Monday, July 22, 2013

On a Bender x3: Crashed, Little Elvises and The Fame Thief, by Timothy Hallinan

After spending a LOT of time on all of this dark crime, it's time to lighten up for a while with the added pleasure of discovering a previously-unread (by me) author.   Timothy Hallinan is a snarky writer who, among all of his other talents, has totally captured Los Angeles in his three novels Crashed, Little Elvises, and The Fame Thief.    I know -- I worked there for some time and lived pretty much next door to the Valley for what seems like eons, and he's nailed it.  You  meet all kinds of people, see all sorts of bizarro-world things that are perfectly normal there,  and well, he's somehow managed to capture that feel of LA that's pretty much indescribable to people who've never lived or spent major amounts of time there. 

Hallinan's antihero main character is Junior Bender, so-called because his father's name was Merle and, not wanting to saddle his son with the same name, his dad officially named him Junior.  His education consisted of reading through The Recognitions, by William Gaddis, a book that led him on to other books where he learned a host of other important things.  Junior is divorced from Kathy, and has a wise-beyond-her-years newly- teenaged daughter named Rina whom he absolutely adores.  Junior, however, is not like other dads -- he makes his living as a burglar, a career he started at the age of 15, and sometimes does favors for less savory people who have no other avenues and who know Junior will  get the job done. 

In the first installment of this series, Crashed,
Soho Crime, 2012
356 pp
career-burgler Junior Bender has picked up a gig from a  "facilitator," whose client wants Junior to steal a Paul Klee painting from some people who are currently on vacation.  She has provided the layout and other info Junior will need to know -- but what she doesn't know is that there's a video camera that is tracking Junior's every move.  Sadly, he discovers it too late...and the guy who monitors the stored recordings has him in a corner. He will either work for Trey Annunziato, "a third-generation hood," "heir to the Valley's most diversified crime family," and "Mount Rushmore with hair," and do the job right, or his face will be the one the painting's owners see on the recording when they come back from their vacation.  Trey is planning to go straight and has decided to make one last porno movie "to finance everybody's transition to the straight life," meaning all of those people involved in her criminal enterprises.  The star is going to be a former child actress, Thistle Downing  who captured everyone's hearts on her own television show some years earlier but now is a drug addict having trouble making it through the day.  While Trey's plan to exploit Thistle is already in progress, there are people who don't want to see the film made, and there have already been problems.  Junior's job is to make sure Thistle is ready to work, and to see that the film gets made at any cost.   As Junior soon finds out, this won't be easy -- and when one of his friends ends up dead, it becomes personal.

It sounds kind of like a cut-and-dried kind of mystery, but no. There are multiple laugh-out-loud moments and the author's totally nailed LA and the Valley here, along with the various personality types you find living there.  No one is safe from his snark here, most especially  the media vultures and the film industry.  Crashed is a book that is hard to dislike -- and I don't really have anything on the negatory side to say about it.  It's good for all crime readers, especially when you want something on the lighter as opposed to edgy side, although it does have its moments of blood, guts and wisecracks.  As an anti-hero, Junior's one of the best -- he has a conscience and a very clear sense of morality with lines he tries not to cross unless absolutely necessary.  In his own burglar sort of way, he's a wonderful dad, and has made a promise to himself to never lie to his daughter -- who has her own very cool personality as well.   Definitely a first-rate series starter, and after I finish this series, I'll be off to find others by this writer.   I LOVED this book, and I think my enthusiasm must have bubbled over, because now my husband is reading it. We never agree on crime novels, but I think this book may prove to be the exception.

Moving on to the second book in this series, Little Elvises

Soho Crime, 2012
347 pp
has one of those very cool storylines where the past returns to bite people in the butt in the present.  As in the previous book, Junior is once again being blackmailed into something he doesn't particularly want to do.  A Detective DiGaudio tells him that the cops can make him for a crime that could put him away for twenty years, even though he and Junior both know he didn't do it.  Even though he has an alibi, the people Junior was with at the time of the crime have been already intimidated by the cops so he can't hope for any help in that arena.  As it turns out, diGaudio's uncle Vinnie, who lives with an ex WWF wrestler named Hilda the Queen of the Gestapo and now goes by Popsie, is on the edge of being arrested for the murder of tabloid hack Derek Bigelow.  Vinnie's on the hook because people have heard him say he was planning on offing the guy, but actually, some unknown person beat him to it.  The detective wants Junior to get his uncle's name cleared ... or Junior goes down.

