What made The Godfather such an enduring classic?
Detectives, gangsters, gun-toting men in suits, bullets flying at street corners, a disquieting darkness that lingers below the surface in the best of times… All part and parcel of the crime novel. One of the most popular genres out there and one whose offerings are frequently adapted to film. What makes a great crime novel? Let's examine that while analysing one of the very best — Mario Puzo's The Godfather.
At first glance, The Godfather does something that you wouldn't normally expect from a crime novel. Not when it was first published in 1969, anyway. It takes the entire genre away from its world of detectives, gangsters and femme fatales, and into the realm of the family saga. At its very core, The Godfather is the story of the Corleone family. It has the historical sweep of the family saga, spanning the years from 1945-55 while including a back story of the family patriarch Vito Corleone's journey from his native Sicily to America where he becomes a gangster. As if that isn't innovative enough, most of the men at the centre of the novel are family men. Very different from Sherlock Holmes, Kurt Wallander and other hard-bitten loners that tend to populate most crime novels.
Even more than the stories they tell, novels are about characters. A good character is not only interesting but also changes over the course of the novel. The Godfather has at its centre Michael Corleone. When we meet Michael, he is a war hero who has just returned from World War II and is involved with a girl who does not come from the Mafia milieu. He is also determined to make a life for himself outside the world of crime. Over the course of the novel, he transforms into a ruthless gangster who will order a hit on his own brother-in-law to consolidate his power. On the one hand, he gives up what he wants for his family's survival. On the other, this act of selflessness robs him of all his humanity and he ends up becoming the kind of man he once despised. Jacques Mesrine, possibly the most famous French gangster of the 20th century, once said, ‘There are no heroes in crime.' The Godfather charts the beguiling journey of Michael from hero to a disturbing anti-hero with shades of villainy. Alongside Michael is a cast of equally compelling characters; Vito Corleone, the penniless Italian immigrant who lives out the dark version of the American dream by making his fortune as an outlaw; Sonny, Michael's womanising elder brother; Luca Brasi, Vito Corleone's enforcer whom he uses to make people an offer they can't refuse…
All these characters people the violent world of the Mafia. Now, more than 40 years later, thanks to the many novels influenced by The Godfather that world looks familiar. When the book first came out, it had the effect of transporting the reader into a parallel universe. A universe of shifting alliances, where ties of blood are paramount. This world has its own moral code, as well as its own language and hierarchies. How well Puzo succeeds in evoking it is manifested in the fact that so much of the novel's lingua franca now forms part of everyday speech. Cosa Nostra, consiglieri, capo… The English-speaking world first became familiar with these words in The Godfather.
Finally, The Godfather feeds off real life and literature in ways that enhance its appeal. With its historical sweep, it can be seen as a history of organised crime in the United States in the middle of the 20th century. Many of the characters are based on real-life figures. For instance, the character of Johnny Fontane is modelled on the American singer and actor Frank Sinatra. It is now widely acknowledged that Sinatra's Mafia connections were instrumental in getting him the role he coveted in the movie version of “From Here to Eternity”. The movie that came out in 1953 won Sinatra a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and resurrected his career after years of failure. In the novel, Johnny Fontane seeks a similar favour from Vito Corleone. The influence of literature is also keenly felt. Puzo idolised the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the character of Luca Brasi has shades of Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment.
With The Godfather, Mario Puzo popularised a sub-genre that mixes the crime novel with the family saga. With the help of its memorable cast of characters, he transported the readers into a whole new world. By rooting The Godfather in real life and literature, he lent it a depth it would not have had as pure fiction. In the process, he created an enduring classic.