Monday, July 7, 2014

Herbie's Game by Tim Hallinan

Herbie's Game (Junior Bender #4) Junior Bender is a burglar. That’s a fact. What keeps it from being a hard, cold fact is Bender’s heart. Bender has a set of codes by which he lives and a set of rules given him by his mentor, Herbie, by which he works. One of those rules “was to delay as long as possible the moment the mark realizes his stuff has been boosted.” That means not taking everything, nor making a mess. Another rule is not to take anything the mark can’t live without.

When Bender finds himself holding a matching set of brooches that prove to be irreplaceable, their pricelessness makes him less pleased than uneasy. And Herbie his mentor is dead--not just dead, but tortured. Bender wants to know why, and who was responsible.

Los Angeles is central to the action in this series, and Hallinan goes right for the nub of a characterization, be it cities or people. When entering a house, for instance, he might toss off a comment about the front lawn looking recently replaced:
“Judging from the eye-ringing emerald hue of the lawn, the grass had never endured a dry minute since it was planted, about forty-five minutes ago. There are two schools of thought associated with good lawns: the British approach, which says you simply plant it and roll it for several centuries, and the Los Angeles nouveau-riche view, which says you just put in a new one whenever the old one gets a little ratty.”
And this:
"I went into the kitchen and filled a very nice Baccarat glass with ice water and carried it into the big living room, with its art deco windows that faced east toward downtown. The window framed only a fragment of the usual view, since the top floors of our relatively small collection of skyscrapers disappeared abruptly into a line of yellow-brown smog as hard and sharp as the stripe on a shirt.”

Hallinan has a real knack for and sensitivity in portraying girls and women as whole beings. In this novel he has two new fourteen-year-old computer savants who already have a productive history of online theft from various state coffers. Bender recruits them to assist him in his search for Herbie’s killer, though he has twinges of conscience about it. One senses his deep compassion…for himself, but also for the girls. When one of them throws her popsicle stick out the window of his moving vehicle, he has to talk himself out of stopping to pick it up. He imagines becoming their mentor, now that his own has passed. It’s actually kind of frightening, though of all the mentors these girls could possibly meet, Junior Bender might be considered the finest still breathing.

Hallinan has an instinctive ability to dots his i’s and cross his t’s (important in mystery and thriller-writing) and still move the action along in character-revealing scenes. His creation of the lovely Ting Ting, a slim-waisted martial arts bisexual that captures the hearts of bruisers and wasters, is not just an aside to the action…I argue it is the action. These characters have their basis in life, though perhaps not in lives we often encounter. Either Hallinan runs into folks like these on a regular basis, or they are all running around his head...pretty wild, even for southern California.

In his Afterword, Hallinan admits that he “had to kill off a few” characters he’d created earlier in the series because they were cluttering up the scenery, such that readers wanted them in every installment. Imagine creating such rich characterizations that we feel peripheral characters are neglected when we don’t see them.

Hallinan has a fluency born of long and deep reading, and constant writing. His other series featuring Poke Rafferty are set in Thailand, which is where I first discovered his unerring eye for what I call “the tell”: uncovering the (sometimes laughable, sometimes painful) characteristic of a place or a person that may define it, and that we recognize in our heart-of-hearts as true. My use of heart-of-hearts is not cliché. Hallinan has more “heart” than any other thriller/mystery writer I know. He and his characters seem to actively practice the Zen Buddhist (?) No Asshole Rule. And characters call each other on transgressions.

Reading Hallinan is just fun and because of that, it reminds me of the Don Winslow mystery series about surfing. I mean, really, can crime be more fun than hanging out with these guys? Junior Bender is such a softie, we don’t like to think of him actually killing people, though he does in this one. He carries a gun after all. It’s not just for show.

I received an advance copy of this title through Netgalley from Soho Publishers in exchange for an honest review.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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