Friday, August 08, 2014

Timothy Hallinan's Junior Bender Series: A Thief Who Solves Crimes

I ran across Timothy Hallinan's mysteries in his Poke Rafferty series, set in Thailand -- a series that includes all the best of international crime fiction, from exotic setting to eccentric characters to humor and affection. And it's a great series to collect, read, and enjoy.

But if I could take only one Hallinan series to a desert island, it's the Junior Bender series that I'd pack.

In this era of "everybody is writing some YA if they can," the series name and covers spark some confusion -- this is NOT a series for "young adults." "Junior" happens to be the name (and his real first name, thanks to his long-gone father) of Bender himself, initiated into the world of elegantly committed theft at the age of 17, by legendary southern California burglar Herbie Mott. Bender's immaculately conceived crimes involve careful scoping of a high-end Los Angeles-area home, meticulous timing (never staying too long inside), and following Herbie's advice: Never take something away that the owner can't afford, emotionally, to give up.

As an expert thief of fine items, Junior Bender also cultivates knowledge of the art world and its values, and of course a very specialized set of fences where he's known for bringing top material and being a savvy negotiator.

But Junior's career has two peculiar quirks to it. First, he has an ex-wife and a teenage daughter, both of whom he loves and respects, and he takes care to not embarrass them with his work. And second, he's burdened with a second career: Private investigator on behalf of crooks in his area.

It's in some ways an accidental second career. His friends need his help, is what it boils down to. But when Irwin Dressler, most powerful and wealthy criminal leader in California, takes an interest in Junior's (nonexistent) business plan, this "help out the criminals" line threatens to take over Junior's life, no matter his own disagreement with the notion. Dressler is not one of those people you can safely say "no" to. "
"Junior, I'm disappointed in you."

If Dressler had said that to me the first time I'd been hauled up to his Bel Air estate for a command appearance, I'd have dropped to my knees and begged for a painless death. He is, after all, the Dark Lord in the flesh. But now I'd survived him once ...
That's the start of the third in the series, THE FAME THIEF. And Irwin Dressler's point is, Junior is the only person in this line of work -- he has a solo franchise: "That whole thing you go going? Solving crimes for crooks? And living through it?" Dressler is sure Junior should capitalize on this monopoly, and expand.

Of course, it's inevitable that Dressler himself has a task he wants Junior to tackle: restoring the reputation of a once-glamourous Hollywood actress who lost her own career in a sting operation during decades ago. Why is Dressler so concerned about Dolores La Marr? Don't ask. By the time you realize Dressler's motive, it's way too late for Junior to get out of this complicated situation where it seems like a lot of people want to kill him. Such a "nice burglar boy" -- how come he's in so much trouble (again)?

Soho Crime cast aside all current publishing expectations, to pull all four of the books in this series into the market within a mere 18 months -- so when you finish devouring the fun and cleverness of THE FAME THIEF, you can backtrack to Crashed  and Little Elvises. Or just jet straight ahead to book 4, which hit the shelves a couple of weeks ago: HERBIE'S GAME.

You know how John Le Carré captured the longing of British spies to respect themselves and have a country worth being loyal to? (It's okay, not everyone's mystery reading ranges into espionage ... mine does, though.) How Tony Hillerman wove his Western Indian detectives in a blanket of hungry friendships, loyalties, and spiritual search? Or Michael Connelly put onto the pages the detective whose roots involve self-sacrifice but who can't bend enough to stay on good terms with his employer? How about Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache, who insists that there's goodness worth honoring and fighting for, even as his own police force and his retreat in the almost perfect village of Three Pines are repeatedly undermined by the forces of evil, in ways we recognize from our own efforts to make something good from our lives?

Heavens, don't assume from that long paragraph that Hallinan is writing "literary stuff." He's definitely not -- his mysteries focus on crime capers in the spirit of Donald Westlake and even Janet Evanovich (although there's more love than lust in Hallinan's books, actually).

But here's the startling part. HERBIE'S GAME, the fourth (and for the moment final) in the Junior Bender series, takes the best darned path I've read in years into struggling with what our fathers want for us, how we sometimes lose the connection with them on the surface, how we almost never lose the important ties to them, and why it's all worthwhile in the long run.

Of course, it's not his dad that Junior's having to exhume and explore here -- it's Herbie Mott, the man to brought him into his life of crime, nurtured his skills, taught him his values, and who ... oddly ... seems to have done that with a number of other fatherless young men. He taught Junior to be like Robin Hood. Sort of. Showed him why it's important to wear booties while burglarizing ("they have that DNA now"). And helped him to deal with his own past:
"Let me tell you something. ... Don't think you know everything about your father. You loved him at one point, I can tell, because you wouldn't be so angry now if you hadn't. Well, the father you hate now is the same person as the one you loved. Just don't -- put people in boxes like that. You have know idea whether you really know someone."
Turns out, Herbie himself is one of the people that Junior didn't know as well as he thought he did. And suddenly, Junior Bender is tangled up with a team of professional killers for hire, female and male, as he struggles to discover what Herbie's final scheme had been, and how it got the master of the trade murdered. There's some time pressure, too: If Junior can't solve this really quickly, it seems likely he'll either be killed himself or end up in jail. Or both.

I know I'll be re-reading the series. But most of all, HERBIE'S GAME is the book I'll be going back to. It's a great ride as crime fiction, as entertaining capers in Los Angeles, as insight into professional theft (I am definitely upgrading the house locks!). And it's one level more. Thanks, Tim Hallinan (and Soho Crime). Good one.

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