What if professional wrestling in the territory days was literally run like the mob? That question is the running theme behind Paul O'Brien's wrestling fiction novel, "Blood Red Turns Dollar Green." The story, told partially in flashback, primarily follows the exploits of Danno Garland, promoter of the New York territory, and his dealings with the National Wrestling Council (NWC), a fictional version of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA).
Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the wrestling world is starkly different from today's scene that is dominated by one company. O'Brien harkens back to the days of the territories where one man (or woman) would own the rights to television and promoting in one area. Those territories formed a loose organization that crowned one champion to represent them all while traveling from territory to territory.
The primary conflict in the book centers around Danno's blue chip prospect, a giant of a man who goes by the moniker "The African Giant, Babu." Danno believes the NWC should put the belt on his giant. The longtime owner of the NWC uses his political, and suggested illegal, influence to keep that from happening. This sets off a chain of events that sees Danno pinned between another member of the NWC, the NY State Athletic Commission, and his own personal interest.
The book is two hundred plus pages of twists and turns, deal making and deal breaking, and wrestlers working as hit men for their promoter bosses. One thing is for sure about this book, it is not a wrestling book. It is an organized crime drama with wrestling used as a vehicle to tell the story. That is not a problem, but it needs to be said up front for anyone who is looking to buy another wrestling themed book. If you buy O'Brien's book looking for primarily wrestling, you will be disappointed. If you are a fan of both crime dramas and wrestling, then there is much here to like.
There is enough palace intrigue in this book to choke a godfather. Danno's character starts out small and weak, but grows to fill the shoes that are expected of him as the boss. Lenny Lane is the archetypal wannabe. Lane wants nothing more than to be "made" to the business, and spends most of the book alienating his family and sucking up to Danno to make that happen. Danno's right hand man, Ricky Plick, serves as Danno's backbone and sounding board for much of the book and is a believable character. As is Proctor King, promoter of the Florida territory and primary antagonist to Danno.
The action is gritty and well written. O'Brien uses the language well as both a medium and a function of action scenes. There is a lot of violence in the book, as befitting a novel of the type. Several characters are maimed or killed in gruesome ways, including one particular nasty moment involving an ankle in the ring, and more than one gun gets waved around.
O'Brien is at his best, though, when writing the way wrestlers acted during the time of the story. The book opens with a car crash involving Lane, Babu, and Gilbert King, Proctor's son and scheduled opponent to Babu at the major show that night. True to form, Gilbert demands that the business be protected first by having Lane drag his broken and partially mutilated body away from the crash scene because he and the giant can never be seen together. The scene rings true for any fan that is familiar with the plane crash involving Mr. Wrestling Tim Woods, who wrestled with a broken back and ribs just to prove he hadn't been anywhere near the plane.
The book is not without its problems. Keep in mind that I am not a fan of gritty crime dramas as a rule, so some of the things I critique may actually be perks because of the genre. That said, there are some structural problems with the book that would be problems in any genre. The one that stood out to me the most was the ending. This is the first book of a longer planned series, and as such, points to the next book as this one ends. O'Brien introduces brand new information in the last ten pages of the book that casts the entire book in a new light and leaves readers with a serious cliffhanger.
That may work in television, but it doesn't work well in print. The problem is that any book should be able to stand on its own, and "Blood Red Turns Dollar Green" does not. The new information literally changes everything you know about what you just read, but leaves you without any information to follow up on. This may help sale the next book, but in talking to many authors of serial novels, the one thing I was told over and over was, "Never burn one book to sell another. It will only piss off your readers."
The other major issue with the book is the layout of time. The first half of the book is told in flashback, with the opening scene repeated roughly halfway through and moving forward from there. As with most books, the location also changes frequently, bouncing between Danno, Proctor, and others. Sometimes these location and date changes are labeled, sometimes they are not. When they are labeled, sometimes we are given an exact date, sometimes it is "Five days later." The inconsistency makes it hard to keep up at times and can prove frustrating when the passage of time is used as a plot point.
When I say the opening scene is repeated halfway through, I literally mean it was repeated. Word for word repeated. Even though we now have new context for everything we see, O'Brien simply copies and pastes the original text back into the middle with no additional insight into why the characters are doing what they are doing. So much of the book is hidden in shadows and "worked," if you will, that it sometimes falls prey to the same poor logic that can invade actual wrestling when everyone is trying too hard to not break kayfabe. Sometimes it seems O'Brien is trying to tell two or three different stories at the same time, and everything gets lost in the shuffle
"Blood Red Turns Dollar Green" is not for everyone, but if you enjoy crime novels I would recommend giving it a chance. O'Brien has a core of a good story here, and if he can narrow his focus in the next installments to that core story, this can become a very good series. While I personally am not a fan of wrestling mixed with the mob--due to wrestling's already less than stellar reputation over the years--I do appreciate the way O'Brien does it.
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