It is 1932, and William “Butch” Cardinal, like most of America, has fallen on hard times. Formerly known as “Butcher” Cardinal, a world-class wrestler who “coulda been a contender,” he is now lucky to find work as hired muscle for a Chicago mobster. While collecting a small parcel for his employer one evening, he witnesses the murder of his contact. Himself wounded, he escapes with his life, the clothes on his back, and the package; however, he is framed for the murder, and so flees to New Orleans, where he finds sanctuary with Hollis Rossington, another disgraced wrestler, now manager of a nightclub. While the Chicago mob, the Chicago police, an insane hitman, and two mysterious gentlemen pursue him—each for different reasons—Butch tries to make sense of the mystery he has unexpectedly stumbled into, and discover what is so important about the package. All it contains is a necklace—a necklace with a bent and scratched pendant, not even a single gem—but a lot of people are willing to kill to have it. Kill anyone, including Butch Cardinal. And a lot of people will die on account of it. A lot of people.
The necklace is the mystical element dropped into Butch's world, a milieu otherwise indistinguishable from standard noir crime fiction. Thomas makes sparing use of the occult, however, which centers mostly on the two members of the Alchemi—Brand and Hayes—who shadow Butch in order to regain the necklace. The Alchemi have been guardians and keepers of mystical artifacts for a long time, but whether their desire to reclaim the necklace is part of a larger agenda is not revealed; they, like nearly everyone else in the novel, are morally ambiguous and appear motivated purely by self-interest. In keeping with the air of uncertainty in the novel, Thomas reveals only just enough of their motivations and abilities to further the narrative.
For all the mystic abilities employed by the Alchemi, and the violence surrounding their methods, it is Paul Rabin, whose detached, methodical tortures and killings are far more chilling, and provide much of the horror in the novel. In a city essentially at war—the Italian mob of southern Chicago against the northern Irish syndicate—Rabin stands out for his cruelty, which is evident from his first appearance, when he “accidentally” cuts the hand of a nurse while visiting his wife in the hospital.
Butch's romance with Rossington is the only non-violent supbplot in the entire narrative. Even so, it does not begin easily—Butch initially finds Rossington's relatively open life unsettling, partly because it forces him to confront several unpleasant memories. Despite this, it is Butch who makes the first move. Given the setting of the novel, one cannot say that Butch's relationship with Rossington will lead to any greater self-acceptance or even long-term happiness on the part of Butch: he is too much a product of his world and time, and is not given to serious introspection.
Gritty, tense, this dark novel grabs hold of you by the lapels and doesn't let go once you begin. Thomas maintains a break-neck pace throughout, as Butch painstakingly uncovers the secret of the necklace and the plot surrounding his own (unwitting) involvement. One of the things Butch learns on his quest for understanding is that he, too, has an affinity for the artifacts the Alchemi collects. This affinity—in much the same way that Butch's relationship with Rossington forces him to reconsider his sexuality—reawakens his sense of wonder, killed by his abusive father when he was still a child. Will Thomas consider a sequel, where these and other themes can be developed further?
Keith Glaeske is a medievalist and collector of speculative fiction currently living in Washington, DC. His articles about medieval literature have been published in Medieval Perspectives, Traditio, and Ériu.