Herbie's Game: A Junior Bender Mystery
I have loved the act of reading since I was four years old. Six decades (almost) is a long time to do anything; there are occasions (rare, but they do happen) when the act of reading, even the thought of it, leaves me feeling burned out. When that occurs, I turn to a Timothy Hallinan book. Hallinan, in his exotic Poke Rafferty series (set in Bangkok) and offbeat Junior Bender canon (which takes place in the more familiar but no less bizarre environs of Los Angeles), hits a literary sweet spot that no one else quite touches. I can’t explain it precisely; there are authors as good as Hallinan and a couple who may be better, but no one else is writing books quite like these, which read like a collaboration of Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler with a dash of world-wise-and-weary thrown in.
"By the time the rather cataclysmic climax occurs and a rough justice is achieved, Bender learns some uncomfortable but necessary truths about Mott and himself, and gains something by relinquishing something else. The ultimate result is the most satisfying installment of the series to date."
Hallinan’s latest, HERBIE’S GAME, is part of the Junior Bender series. You can pick it up and become instantly immersed in it, even if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading what has transpired in previous installments. Bender is a burglar for hire, and the people who bring him on are usually criminals, bad at worst but mostly not evil (though there are exceptions). The book explores Bender’s backstory, telling the tale of how he went from being an after-school shoe salesman to one of the best entering-without-breaking men in the business, all without losing what principles are possible when stealing is an integral part of one’s method of earning a living.
HERBIE’S GAME gets rolling when Bender is retained by Wattles, the so-called “executive crook” of the San Fernando Valley, to recover a very important and incriminating item that has been burgled from Wattles’s office safe. The item in question is a written list of a chain of criminals who stretch between a client who has requested a hit and the actual hitman. The chain exists to create a wall between the hitman and the person who has commissioned the kill. The list shouldn’t even exist, but for the fact that Wattles no longer trusts his memory. The problem is that the burglary bears a trademark peculiar to only two people: Bender and Herbie Mott, who is Bender’s mentor in crime and, in many ways, his substitute father.
Bender, of course, isn’t the guilty party (at least in this case), but it becomes quite clear who it is when Bender finds the beloved and colorful Mott dead as the apparent result of an unpleasant and unsuccessful interrogation that went too far. Bender begins to trace each fragile step in the chain. However, someone else is doing the same thing but with ill intent, so that bodies begin piling up in and around the Los Angeles area. As Bender’s investigation takes a couple of interesting turns, he discovers things about Mott that he cannot or will not believe, and that he wishes he had never known. By the time the rather cataclysmic climax occurs and a rough justice is achieved, Bender learns some uncomfortable but necessary truths about Mott and himself, and gains something by relinquishing something else. The ultimate result is the most satisfying installment of the series to date.
As good as the story in HERBIE’S GAME may be, Hallinan’s afterword is worth checking out as well. One cannot read a Hallinan novel without learning something --- in the instant case, some fascinating history of World War II-era French jewelry, among other things --- and the afterword, which describes in part the coming together of the book that precedes it, is both instructional and entertaining. And, as with Rafferty’s Bangkok, Bender’s Los Angeles is laid out in full, splendid view, warts and all.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 25, 2014