Baccano!: The Rolling Bootlegs is as the title suggests (‘baccano’ supposedly means ‘commotion’) a crazy story with a lot of characters and a lot of action. I have to admit, I’d seen the anime of this story already (I’m pretty sure there’s a manga too but I haven’t seen that), so I kind of knew who was who, but the novel version actually includes a lot of things that made more sense to me in this format, including the identity of the demon who provides the immortality recipe that tastes like liquor.
This book has a complex plot but has a classic frame story set up. A Japanese tourist, the frame narrator, gets mugged in 2002 NYC after winning a free trip. When he goes to the police to report the theft (he’s most concerned about his camera), he gets directed to a mysterious man who may or may not be able to help. This man takes the narrator to a café to wait while another guy goes off to retrieve the stolen goods. While they wait, the man who claims to be a member of an organized crime group (and who has yet to give his name- he doesn’t until the very end of the book) tells the narrator that he’s older than the police officer who sent the narrator to him. This weirds the narrator a bit as the man he’s with is about his age (20s) and the officer was middle aged. The second thing that suggests something unusual is that the man stabs his own hand but heals immediately. After they order, the mystery man tells his story.
The story opens on a ship in 1711 on a ship headed from Europe to America with a group of alchemists on board. They summon a demon who gives one of them the secret recipe to create the elixir of life. There is of course a catch: if anyone who has also had the elixir touches your head with their right hand and thinks really hard they want to eat you, then you will be absorbed (ie- killed) by the other person.
Then everything fast forwards to New York 1930 (Prohibition-era). This is where the story stays until the very end when the frame comes back. There are several groups whose paths interweave. There is the evil alchemist Szilard, who was the first to start “devouring” his companions in 1711. There’s the Camorra guys (an organized crime branch) Firo, Maiza, and their friends. There’s the rising star in the police force, Edward Noah. There’s the other crime family, the Gandors, there’s the wannabe criminal mastermind Dallas and his buddies, and last but not least, Isaac and Miria, thieves who are both very good at what they do and very lacking in common sense. Mixed among them are members of the original group of alchemists who have become immortal. Hijinks and a lot of violence ensue. I think it really captures the spirit of Prohibition-era popular culture, including gangsters and speak-easys.
Then at the very end, once all the groups are connected and most of the mysteries revealed, we come back to the Japanese tourist and the man telling the story, who turns out to be one of the key players in the 1930s part of the story.
Even though it takes a little getting used to the large number of names to keep track of, the changing of perspectives is done well and by the end everything is pretty well connected. What could have been the major catastrophe of the book is a resolved with an ‘oops, my bad’ kind of revelation by Firo. It is a little deus ex machina, but it’s so well set up that I didn’t see it coming and when I went back to check, the set up really was there, just subtle. I also really like how well the story wraps up its various arcs, but still leaves the possibility for more to come (and yes, there is a second novel due out later this year I think).