Saturday, August 1, 2015

Herbie's Game by Timothy Hallinan

Posted for reader Norm:

This is the fifth entry in a series featuring Junior Bender, and the first one I've read, though I plan to read more by this author. It is set in Los Angeles, and Junior is not a cop or a private investigator, but a professional burglar. The gimmick is that he has become something like a private investigator for underworld types, and in this book he is investigating first a murder, and then related murders.

There are a number of series that center on a private investigator type and his circle of contacts, and this is one of them. There is a girlfriend, a cop, and lots of underworld types Junior knows, including his mentor in burglary. It is also usual for such series to have a comic element. This one is different for several reasons. One is the ingenuity of the plot; this one centers around a man who arranges contract killings, protecting himself through using a number of cutouts, only a failing memory caused him to write their names down, and someone has stolen the list, which he wants Junior to get back. It gets more complicated from there.

A second difference is how well Hallinan creates his version of LA and its underworld. A third is the quality of the writing. Herbie’s mentor, whose murder Junior ends up having to solve in this book, tells him on the first page that they are like Robin Hood:

            “How do we give to the poor?” I asked.
            “I said we were like Robin Hood, not a slavish imitation of Robin Hood.”
            “So we’re sort of like Robin Hood,” I said.
            “Yeah,” Herbie said. “If you squint.”

This also leads to what is to me the most remarkable thing about the book. Junior knows and is on what passes for friendly terms with a lot of crooks, including Herbie, and it is easy to fall into the feeling in series like this that the people we have been introduced to are really good guys in disguise, but that doesn’t happen here. We are not allowed to forget that there are really bad things about these people, friendly or not, and Junior discovers that even Herbie has done things that Junior would really rather not know about. This is a good book in a whole lot of different ways.

 - Reader Norm, August 1, 2015

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