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It’s A Mystery: “Sometimes the fake relics are more valuable than the real.”


Gutshot Straight

By Lou Berney
William Morrow, 2010

Road Dogs

By Elmore Leonard
William Morrow, 2009

Elmore Leonard has been called by peers and pundits alike the best writer of dialogue in America. He creates characters that always sound right. As he pointed out, for example, when he was praised for the accuracy of the speech patterns in a Latino section of town, “I just write the dialogue that I think would be spoken.” Leonard’s uncanny ability to mimic the distinctive voices and get inside the heads of his characters allows their quirky thoughts and pungent language to carry the story. He makes the speech cadences almost musical—and the music is jazz.

Which leads me to Lou Berney, whose elegantly entertaining entry into the world of crime fiction, Gutshot Straight, brings to mind early, vintage Leonard. It opens with Charles “Shake” Bouchon, professional wheel man, leaving the slammer after a stretch for grand theft auto, really intending to go straight. He’s feeling every minute of his forty-two years, and painfully aware that the path ahead, if he isn’t careful, could look a lot like the path behind:

He needed a volcanic eruption. He needed to make a move…. He had good ideas for the restaurant he wanted to open, and he knew he had the chops to make it work in the kitchen. But the business end, the money, permits, partners, the ridiculous odds against staying above water…. You had to be young or dumb or convinced of your own miraculous ability to beat the odds. Shake was none of those, unfortunately.

Well maybe dumb enough, one more time. He’s just gotten off the bus in L.A. and barely taken a whiff of the pungent air, when a long black limo eases silently up to the curb next to him:

No one knew where he was, no one even knew he was out of prison. Why, then, was Shake not surprised when the tinted black passenger window melted slowly into the doorframe and he saw Alexandra Ilandryan smiling out at him.

This is the lovely, lethal Lexy, Shake’s one-time lover. Hell, he just spent fifteen months in a hard place rather than dime her out. The details are quite shady, but within a decade of immigrating to America from Turkey, a very young Alexandra

…used her charm, her smarts, and a bottomless reservoir of sheer ruthless will to assume control of the entire Armenian mob in L.A. She was the boss, the pakhan. The devil came to Alexandra Ilandryan for favors, not vice versa.

Now, here she is smiling at him, a smile that could launch—well, never mind—asking him to run an errand for her. “A small errand,” hardly grand enough to be called a job. Details are forthcoming over a lavish dinner. He drives a car to Vegas. He meets a guy and gives him the car. The guy gives him a briefcase, he flies back to L.A., gives it to her and she gives him twenty thousand dollars:

“Could not be simpler, no?”
“What’s in the trunk of the car?” he asked.
“Is not your worry.”
“What’s in the briefcase?” he asked.
“I miss you Shake. Your sense of humor.”
“How about the guy I meet in Vegas?”
“He works for a man,” Alexandra said. “Dick Moby.”
“The Whale?”
“You are familiar?”

Shake was familiar. You didn’t do time west of the Mississippi without meeting someone who’d worked for, borrowed money from, or narrowly escaped being murdered by Dick Moby. Often all three. The Whale is a 400 pound sadist who owns a strip club, but his real business is drugs, extortion and immigrant sex slaves.

The twenty large ones help Shake ignore any alarm bells and he drives off into the dark, empty desert. Destination Vegas, where, of course, he opens the trunk of the car. After all, there was banging coming from there he couldn’t ignore. Inside is Gina, a stripper with a tall tale of woe about being a wholesome little Mormon housewife (Mormon housewife?) with a hubby up to his ears in mob trouble. And she is being delivered to the Whale for hubby’s sins.

Lou Berney; photo by J.D. Merryweather

Because she is stunning with a capital S, Shake turns stupid with the same capital letter and buys her spiel. Faster than you can say bonehead, they’re on the lam from the Armenians and Moby’s able henchmen. Basically, quick-thinking housewife that she is, Gina grabbed the briefcase that everybody’s after. Gina and Shake think it contains rare stamps. Gina shakes Shake to get the value of the goods and further her career—solo. Easier said than carried out. After an unseemly absence from Shake, Gina, just a tad reluctantly, returns to him and tells him they’re not stamps but foreskins! A hundred foreskins, to be exact. And they’re worth, give or take, a cool five million. What’s more, although no reputable dealer will touch them, she knows of a guy in Panama “who is lacking a little repute.” While Shake knows better than to ask where she got all this info, he wants what he calls “independent verification.”

So they show up in the office of one of Gina’s regulars. Dr. Gorsch, a nice, tweedy history professor at the University of Las Vegas, who assures Shake he was only doing research with Gina:

“Research is important,” Shake said.
“It really is!” He fiddled with items on his desk and almost accidentally stapled his hand to a Vista for Dummies book.

