The checkout line at the library wound past a large rack of “Graphic Novels”. In amongst the superheroes in tights I spotted Road to Perdition. I hadn’t seen the movie, and didn’t know if this was a screenplay adaptation or something else. As the line inched forward, I added it to my bundle.
When I sat down to read, I found that this was the original work on which the movie was based. The author, Max Allan Collins, had been the writer for the Dick Tracey comic strip from 1977 to 1993,and had written a series of historical detective novels, including the award-winning True Detective.
The novel is a memoir by Mike O’Sullivan, of his boyhood. Mike and his younger brother know that their father, a religious Irish Catholic World War I veteran, goes on missions and that he uses a gun — they think he goes on missions for the President. In fact, Michael O’Sullivan is the hitman, the feared “Archangel of Death” of the Looney Family’s organized crime gang in Moline/Davenport/Rock Island, during the gangland battles of Prohibition.
One night in 1930, Mike hides in the back of his father’s car, so that he can see what kinds of “missions” he goes on. His father picks up Conner Looney, the son of the mob leader, and they go to confront a rival group of bootleggers. Mike watches horrified, as his father and Looney end up killing the gang in a bloody shoot-out. Looney spots Mike, and is ready to kill the witness, until Michael, recognizing his son, stops him.
The Looney family decides that the son cannot be trusted. They send Michael on a job, on which he is set up to be killed, and send gunmen to kill Mike, his brother, and mother. Mike happens to be away at a party when gunmen kill his mother and brother. Meanwhile, “The Archangel of Death” sense he is to be betrayed, and escapes in a bloody shootout. He realizes his family is in danger, and rushes home, arriving just after Mike has found the bodies.
Knowing the gunmen will be back, father and son leave the bodies in their former house. As they drive away, Mike sobs that it is all his fault, because he snuck out and spied. His father replies, “Quiet. The fault is with the betrayers. Looney and his son. You are not responsible for the deaths of your mother and brother. And neither am I. But I am responsible for their retribution.”
With that, they set out on a bloody mission of revenge across the Midwest. Once his enemies are eradicated, Michael plans to leave his son with his wife’s relatives, on a farm in Perdition, Kansas. As he does in his other books, Collins mixes in historical figures with his fictional creations. The O’Sullivan’s mix it up with Frank Nitti and Al Capone (allies of the Looney family) and ultimately cut a deal with Elliot Ness to crack the Looney’s crime empire. During this time, O’Sullivan shows how he got his nickname, as he emerges victorious from one bloody gun battle after another. Young Mike ends up using a gun to defend his father, too, and finds that after bloody killings, his father will often seek out a Catholic church so he can go to Confession. While he does make sure his son is safe, Michael loses the last gun battle. The religious theme lasts through the book, up to a surprise end for the grown-up Mike.
The novel is stylishly drawn by the English artist Richard Piers Rayner, in a black and white “Comics Noir” style. The art set just the right mood for their travels through the Depression Midwest, to a Perdition in more ways than one.
Other than a few Harvey Pekar works, I haven’t had much exposure to graphic novels, and was surprised at how quickly I finished the book, probably in less time than it would have taken to watch the movie. (Given the number of panels that were nothing but gun battles, the overall dialog is sparse.) Collins adds a rather lengthy autobiographical introduction to the beginning of the novel that was also interesting — and will probably lead me to look for more of his work.