Monday, May 19, 2008

The Max by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr (Hard Case Crime)

When we last left Max Fisher (a.k.a., "The M.A.X.", New York's baddest hip-hop drug dealer), at the end of Slide, he was being led off to jail. Ken Bruen and Jason Starr's third collaboration — not coincidentally titled The Max — picks up with Max trying to get his bearings as the new little fish bitch in a big pond. But Max still thinks like a CEO and knows how to play the game, and before too long, he is ruling the roost with the blacks, the Aryans, and the Latinos all thinking he's with them.

Enter Paula Segal, a midlist mystery writer just demoted to "cult" status ("She thought only those creepy noir guys got demoted to cult. She'd never even written a short story for Akashic"). She's looking to revive her career with a true-crime book about Max — and hoping that the Edgar Award she'll undoubtedly win for it will help her meet her latest crush, Laura Lippman.

Meanwhile, Max's ex-fiancée, Angela Petrakos, has just arrived in Greece (she's of Irish-Greek descent and already tried Ireland, where she just didn't feel quite as Irish as she does in the states) and hooked up with a Brit named Sebastian. Not only does he have that accent, but he also looks just like Lee Child! (Too bad his idol is Tom Ripley.)

Readers of Bruen and Starr's previous books are already aware how much fun they like to have with real authors in their stories. Chapter 3 alone contains a great deal of inside information about the workings of the crime genre that even partially knowledgable fans will get a kick out of. After the disappointment that was Slide, I'm happy to say that The Max is a return to form for the duo, though they still seem to prefer "extreme" storytelling for its own sake.

On the downside, for the most part Paula Segal is a wasted opportunity. After a very intriguing introductory chapter, she is never used to her fullest potential — even if she does quote Babe while pleasuring herself. The cover painting by Glen Orbik (Branded Woman, The Colorado Kid, Money Shot), however, is just the opposite. It is everything it wants to be. In fact, in some ways, it is even more successful in fulfilling its intentions than The Max is.

Despite the unevenness of the trilogy that began with Bust — and signs point to it not becoming a tetralogy — Ken Bruen and Jason Starr offer an original ride that is practically a genre unto itself. Here's hoping that these collaborations lead readers to the authors' separate works (though they write very different separately than they do together), or that they will decide to work together once again (and maybe give Paula her own book).

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