Gene Lyons
February 04, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

Ever since Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather and the three Francis Ford Coppola films it inspired, Americans have tended to view the Mafia with great solemnity. Dark, brooding, passionate, and filled with religious symbolism, Coppola’s Godfather series portrayed the Mob as crude but nevertheless tragic aristocrats, living and dying by the dictates of a perverse, anachronistic, yet somehow heroic code of honor. A singular exception — and a very funny one — has been Richard Condon, author of Prizzi’s Honor. Condon also cowrote the screenplay for John Huston’s sly black-comic movie version of his novel, starring Jack Nicholson as Charley Partanna, the naive and sentimental hit man.

In Prizzi’s Money, Condon’s fourth novel about the antic misadventures of a Brooklyn crime ”family” loosely resembling the real-life Gambinos, the tone is, if anything, more gleefully cynical than ever. It seems that one Henry George Asbury, ”adviser to presidents,” has vanished into thin air, plucked somehow from the helm of a speeding cigarette boat on Long Island Sound in broad daylight and held for a $75 million ransom. To the media, it’s no less than ”a story made in heaven…a National Enquirer scoop made kosher and fit for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.”

To his wife, Julia Asbury, however, the scam is not exactly a surprise. The whole thing was her idea to begin with — a way of escaping the impending collapse of her husband’s highly leveraged real estate empire with a surefire, tax-free bonanza. Unknown to her impeccably Methodist husband, see, Julia’s the daughter of Alberto Gino Melvini, ”a.k.a. The Plumber,” a longtime vindicatore for the Prizzis.

Indeed, Julia’s plans are even more ambitious than her husband realizes. ”[A]lthough $75 million sounded like a lot of money,” thought Julia, ”it actually went very fast.” So while Henry’s in hiding, she has contrived a scheme to sell short and loot the empire clean. Problem is, unknown to her, the Prizzis own her husband, too — which comes as a terrible shock to a woman who’d plotted all her life to use her beauty and cunning to escape the Family’s smothering embrace. Poor thing, ”she had believed that Henry George Asbury was…more legitimate than Abraham Lincoln. The way things were going he would probably turn out to be a wop hoodlum named Johnny Bigshoes.”

So it’s the Prizzis with whom Henry subcontracted the kidnapping, and Prizzi money Julia’s actually stealing. As The Plumber’s daughter, Julia knows the penalty all too well. Honor be damned, it’s the cash that counts. Her only defense, in a series of dazzling moves involving planted newspaper stories and a tearful appearance on Good Morning America, is to go public. To the Prizzis, the Mafia code is something that exists in the minds of reporters and moviegoers, and the Don wants her iced. But his consigliere fears the public relations consequences. ”What will the American people think of omerta,” he asks, ”if we zotz the daughter of a made man?”

One solution is to get hit man Charley Partanna to put ”the fear” into her — a baleful stare he has been practicing in the mirror since childhood. But poor Charley’s a reader of Barbara Cartland romance novels, possibly ”the most woman-susceptible man since Henry VIII or John F. Kennedy,” and a lump of pizza dough in Julia’s hands.

Condon’s manic plot occasionally escapes his control, but even so, Prizzi’s Money supplies a horselaugh on just about every page. B+

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