After too much ado about artifacts, an impatient Gina blurts:

“We have a hundred foreskins.”
Dr. Gorsch looked at her. She held up the briefcase and did a little spokesmodel flourish with her hand.
“You have the hundred foreskins?” he said.
The?” Shake said. “You’ve heard of them?”
“Oh, my,” Dr. Gorsch said. “Of course. They’re the holy grail of religious artifacts.”

Leaning heavily on his bible, Gorsch recounts how David, in order to marry King Saul’s daughter, had to get foreskins from one hundred Philistines before he went out to slay Goliath. And that’s why they’re worth such a nice piece of change.

Suffice it to say, the plot turns are nonstop, the dialogue is razor sharp, and all the characters, good guys and bad, are memorable. The chemistry between Shake and Gina, the gorgeously duplicitous stripper, is nothing short of brilliant. When it comes to world class capers, Lou Berney is the real deal.

Road Dogs is another gem from Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, who has written over forty novels and endured for over half a century. The nickname, by the way, is after the left-handed pitcher, Dutch Leonard, who played for the Detroit Tigers, the writer’s favorite team. And road dogs, by the way, is prison slang for inmates who watch each other’s back. In this case it’s Jack Foley, bank robber extraordinaire—eat your heart out Willie Sutton—last seen in Out of Sight (1996). Jack’s road dog is Cundo Rey, last seen in La Brava (1983), a Cuban refugee who kills to stay alive, performs as a go-go dancer for pure pleasure, and is weird but straight and tough as nails. Think Edward G. Robinson crossed with Ricardo Montalban. Now they’re prison buddy-guards, finishing up stretches of time in Glades, a Miami penitentiary, and trading techniques over slammer mac and cheese.

For reasons he’s not sharing, Cundo, also the quintessential affluent and powerful jailbird, drops a bundle on Megan Norris, “The smartest chick lawyer I ever met”; she gets Jack’s sentence reduced from 30 years to 30 months. Jack’s soon living large in Venice, California with Dawn Navarro, a foxy young psychic from Riding the Rap (1995), eye candy hot, with legs up to there. She is now Cundo’s lady and ostensibly chastely awaiting his return in one of his multimillion dollar Venice houses that she seems to have no trouble sharing with Jack. Thanks to heavy phone contact with Cundo, she knows all about the celebrity bank robber with one hundred and twenty seven jobs under his belt:

Today at Glades talking to Dawn on the phone, Cundo said, “Jack Foley got his release this morning.”
“Good for Jack,” Dawn said.
“I sent him to a guy in Miami’s fixing him up with a driver’s license and a prepaid credit card. He’s gonna fly to L.A. and live in my pink home while he gets the feel nobody’s watching him. He don’t mind it being pink.”
“I’m in the pink one,” Dawn said.
“I know you are. I told him to stay in the white one, but switch with you before I come out. I think next week.”
“Why are you so nice to him?
“I told you he’s robbed hundreds of fucking banks. I like to know does he want to do any more.”…
“I’ll let you know,” Dawn said.
“I tole him about you, how you can read minds…
“He won’t believe it,” Dawn said, “till I tell him to quit trying to picture me naked.”
“Don’t say that please…. You and Foley going to be neighbors across the canal…. Look in his eyes, see if they any coming attractions, things you can tell me about.
I got money invested in this guy.”
“Once he gets the credit card you might not see him again.”…
“Jack Foley is the most honest fucking con I ever met, and maybe the smartest.”…
“What you don’t know,” Dawn said, “is how he is with women.”…
“Listen.” Cundo said, “when he busted out, there was a woman United States Marshal chased after him. They met at a hotel and spent the night together before she brought him back.”
Dawn’s voice on the phone said, “You’re kidding.”…
“With your gift, your spirit guides and ESP shit. I like to see you work Foley into your act, make us some money off him.”
“I’ve got a new client,” Dawn said, “another widow in Beverly Hills….She’d been seeing Madame Rosa the gypsy queen, has her believing her dead husband’s put a hex on her, the reason she can’t find true love.”
“What’s a hex?”
“A curse, an evil spell.”…
“I got to hang up…. Listen think of a way to use Foley.”
“I’ll look him over.”
“See if he’s any good with hexes.”

While the faithful Dawn and the trusty con “plumb the depths of our compatibility,” Cundo has been released a week early and is on his way home to his beloved. This tender reunion is the perfect setup for one of Leonard’s tragicomic, screwball escapades. In his helter-skelter world of scams, sharks, double-dealers, crooks (petty and very major), and mouthwatering fortunes, his offbeat characters constantly double and triple-cross each other. With consummate skill, Leonard lets his larger than life heroes and villains, sharply focus the reader on the timeless themes of greed, loyalty, and betrayal.

___
Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.

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