Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Superb Hollywood Crime Caper, in KING MAYBE, Junior Bender

To me, there's only one king of the caper novel in crime fiction: the late, great Donald Westlake. Sure, Dave Zeltserman tied up the modern "noir" caper a few years ago. Rory Flynn's carving out Boston space for his, if not quite so cheerfully. And there are regional gems like Carl Hiassen's Florida titles and the Texas ones by Kinky Friedman.

But Westlake's gift was a combination of exquisite timing (the kind a good comedian has to have) and a willingness to show that criminals can be ordinary dumb bunnies like the guy next door. Beyond that aspect of his caper novels, Westlake also revealed, in a short early series of his under the pen name Tucker Coe, that he understood heartbreak, male style, and could write it with precision and a sharp blade of a pen (or typewriter key). Even though he ended that series before his career soared, the revelation insisted on slipping into his hard-working and often-failing criminals in the rest of his work.

Timothy Hallinan hasn't used the same sort of sleight of hand. His Bangkok series featuring Poke Rafferty rose steadily into a portrait of how a "family of choice" can form and be nurtured; the biggest risks Poke takes, he takes for the sake of the people he cares about.

So when Hallinan segued into the Junior Bender series (which despite the character's name is emphatically NOT "young adult"), he took that emotional dynamic directly into the life of his exquisitely skilled, art-expert, house burglar in Hollywood, Junior Bender. Bender is in many ways clueless about how relationships work -- but he chooses phenomenal women who, if he can manage to let them, not only put up with his gaffes but also teach him how to treat a smart, wise, savvy woman ... like his ex-wife, his teenage daughter, and his current girlfriend, who's so careful not to fully trust him that he's not even sure he knows her real name.

Good thing Junior stumbled into those liaisons, because the heist he's attempting at the opening of KING MAYBE (Junior Bender #5, from Soho Crime) goes wrong so fast and so hard that he'd be a bloody battered corpse, were it not for the rapid response of his ladyfriend (and getaway driver) Ronnie. And it's only Ronnie who can keep calm enough to sort out what's pushing the disasters into place, as Junior holds an incredibly valuable postage stamp in his hands while at least three people try to kill him. Even Stinky, who hired him:
Stinky ... settled his weight farther back in the seat, which made the car dip. "As you should know from recent experience, Junior, when I want to kill you, I'll hire someone to shoot you."

"Like that other man just did," Ronnie said.

Stinky said, "What other man?"

I said, "Never mind."

"And you thought," Ronnie said serenely to Stinky, "that they caught Junior in the act, as people say, and he told them you sent him, and they said, 'Well, all right, then, thanks, here you go,' and gave him the stamp as a reward and came after you."

"Well," Stinky said, "when you put it that  way -- "

"I said the exact same thing," I told him. "When she reacted to my theory. Word for word."

... "Both of you," she said. "You're hopeless."
Hallinan braids a very believable sort of triple betrayal into the plot, while at the same time leaving it to Junior and his two tech-genius teen crime associates (who aren't supposed to be doing that any more) to figure out how to salvage his own daughter's dating life and upcoming birthday party.

I laughed my way through this enjoyable adventure, and if only crime could be this rewarding (in the long run), I might have suggested it to a few other people looking for themselves, like Junior has been. But then again, Junior Bender's Hollywood career is just fiction. ... I think!

Thanks, Tim Hallinan, for great entertainment and the best of twists and conclusions. And PS -- I wish Donald Westlake could be reading your books now.

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