Little is known about this little stand-alone crime novel “The Phony Hitman”. It was published in 1977 by the equally unknown author Joseph R. Pici, whose only other work seems to be “The Tennis Hustler”. The novel was released by Major Books, an unknown publisher to me until my acquisition of this book. According to Justin Marriott (“Hot Lead”, “Men of Violence”), this publisher may have been an imprint of Parliament, owned by artist Milton Luros, who also owned the Brandon House line at the time. Regardless of sporadic details regarding the book and author, what we now know is that “The Phony Hitman” is a really good 70s crime novel worthy of your time and efforts prowling those dusty shelves in dives, yard sales and flea markets.
Tony Marks is a 34-year old ex-CIA assassin. He's recorded numerous kills in Saigon and Cambodia, and now lives as a remorseful retired vet working at a successful insurance company. To cope with his past, and the killing he did for the government, Tony runs a bizarre, yet interesting game – he does mock assassinations. The book's opening finds Tony entering a baseball stadium in New York with a disassembled rifle. From a concealed location in the left field bleachers, Tony “shoots” the Pope, who is performing a ceremony in front of fans and the flock. Tony writes it down in a book, a memento of how he could have killed the Pope if he wanted to. As we get further into the opening chapters, we learn that Tony has a massive book of fake assassinations ranging from movie stars to musical celebrities. No one else knows his secret game except his love interest Marylou, who somehow gets off on the fact that Tony can kill if he wants to. Tony utilizes the game as a way to redeem himself, not taking lives in exchange for the ones that he killed. Whatever helps you sleep at night.
Soon, Tony begins to see some strongmen following him, and runs into one at an author "assassination" at a nearby college. They make Tony attend a meeting with local mobster Rico Petrello, who forcefully explains that Tony now works for him. He offers Tony a deal – he will let him live as long as he accepts this new position and a $100,000 check to kill a rival mobster named Anson Hawks. If Tony refuses, he will be hunted and killed by the Mob. If he partakes, he will need to accumulate knowledge and intel on Hawks, a media mogul who is fortified in a tower by goons, guards and guns. Did I mention he is surrounded by 24-hour surveillance and never leaves the tower? Tony realizes the job is nearly impossible, but must attempt this real assassination or die a gruesome death at the hands of Petrello.
“The Phony Hitman” moves at an intense pace and presents a really good narrative to explore. The reader is in Tony's shoes and contemplating how to survive the ordeal. The author, while not the best dialogue writer, creates some really intriguing situations and introduces some likable characters that provide an adequate dynamic to the propelling, central story. There's plenty of action, both with Tony attempting the break-in but also Petrello's enforcers roughing up Tony's friends as an intimidation factor. All of these elements really contribute to a fantastic story that has shades of “Quarry” without Collins' staggering talents and sense of humor. I think most fans of the genre will find “The Phony Hitman” is a genuine gem.