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I'm reading the Godfather by M.Puzo and here is the paragraph I was confused about a bit:

Don Corleone asked only one question at the end. "Is it certain my son is dead?"

Clemenza answered. "Yes," he said. "The bodyguards were of Santino's regime but picked by me. I questioned them when they came to my house. They saw his body in the light of the tollhouse. He could not live with the wounds they saw. They place their lives in forfeit for what they say."

I understand all the meanings of the words in the final sentence. But cannot catch the meaning of the whole sentence. I could guess that it meant that if they made a mistake they would shot to death then. Right?

  • Any dictionary will teach you what the noun forfeit means. For instance, the Collins Dictionary has as its first definition: "something lost or given up as a penalty for a fault, mistake, etc." If you read and understand the entire entry, placing something in forfeit should be easy to understand: it means making something liable to be lost. – P. E. Dant Nov 16 '16 at 22:10
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It's no wonder that you have to guess what the last line means, because even a native speaker might have to figure it out from context. This is called "to read between the lines" and, of course, is something you have to do in any language.

Here Clemenza uses unusual language ("place their lives in forfeit") in a familiar way, which implies that this is the kind of thing mobsters might frequently hear or say. The meaning, as you guessed, is that the Don might have them killed -- that they will live or die depending on how he interprets their excuses -- but it is not a phrase that real people might use.

Authors likes to include this sort of thing to "set the scene" and convince readers they accurately describe what these sort of people would actually talk like. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don't. And sometimes life imitates art, and real mobsters like the movie so much that they start talking like the characters in The Godfather.

(Ironically, Mario Puzo himself said he never met an actual gangster, and just improvised the dialogue in his novel.)

Anyway, another way to say this is that "their lives hang in the balance", as well as various other idioms.

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To place your life in forfeit is to surrender your life. In other words, to die (or be soon to die).

The bodyguards know that they failed in their job. And they know that saying this will lead to their deaths. They're forfeiting their lives instead of, say, trying to run away.

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