For all the shout-outs to the notorious Lindbergh baby kidnapping, this nifty and satisfying period piece, set in the waning days of Prohibition, never really goes anywhere near that infamous case. Nor does it need to. The story of Jimmy “The Stick” Quinn, former mob runner, bootlegger, and gunman and current Manhattan speakeasy owner, is good enough to stand on its own. That’s because Jimmy’s quite the storyteller, and his narrative voice, like the booze he serves, is “top-notch stuff.”
A former “known associate” of people like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, Jimmy still considers himself a “knucks and knives” kind of guy, but a bullet in the leg and the murder of longtime mentor A.R. (Arnold Rothstein) has convinced him to go legit (or at least as legit as any speakeasy operator during Prohibition can be). But when Walter “Spence” Spenser (an old pal who has also gone “straight,” marrying into a wealthy petroleum family) invites him to the New Jersey boondocks to watch over his household while he has to attend to oil company business in South America, the loyal-to-a-fault Jimmy reluctantly agrees. Apparently Flora, Spence’s sexy but flighty young wife, has a bad case of “the screaming meemies.” She is convinced that her and Spence’s own infant, Ethan, is next on the Lindbergh kidnapper’s list. So Jimmy throws some clothes, his leg brace, and a few weapons into his Gladstone, and makes his way over the bridge, figuring it’s a quiet babysitting job, a simple favor for his friend, only to be dropped into a morass of deception and corruption that exposes the rampant moral, social, and upstairs/downstairs class hypocrisies and desperation of the Depression era.
Imagine an Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery soaked in booze and violence, with the detective played as a cold, pragmatic street fighter instead of some effete Belgian fop. The expected traditional shenanigans unfold (there’s even a hidden room!), albeit in a rather hardboiled and occasionally bloody fashion, but the solution is clever and fair. What really sticks, however, is the film critic and first-time novelist’s muscular way with character and plot, and particularly Jimmy’s way with words. I wouldn’t mind hearing from him again.