Monday, July 14, 2014

Herbie's Game

I first became aware of Tim Hallinan’s writing when I was asked to review the first Poke Rafferty thriller, A Nail Through the Heart, in 2008. The Rafferty books became staples of my reading; The Queen of Patpong is a book I’d like to see taught in schools.

The Rafferty books are pretty dark, though Hallinan knows how to add touches of humor to provide patches of blue sky and hope. These bits of humor are genuinely funny, so I was happy to hear he’d decided to write something intended to be humorous from the get-go, and started the Junior Bender series. The fourth Bender book, Herbie’s Game, launches tomorrow.

Junior Bender is either a burglar with a difference, or a private investigator with a difference. A burglar nonpareil, he’s fallen into a side gig of being PI to the underworld. All the guile and guts he’s used to make a living and stay out of jail as a burglar are put to good use, Hallinan’s tongue always buried in his cheek.

Herbie’s Game begins with Wattles, a crook who sets up hits as a matter of routine business. He uses an elaborate series of cutouts who pass instructions through blind drops so, theoretically, no one knows who ordered the hit and no one—except Wattles—knows who’s doing the actual killing. Until one day Wattles comes to work and finds his office burglarized; his chain of cut-outs’ names is all that’s missing. This is not the kind of thing one takes to the police, which means Junior gets the call.

This case is tough for Junior on two levels. He generally prefers to avoid the most of the people he’s dealing with, as they kill people for a living, and are not amused to have their activities looked into. Closer to home, references to Herbie Mott—Junior’s friend and mentor, whom he idolizes—turn up everywhere. Working his way through the chain one piece at a time, Junior learns things about Herbie he never suspected, and isn’t sure he wants to know.

The book works on multiple levels. As always, the humor is spot on, allowing Hallinan to have fun with his plotting in a way that would come across as inappropriate in the Rafferty books. Herbie’s Game, like The Fame Thief before it, also goes deeper, as Junior is forced to examine things about his life he wouldn’t have thought of, and might prefer to leave unexamined.

This is the most ambitious of the Bender books, and most resembles the Rafferty series in its introspection at times, but it’s still Junior Bender all the way. Hallinan has a gift for exploring similar themes from widely divergent contexts. As with all his books, Herbie’s Game is about the responses of people when relationships are unexpectedly and dramatically stressed. Herbie Mott was not at all who Junior thought him to be, and neither was their relationship. How this resolves, and how Junior gets his head around it, leads to an ending Westlake would have been proud of.

I discovered Hallinan’s writing through the Rafferty series, and still drop everything to read the newest Poke book, no matter how many titles are backed up on my increasingly OCD To Be Read List. I’ve come to like Junior maybe even a little more. I doubt any Bender book will have the visceral impact of The Queen of Patpong—they’re lighter by nature—but the message of Herbie’s Game is something more people have experienced, which will increase the impact while leaving a smile. That’s damned hard to do. If you want to see it done well, Herbie’s Game is the book for you.

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