David Levien has been mining the dark criminal underbelly of Indianapolis in a series of books featuring a solo private investigator named Frank Behr. Behr is a big, tough guy, instinctively smart and imminently capable, whose tragic flaw and greatest strength is his inability to color inside the lines. CITY OF THE SUN and WHERE THE DEAD LAY, the first two books in the series, introduced and explored Behr’s strengths and weaknesses against the backdrop of urban crime. THIRTEEN MILLION DOLLAR POP, the third installment, delves into the shadows cast behind the glitter and bright noise of the gambling industry.
"...the action becomes so nerve-wracking that you will fall off the edge of your seat."
The book finds Behr employed as an operative with the Caro Group, which, as initially described, is as close to a “white shoe” firm as one gets in the field of private investigation. Behr has taken the job as security, given that his significant other, Susan, is near term with his child. A reliable source of income is an absolute must, even if Behr is chafing at the concept of accepting and following orders.
Compared to some of the jobs Behr has handled, escorting a charismatic, on-the-rise politician named Bernard Kolodnik --- “Bernie Cool” to his friends --- on a last-minute assignment seems like a cakewalk. It is anything but, however, and when Behr foils an assassination attempt on Bernie in a deserted parking lot, he becomes the office hero for the day. The perp gets away, and Behr is puzzled as to why the matter is seemingly being dropped so quietly, with the police stuck in neutral in their investigation.
Behr can’t let the thing go and begins an investigation on his own, neglecting a mundane but important Caro assignment and digging on his own time as well. This does not please his bosses at Caro, and something has to give. The trail leads Behr to a “racino” --- a racetrack with gambling that was pitched as a multi-million-dollar moneymaker but is leaking red ink like a sieve.
Meanwhile, a cold-blooded Irish hit man named Waddy Dwyer, who originally arranged the assassination attempt on Bernie, has come to the United States to personally take care of business and, not coincidentally, to collect the remainder of the fee that is due and owing. THIRTEEN MILLION DOLLAR POP is worth reading for Dwyer all by himself. He is an extremely capable and frightening boogie man who enjoys his work just a bit too much. When he ultimately brings in a like-minded partner and crosses swords with Behr, the action becomes so nerve-wracking that you will fall off the edge of your seat.
By the end of the book, Behr’s life and professional circumstances are quite different from what they were at the beginning. While the story is complete in and of itself, Levien leaves just enough unresolved that waiting for the next installment is going to seem like agony. Behr is an extremely complex character who, at times, seems to be comprised on a gigantic rough edge and is not always sympathetic. Nevertheless, he is consistently interesting and ultimately falls on the side of the angels. Levien has been on my must-read list since the first page of CITY OF THE SUN, and THIRTEEN MILLION DOLLAR POP solidifies that position in concrete.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 18, 2011