Back in the 1950s/60s, Vinnie, who has a long history with the music industry,  promoted "Little Elvises," who were all the rage on an American Bandstand-type program -- there for their handsome looks rather for any musical talent.   They filled a vacuum between the "raw" -- Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, for example, and the Pat Boone types.  These "handsome Italian kids with tight pants and big hair,"  as Junior's daughter told him in a report she did for school, were "churned up to the surface in the wake of Elvis Presley" in Philadelphia.  The "most pathetic" of the little Elvises was named Giorgio,  and one of the better ones, Bobby Angel, just disappeared one day.  Having no choice, Junior has to take this case seriously, but it isn't long until Junior realizes that someone's after him --  after his first visit to Uncle Vinnie,  someone's already shooting at him.   Hiding out at the North Pole Motel in the Blitzen room, he enlists the help of Louie the Lost, his friend who gained his name when as a getaway driver he got lost in a Compton neighborhood with a trunk full of diamonds.   With the help of his daughter Rina, Junior blazes his way through a very strange case; however, he's actually in for more than he bargained for when Bigelow's widow cozies up to him and when Marge, the North Pole's owner, asks him to find her missing daughter. 

You just have to appreciate Timothy Hallinan's whacked imagination in these books.   Once again, he's done an excellent job in evoking LA's craziness and its overall atmosphere, which really is like nowhere else if you really get to know it.   Junior's character has definitely become a bit more complex since Crashed, especially in his interactions with his daughter and his ambivalence about his ex-wife, especially now that she seems to have a new boyfriend.  Like the other book, his interactions with the other characters are often hysterical, but in this slice of the world Hallinan has created, make perfect sense.  And what characters they are -- crazy as loons some of them.    The author notes that he wanted to "play with the idea with the idea of media imitation" here, but there's also a theme that carries over from Crashed -- namely, the idea that fame can destroy someone who's not prepared for it. Once again, I'm floored by how good this book is -- while it may seem a bit complicated at first, as the few initial "aha" moments are reached, things begin to fall into place easily. Underneath the laughs, there is a sad and rather human human story here. Recommended.

Moving on to the third and newest book in this series, with grateful thanks to Soho,  Junior's back in The Fame Thief, another story that has its roots in the past and in the entertainment industry.

Soho Crime, 2013
324 pp
ARC from Soho Crime (thanks!)

The Fame Thief might be considered an ode to "all the beautiful and not so beautiful girls everywhere who lose their way in the world without stumbling over anyone kind."

We're back in Hollywood territory once again as Junior takes on a sixty-plus year old mystery.  This time he's not being blackmailed, but he's been summoned and hired by Irwin Dressler, a career mobster who pretty much controlled everything that went on in Hollywood for years.  Dressler is in his 90s, and is taken care of by two thugs named Tuffy and Babe, but he is still one of the most dangerous old men around and someone to whom no one says no.  Junior has been picked up by Dressler to find out who destroyed the career of Dolores La Marr, an actress who was once known as "the most beautiful woman in the world," and a Life Magazine cover girl way back when.  One night in Vegas, 1950, the cops raided a party and everyone was picked up and tossed into jail, but everyone was bailed out within a couple of hours.  Everyone, that is, except Dolores.  A picture taken through the bars of her cell --"no sleep, no shower, no hairbrush, " makeup everywhere from crying -- turned up "everywhere," followed by more stories leaking pictures of Dolores with known criminals.  As Dolores notes, 
"One day I was the wide-eyed innocent from Scranton who was hitting it big in the sticks, and a week later I was the Whore of Babylon, I was a gun moll, I was a paid companion, I was a prostitute...I was over."

Dressler wants to know who set her up back then, and Junior starts looking into Hollywood's past, which is more than connected with the mob. But when he starts digging, people start dying.

The Fame Thief is another fine entry in this series, and like the other two,  filled with that sarcastic, snarky humor that sets this series apart as well as that insider view of Los Angeles. There are a couple of diversions here not found in the others, though -- first, a step back in time to get the picture from Dolores' point of view, cool because I love when the past meets present in any novel;  second, well, let's just say it's an element that took me by surprise and one which I was not so keen on, but I won't spoil it.  I think all in all, this book may have been my favorite as far as storyline (without the final chapter), and I'll definitely look forward to the next installment. 


  1. I have the first on my wishlist, one small step away from actually pressing the button to buy!
    TBR pile is horrendous though.
    I did look at his first character series also, protagonist name escapes me, have you tried it?

    1. Hi
      I haven't tried his other books, but several people have suggested them to me. I believe it's Poke Rafferty. I'll probably take a peek at the first one at least and post my thoughts about it here.


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