV's The Sopranos narrates the audiocassette version of the novel. But why wait for the movie? Omerta is a big, old-fashioned movie in its own right. --Tim Appelo