Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bust by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

"Bobby came back from the supermarket and cooked himself dinner.... Even Def Leppard couldn't get him out of his funk. When the Def couldn't crank you, it was way past time to shoot someone." — from Bust

Often, two authors working together get in each other's way, cancelling out the individual contributions of each in favor of a homogeneous whole. But modern noir authors Ken Bruen and Jason Starr fit together like a married couple with complementary flaws — all the pieces making a perfect jigsaw relationship, while still retaining those aspects that draw each author's particular cadre of followers.

In the new Hard Case Crime offering, Bust, Bruen (who won the 2004 Shamus Award for The Guards and has another solo novel, Calibre, coming out in July 2006) and Starr
(2004 Barry Award winner for Tough Luck, with Lights Out coming in September 2006) combine their dark talents to remarkable effect, resulting in a novel that is more than the sum of its participants.

Bruen brings his skill at dark humor, downward-spiral characterization, and his familiarity with Irish culture, while Starr offers a simple yet familiar plot with plenty of opportunities for disaster, and characters with a tendency toward casual, unflinching violence. Put together, they make up an absolutely pitch-black novel that ranks with the best of their peers.

That said, Bust was hard to get into at first — I couldn't detect a consistent voice, as if the authors were writing alternating chapters (but perhaps they are merely writing alternating characters). Work your way past the first few chapters, though, and things smooth out and really get flowing.

Max Fisher, CEO of NetWorld is having an affair with his Greek-Irish executive assistant, Angela Petrakos. Max wants his wife dead so he can marry Angela, and Angela's cousin knows a guy named Popeye who can do the job right. Trouble is, there is no cousin, and "Popeye" is actually Angela's boyfriend, Dillon, an Irish "Proveen" with an unpredictable streak. Meanwhile, Bobby Rosa, a wheelchair-bound ex-robber, is looking to get back into the game with his old pal, Victor, who has gone straight.

When these stories come together, all hell breaks loose, and there's no guarantee who is going to come out with what, or even make it to the end with life intact. The limited third-person POV makes the events slightly distant yet still immediate enough to have stunning impact when several shocking events take place that even I, who have read all of the Hard Case Crime novels, could not have predicted. If you sit down with Bust, be ready to stay down for the duration.

As a bonus (and a little unintended cross-marketing, perhaps), each chapter begins with a literary quote, like the Inspector Morse mysteries of Colin Dexter. Only these quotes are from other (mostly) modern crime thrillers, including one each from Bruen (The Hackman Blues) and Starr (Tough Luck) individually , as well as a few other Hard Case Crime authors like Allan Guthrie, Richard Aleas, and Domenic Stansberry. Some of my other personal favorites, like Joseph Finder and Joe R. Lansdale, are also represented.

What is most remarkable, however, is how apt the quotes are to the chapter contents, considering how limited their sources were. This bit of unnecessary but much appreciated extra effort raises Bust even further above the fray by focusing on clever lines from other entertaining books that are just waiting for me to discover them.

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