The Dutton arm of Penguin Group (USA) has revived its venerable “Guilt Edged” imprint. Part of this initial rollout is an engrossing one-sit read titled THE DEVIL DOESN’T WANT ME by Eric Beetner. It is no surprise to learn that Beetner has an extensive background in editing and producing television shows; there is a cinematic feel to this book that causes every page --- actually every paragraph --- to roll right along like a series of fast-moving still frames. A lazy elevator pitch for the novel might be The Mechanic meets Midnight Run; though somewhat inaccurate, the mood that permeates the story, one of dark humor balanced perfectly by grim action, puts one in the mind of both of those movies.
"Every word matters here, and the edgy characterization will stay with you long after the final paragraph is read. THE DEVIL DOESN’T WANT ME isn’t just great crime fiction --- it’s great fiction, period."
Lars is a veteran hit man who has been tasked long-term with eliminating a turncoat accountant known as Mitch the Snitch. The book opens with an interesting parallel: Lars, who has been after Mitch for 17 years, is to put some new blood on the assignment, a brash gun for hire named Trent. The order has come from The Family back East, which is going through some changes of its own. Lars’ long-time employer, Nikki Senior, is in poor health, and his son Junior is rapidly taking the reins of power from his dad, who in turn is in no mood to relinquish them. Senior and Lars are both old-school runners who value loyalty, while their respective erstwhile replacements value results. Trent is singularly unimpressed with the aging Lars; while the feeling is mutual, it seems (at least initially) that Trent, not to mention Nikki Junior, may be correct in their assumptions.
What develops is that Trent is able to locate Mitch within a week, something that Lars could not do in 17 years. Trent and Lars almost immediately have a serious falling-out at the scene of the hit. As a result, Lars finds himself on the run with Shaine, Mitch’s 16-year-old daughter, and with Trent in hot if somewhat inept pursuit. Lars is a fish-out-of-water as a guardian --- he freely admits that he has never so much as taken care of a cat --- and their dangerous position as they race from New Mexico to California is somewhat alleviated by some humorously uncomfortable moments.
Beetner very deftly takes any issues of impropriety off the table --- the age and gender issues that inevitably arise in such close quarters are quietly but credibly resolved --- and a couple of neat twists and surprises near the end provide a satisfactory lagniappe atop a meaty and violent story. While the theme is a classic one --- age, guile and experience vs. youth, energy and impulsiveness --- Beetner sets this tale a cut or three above similar stories by deftly comparing and contrasting what is occurring on the East and West coasts and suddenly turning placid scenes into violent ones without batting an eye in advance.
Up to this point, Beetner has been primarily recognized for his shorter fiction. Still, no one ever gets the sense that this is a short story on steroids. Every word matters here, and the edgy characterization will stay with you long after the final paragraph is read. THE DEVIL DOESN’T WANT ME isn’t just great crime fiction --- it’s great fiction, period.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 10, 2013