The Bottom Line: An exhilarating and original organized crime thriller that delivers big time on atmosphere, intrigue and fun.
Set in the 1970s, Immoral Origins is the story of a low-level thief from Hell’s Kitchen, Jake Barnum, who is recruited into a life of organized crime. But if you’re thinking of The Godfather, think again. Author Lee Matthew Goldberg turns organized crime stereotypes on their head with a truly fresh criminal syndicate called The Desire Card. Its members do much of their business in celebrity masks and fulfill any wish “for the right price.”
Jack’s entry into The Desire Card is as mysterious and tantalizing as it is fun. He’s recruited by a woman who, due to her nefarious accomplishments, has earned the exclusive right to wear a Marilyn Monroe mask. And Jake, who aspires to be a modern-day Robin Hood, unwittingly embarks on nothing less than a criminal masterclass in economics, psychology and morality. Not long after he sees how well a high-class operative like Marylin lives, he gets his first taste of success as a new wheelchair for his sickly brother is delivered to the home he shares with his family. It’s one of several heartbreaking scenes, as the arrival of the wheelchair confirms to Jack’s parents that their son is likely mixed up with someone powerful and dangerous. But as Jake’s hardworking father stands there reeking of fish guts from his work at the market, the family quickly sweeps the issue under the rug and celebrates the much-needed gift.
Goldberg creates sizzling-hot chemistry between Jake and Marylin and takes it into surprising new territory. As much as she’s an object of lust, Marilyn is also a mentor. In a bombshell scene in which Jake completely misreads a situation that has caused her physical harm, she asks him, “What kind of wishes do you think are most popular?” Jake’s answer to that question reveals his naitive. Her shocking reveal lays bare the true nature of the life he’s chosen.
The closer Jake gets to the truth about The Desire Card’s leadership and business model, the more unputdownable the book becomes. Along the way, the story itself is nothing less than a glittering museum of pop culture spanning from the 40s to the late 70s. For example, readers will have fun Googling the real-life relationship between Marilyn Monroe and Errol Flynn while speculating about why Goldberg has used their personas in the ways that he does. Cultural references aplenty come from the worlds of politics, art and television, ensuring readers remain transported to a singular time and place.
But most of all, fans of 1970s pop music should prepare for a torrent of earworms. Goldberg fills the novel with vibrant scenes, including some at Studio 54, paired with perfectly iconic tracks. The book’s playlist includes all the disco gems you’d expect from the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson and others, as well as choice rock and new wave cuts from Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, The Cure, Springsteen and others. That makes Immoral Origins a story you won’t get out of your mind, or your ears, anytime soon.