The 1992 thriller Maria's Girls
is the sixth novel in award-winning author Jerome Charyn’s series featuring New York Police Commissioner Isaac Sidel. Known for his sharp, barbed dialog, and the surreal phantasmagoria of a Manhattan where anyone with a bit of power has devolved into an amoral orgy of greed, Charyn takes his reader on a tour of a New York City that is closer to Dante’s vision of hell than lived reality.
In previous books in the series, readers met Police Commissioner Isaac Sidel, known as The Pink Commish, whose way of dealing with particularly entrenched criminal masterminds is murder. One of his targets is the notoriously vicious mobster Sal Rubino, a nemesis who controls all of the cement in New York City, and who keeps just narrowly avoiding Sidel’s efforts to kill him.
This time, Sidel has decided to clean up corruption in the city’s public schools, which have become a staging ground for the criminal machinations of Carlos María Montalban, the Lower East Side representative of the Board of Education who favors a flashy lifestyle that flaunts his ill-gotten gains. Montalban’s empire involves a ring of school officials who embezzle education money by rigging bids for companies that provide educational supplies such as pencils, desks, and erasers, and extorting the city government’s lunch subsidy program. Montalban cements his control over other powerful Manhattan players through a network of fiercely loyal and highly placed prostitutes who blackmail their clients—including Sidel himself. These are the “Maria’s girls” of the novel’s title.
Knowing that he needs help to get the goods on Montalban, Sidel recruits Carroll Brent, a young detective from the Sherwood Forest precinct in Central Park, who isn’t eager to work with the Commissioner but can’t really refuse to obey his boss. Nevertheless, there are a lot of negatives to being Sidel’s “pet detective,” not least of which is the fact that every other protégé Sidel has taken under his wing has wound up dead or otherwise sidelined.
Brent’s job is to patrol the city’s schools, singlehandedly investigating Montalban. Dismaying and unappetizing, the work is the least of Brent’s problems. The younger cop has recently married Diana Cassidy, a half-billion-dollar heiress who is “the second-richest woman in New York.” The marriage quickly turns out to be a mistake, as Brent spends his life savings to keep up with his wife’s expectations, and then borrows more money from the mob to keep up appearances.
While Brent is trolling for evidence against Montalban and fretting about his vigorish (illegal loan interest) coming due, Sidel tries to come at Montalban through one of his “girls.” This idea comes to him as he discusses his work and life with associate Harriet Brown—actually, Greta Garbo in disguise—while they walk around Central Park smoking cigarettes. However, Sidel’s efforts to recruit Delia St. John to his side run up against her allegiance to the Central Park North Pornographers' Association, which turns out to be affiliated with Sidel’s old childhood sweetheart, Margaret Tolstoy, who has become an enforcer working for a mysterious power.
Brent is unable to manage his loan, which is ultimately held by Sidel’s enemy Rubino. Seeing an opportunity to get rid of Sidel once and for all, Rubino agrees to let Brent’s debt slide if the young detective will do both him and Montalban a favor and assassinate Sidel. Brent cannot help but comply. He shoots Sidel, who survives the attack, recuperating in the hospital with the help of Jell-O, long imaginary baseball games with his favorite childhood player, and visits from Margaret Tolstoy.
In the meantime, because of Brent’s hapless succumbing to the mob, his wife is targeted by the Montalban-Rubino network as well. She almost ends up as another one of Maria’s girls. Luckily for her, she is related to New York Cardinal-Archbishop Jim O’Bannon, a legendary Machiavellian powerbroker in his own right. O’Bannon has his own grudges against Sidel, with the two men on opposite sides of a rivalry over kids' softball teams, among other things.
At the novel’s climax, the complicated interconnections between New York’s archdiocese, government, high society (in the form of Diana Cassidy’s shady tycoon father), police forces (including highly connected FBI star on the rise Frederic LeComte), and crime organizations come to light. Several mob families have an epic shootout at a Central Park baseball game, leaving few survivors to pick up the pieces. Sidel, of course, lives and goes on to be the hero of six more novels.