I see a historical suspense book like this as a sort of palate cleanser between more substantial courses of reading, and in that role The Gangster serves very nicely. It’s historically accurate to the extent it needs to be, the plot moves along briskly, the characters are believable if somewhat one-dimensional and it builds suspense nicely even if it’s not exactly filled with surprising twists and turns. I’m no expert on Cussler – this is the first book of his I’ve ever picked up – so I can make no point of comparison with his other books or others in this apparent series built around the character of an early 20th century private detective named Isaac Bell. But it certainly is entertaining enough to keep you reading and you don’t need to have read anything else in the series to follow the plot or appreciate the characters.
The plot focuses on a mysterious Italian underworld operation called “The Black Hand,” that preys on Italian immigrants in New York City, especially those who have managed to begin accumulating some success and wealth. In the midst of their activities the leader of the group – an otherwise respectable businessman who successfully hides his identity at the helm of a criminal enterprise – manages to team up with a top-tier American industrialist who is outraged and endangered by reforms promoted by President Theodore Roosevelt. The two team up, each for his own selfish reasons, in a plot to kill Roosevelt, and it is Bell’s lot to, first, identify the plot, then identify the people in it and try to stop it.
Since we know Roosevelt did not die in office, there’s little suspense surrounding whether the plot against him will succeed, but it is interesting to follow along with how the plotters devise their scheme and how Bell and his associates manage to work it out. Don’t expect much of a dose of reality along the way. Bell is not quite a superman, but he does manage some extremely deft mental and physical maneuvers coming out of a three-day coma with physical injuries from a bomb explosion he narrowly survives, and his finely tuned areas of expertise include disguise, ice-yacht racing, professional boxing and marksmanship, among many others.
If you’re not a stickler for such excesses and aren’t worried about the peculiar romantic relationship seen only rarely and that seems ultimately to exist only to provide a satisfying closing scene, you’ll likely find this a sufficiently enjoyable departure from more-serious fare. And, as such experiences ought to do, you’ll probably be well prepared to dig into something more substantial and rewarding.