I did not know when I picked up the first in this series that the author, Timothy Hallinan, was the already successful author of two additional series starring Simeon Grist and Poke Rafferty, respectively. This is a nice surprise as I am looking forward to material as entertaining and engaging as his latest series, starring Junior Bender.
Junior (this is his real name as his father's name was something like Maurice but did not want to burden his son with that moniker) is a family man. Like many these days, he is a devoted, but divorced father to a 14 year-old daughter. He remains cordial relations with his ex-wife, whose various forays with men-after-Junior meet both with Junior's displeasure and total disaster, not always with Junior's help, but often so.
Oh, yeah, Junior is also a career burglar....upscale art, jewelry, and other valuables of intrinsic or historical value comprise Junior's typical target. He's known to the police, has yet to be caught in the act. Of course, such a profession breeds association with some unsavory types like extortionists, killers, fences, gamblers, mobsters and other miscreants -- a situation that just may have precipitated his wife's desire to part company with him.
Hallinan is not the first to write about a criminal "hero" - think Dexter, think Elmore Leonard's numerous characters as well as Carl Hiassen's, but Hallinan does a terrific job in creating Junior - an autodidact of the first order -- quick thinking, Shakespeare quoting, antique knowing, Spinoza reading, rapid fire talking, risk-taking, irreverent but caring father, good friend, with questionable choices in lovers and girlfriends.
Moreover, Hallinan has the knack of creating interesting, engaging and full characters in very short order. Across the three books so far in the series, notable appearances by Louis the Lost (known because as the wheelman for a burglary gang, he once took the absolutely wrong turn), Irwin Dressler, the 92 year-old still fearsome mobster with menacing, but hilarious bodyguards (they kill people, select wines, and slap around wise-guy burglars), Junior's daughter, Rina, who talks like the prototypical 14 year-old daughter to her dad:
"You know Dad, only adults think of kids as kids".
"Yeah, what do kids think of kids as?"
This is the typical father/daughter dialog unless he is paying Rina to do research on the internet - a skill Junior simply can not (and will not) engage in. And then there is Rina's best buddy/boyfriend/partner-in-mischief Tyrone who is not only about as smart as they come, but in combination with Rina, likely smarter than most, if not all, of the adults. Tyrone is also African-American, good looking ("a waistline narrower than Rush Limbaugh's worldview") and a complete mystery to Junior.
But wait, there's more. On top of his day-job of robbing the rich, Junior has picked up the sideline of helping other criminals solve their big problems...and that's where the plot stories come into play.
In Crashed, Junior is blackmailed by a crooked cop into helping a big-time mobster make a porn movie (note: this is the mobster's - a woman - way of taking her operations legit) - using a one-time child TV star turned drug addled adult (what a name, Thistle Downing!!) who's not even quite clear that she is going to be expected to strip down and do the deed(s) on camera. Someone is trying to sabotage the film, and Junior is "volunteered" to find out who, and stop them.
In Little Elvises, Junior is cajoled into helping a former (famous) music producer prove he didn't do the murder he would have liked to have done and was actually planning to do, but someone got there first and is setting him up. (Got all that?). The characters here are just wonderful, from the music producer, to the "little Elvises" (the 1960's singing sensations whose careers when up as fast as they went down), to the raucously funny widow to the very scary killer/enforcer "Fronts" (wait 'til you find out how he got his name), Hallinan's second Junior Bender is as good, if not better, than the first.
In The Fame Thief, Junior is encouraged to expand his "niche" position as the criminal who helps criminals by Irwin Dressler - THE Hollywood Mobster (loosely based on the very real life Sidney Korshak). In fact, Dresser and his bodyguards pretty much steal the show here as they have Junior trying to solve a 50 year-old mystery of who ruined the reputation and career of the starlet, Dorothy La Mar. Junior (or anyone else for that matter) can't say no to Irwin Dressler, so off he goes....and people start dying.
Hallinan's dialogue is witty, fast-paced, and never boring. And he is really funny. Junior is engaging and surprisingly erudite...as well as being a caring parent with a surprising set of conventional attitudes and morals.
This is great comedy, good mystery, and terrifically interesting characters. Read these books!