Monday, July 28, 2014

Herbie's Game, by Timothy Hallinan

Soho Crime, 2014
400 pp

arc from the publisher - thank you!

Junior Bender is back in a fourth episode, following Crashed, Little Elvises, and The Fame Thief but still going strong.  I've been binge watching every season of Game of Thrones lately trying to be ready for season five,  but I gave up several very late nights of watching to read this book -- and it was well worth it.  That actually says a lot, because Game of Thrones is deep in my blood right now.  

Moving right along, Herbie's Game begins as our burglar hero Junior Bender is asked by a "contractor" named Wattles to retrieve some property of his that had been stolen. Wattles, whose memory is "not what it used to be," would 
"arrange anything, from a cautionary faceful of knuckles or a modest supermarket fire all the way up to a whack, for the right fee." 
Someone hired Wattles to do a hit, and he'd written down the chain of "disconnects" that were to be involved.  He stashed the list of names in his safe and now it's been taken. Wattles wants it back. Signs point to Junior's old mentor and surrogate dad Herbie Mott as the thief, but when Junior goes to see him, Herbie is dead after being tortured in a not-so-very-nice way.  Junior is brought low by Herbie's death, and as he continues to track down the chain of disconnects, he not only reflects on Herbie's importance to him in his life, but finds out more about Herbie than he's ever known. He also runs up against someone who seems to be a step or two ahead of him each time, someone who leaves behind dead bodies but no clues.

If you've lived in Los Angeles for any length of time, then you're aware that Hallinan knows not only the area, but the people who live there.  I have seen pretty much all of his archetypes on the streets and on the beaches there, and his characters are spot on.  In Herbie's Game he's added a new one that just cracked me up -- Ting Ting the lovable Filipino houseboy who may have gotten the better of Junior, but who for some reason is very attractive to the criminal element of both sexes.  He also adds a couple of teenaged hacker girls who make much more than Junior ever will (one of whom is planning to use the money to go to MIT later),  an over-the-top attorney with mirrored shades, a killer who got religion and a clairvoyant who runs The All-Seeing Eye by the name of Handkerchief.    It is this ensemble of  characters, along with a host of others,  who make these books work and work well -- because despite the fact that they're all pretty much involved in some form of crime or another, they come off as realistic people you grow to care about. They all see their worlds through a very different perspective, and as all these lives unfold, with Junior at the center,  the result is that you might actually find yourselves rooting for their success.

Each and every one of these books has had their laugh-out-loud moments, and this one is no exception. At the same time, Herbie's Game has its somber moments as Junior works through his grief over the loss of Herbie, which brings his mind around once again to his feelings about his father, which makes him ponder the kind of father he is to his teenaged daughter Rina.  And in the midst of the comedy, Hallinan's characters will take a few moments to ponder social and economic injustices, a trait  which elevates this book, and indeed the entire series, to something well beyond being just  another "caper" novel.

I have to say that I get nothing but pure pleasure from reading  these books, and I highly recommend them. Do not, I repeat, do not start with Herbie's Game, but read them all from the start. Junior Bender is not your typical crook -- he's got a heart, a conscience, and frankly, he's a downright decent guy, but to get the most of his character and of Mr. Hallinan's  quirky, extremely cool writing style, you have to start from the very beginning.  I love this series and as long as the books continue to be written, I'll be reading them,  hot off the press.

and now, back to Game of Thrones. 

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