The legend “No Sophomore Slump Here” could have been emblazoned across the cover of CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE. Author Owen Laukkanen debuted in 2012 with THE PROFESSIONALS, which introduced lone wolf FBI agent Carla Windermere and Minnesota BCA officer Kirk Stevens as a law enforcement odd couple. Windermere and Stevens parted at the book’s conclusion without taking their professional relationship to the personal, despite being tempted to do so (Stevens is happily married), yet neither has been forgotten by the other. Though it takes them a bit of time to reconnect (professionally) in this latest adventure, they slowly approach the same case from opposing ends in a story that is perfectly paced from start to finish.
"[O]nce you start reading CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, you won’t think about stopping until you’ve finished this tale by a brilliant and engaging storyteller."
CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE opens with a high-energy bank robbery pulled off by a trio who we quickly come to learn is headed by Carter Tomlin. The hook here is that Tomlin is an extremely successful accountant who suddenly gets downsized by his firm and has difficulty making the monthly nut on his big home in the suburbs of Minnesota’s twin cities. He is given a separation parachute to soften the fall, but there’s too much ground and not enough sky for it to do him much good. Having exhausted his network of contacts while job hunting, Tomlin has a dark epiphany one day while visiting a bank to see about refinancing. An impromptu holdup starts him down the road of crime. He is still living day to day, however, when he realizes that he needs to pull some really big heists to get really big money. In one of the more interesting scenes in a book full of them, he acquires some big boy guns and a couple of associates.
Tomlin’s activities soon attract the attention of the FBI, particularly Carla Windermere. Interestingly enough, Windermere, utilizing some excellent investigative techniques, dopes out almost immediately that it is Tomlin who is behind the robberies. Unfortunately, her senior partner doesn’t see it that way; utilizing some inverted logic, he sends the case careening off in another, erroneous direction. Tomlin, though, is spooked by Windermere’s sudden if aborted incursion into his life and decides to switch to other high-risk, high-return targets. And then things become nasty. As we learn soon enough --- and as Tomlin comes to realize as well --- he likes what he is doing and keeps raising the stakes to a dangerous level. He can’t stop, even when his financial crisis is averted by an offer of employment.
The reader is far ahead of the curve in knowing what’s what, and, as a result, a great deal of the enjoyment of CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE is derived from watching Windermere doggedly investigate Tomlin to the extent that she can while he does backflips attempting to head her off. Meanwhile, Kirk Stevens is investigating cold cases and basically riding a desk when he forms a bond of sorts with Tomlin from a totally different direction. One can see the train wreck coming from 100 pages away; the only question is how bad it’s going to be. You cannot imagine. Just as it becomes obvious that a collision is all but inevitable, Laukkanen tosses a hand grenade or two onto the track just to make sure that you’re paying attention.
Comparisons between CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE and the television series “Breaking Bad” are inevitable. The latter’s Walter White is initially introduced as an underutilized high school chemistry professor who is forced into a life of crime due to a series of, well, bad breaks. Tomlin, on the other hand, has it all and is poised to lose everything due to circumstances beyond his control. He tells himself, at least initially, that his criminal activity preserves the lifestyle his family enjoys. Like White, however, Tomlin comes to enjoy the rush --- the power --- that he feels when he pulls off a robbery, a fire that requires more and more combustible material to feed.
Similarities notwithstanding, once you start reading CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, you won’t think about stopping until you’ve finished this tale by a brilliant and engaging storyteller.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 3, 2013