CRASHED (Hallinan Consulting, LLC 2010)
Author: Timothy Hallinan
CRASHED is one of those novels that's a bit hard to categorize. It's sort of a thriller combined with a whodunnit.
However, it starts out looking very much like a crime caper. The story takes place in Los Angeles and surrounding area. The protagonist is a burglar named Junior Bender (which kept reminding me of Junior Walker, but that's another story) who's enlisted to steal some artwork from the home of a big criminal-type guy. But really that's neither here nor there, because after a chain of Rube Goldberg-like events involving a safe, some diamonds, a chandelier and a pack of Rottweilers, Junior ends up in a compromising position. Thus, he's convinced (i.e., blackmailed) to work for crime queenpin Trey Annunziato. Trey inherited the business from her gangster father, who she's rumored to have offed. Anyhow, Trey wants to go straight. And she forces, er, hires Junior to babysit the star of a porn film trilogy that's supposed to finance her way out of the underworld. That star is Thistle Downing, a destitute and drugged-out former child star of major proportions.
Okay, so the story is really about a burglar sort of hired to make sure this dazed and drug-addled former child acting prodigy shows up and actually makes this porn movie. And even though Junior is supposed to be working for Trey (who's tough, but not totally unsympathetic), he ends up feeling conflicted when he sees what's happened to Thistle (super talented child who's grown up into a worn down nub of her former self). Oh, and by the way, it turns out that someone's trying to kill Thistle. However, another person is murdered instead.
Hmm. That sucks.
This is one of those stories that could so easily slip into mere cliché in lesser hands. After all, the child star-turned-drug addict has become almost a Hollywood icon. Plus does it come as a great surprise that Junior is divorced and his ex-wife gives him grief over visitation with their daughter? Something about burgling houses doesn't sit well with the ex. Imagine.
However, what makes this book absolutely worth the reading is the way it's written. Timothy Hallinan has a way with description that's brilliant, but seems effortless (which it's not, of course) and writes dialogue so snappy and engaging, it disappoints only when the scenes end.
Junior may be a burglar, but in a literary sense, he follows in the footsteps of Philip Marlowe. He does so without being imitative or derivative.
Hallinan puts his unique stamp on the hardboiled genre and makes it his own. Whether its the description of traffic on a rainy night in LA or the feeling of being up at three AM, unable to sleep, Hallinan writes in a way that's wholly fresh and memorable, as if it were being done for the first time.
Like all good hardboiled mysteries, this one has an awesome cast of characters, including everyone working on the set. Each ends up being a suspect -- complete with his or her own eccentricities. Not to mention the solicitous Doc who keeps Thistle mostly conscious via judicious drug administration, while passing himself off as a dead celebrity he resembles.
And have I mentioned that the story is funny? Junior can crack wise with the best of hardboiled detectives.
There's a scene in which he's tailed by a strange car that starts incredibly tense and ends hilarious.
Then there are the descriptions. Such as the lawyer who has the requisite low scruples, bad attitude and "eyes so deepset they looked like raisins someone had pushed into raw dough." Not to mention that he spoke in "the kind of voice Tom Waits probably has when he just wakes up and he's got the flu."
Like most hardboiled private eyes, Junior knows his share of shady cops and people of ill-repute. However, his limits are tested by having to walk a fine line between Trey's thugs and Thistle's interests, while protecting himself and his family, not to mention avenging the murder victim's death.
Since Thistle is the focus of the story and Junior's concern, it could be easy to overlook the murder victim. To Junior's credit, he doesn't. In fact, the revenge factor really made the story for me. After all, even though Thistle has been used, she still enjoys the advantage of being cute and talented. She is, if nothing else, a survivor. Frankly, she comes across quite strong and capable during a press conference, despite her addictions. The murder victim, on the other hand, came to America, bought into the dream and died senselessly without achieving it. So who cuts the more tragic figure?