of hard-boiled mysteries have witnessed a rebirth of the genre in
recent years. Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime has introduced a new
generation of readers to the long-forgotten works of pulp masters,
as well as to exciting new writers such as himself and Christa
At the same time a new generation of excellent writers has
reinvigorated the noir genre. Ken Bruen, Jason Starr and Megan
Abbott have established themselves as mystery writers we will be
enjoying for decades to come. Now add to the list Duane
Swierczynski, former editor-in-chief of the Philadelphia City
Paper. SEVERANCE PACKAGE is his fourth novel. And if you have
not read him yet and you love mysteries and action, you are in for
a treat. Swierczynski, like the above mentioned writers, is
destined to become a hard-boiled master.
Swierczynski writes noir, but it’s far from ordinary. This is
noir on steroids, as his books are filled with nonstop action and
mayhem. There is not a wasted word in his lean, adrenaline-driven
prose. And nobody working the field today can build suspense as
well. Read SEVERANCE PACKAGE and you will immediately want to seek
out THE BLONDE, his novel from 2006 that was a unique modern
reworking of the film noir classic DOA.
SEVERANCE PACKAGE starts with seven employees being called into a
Saturday "managers' meeting" of Murphy, Knox and Associations, a
somewhat mysterious "financial services" firm located on the 36th
floor of a Philly skyscraper. It is a sweltering hot summer day,
and the employees react the same way you would at having to get up,
get dressed and go into work on a Saturday morning.
It gets worse. They are ushered into a conference room filled with
cookies, three cartons of orange juice and four bottles of
champagne. So far so good. Then their boss, David, tells them they
are on "official lockdown." The phones don't work. Nobody can leave
the building since the elevator has been fixed to bypass the floor,
and the fire exits have been rigged with sarin gas bombs.
They are then told they are being let go from both work and the
planet. They have a choice: drink the champagne and orange juice,
which is poisoned and will kill them in seconds, or be shot in the
head. It turns out that the company is some sort of super secret
rogue CIA-type outfit set up to disrupt the bank accounts of
terrorists or just about anybody else they feel like messing with.
And now the operation is being terminated, so to speak.
This is why noir is great fun. You might think you have a lot of
bad days at work. Not like this.
The firm's second-in-command, Molly, then pulls a coup by shooting
David in the head, and we are off to the races. It seems the entire
36th floor has cameras all over the place, and Molly is under the
impression that she is auditioning for a new job in the
super-secret spy agency. And, indeed, events on the floor are being
monitored by two mysterious fellows in Edinburgh, Scotland, 3,500
miles away. Who are they?
Swierczynski has propelled us into a noir nightmare where nothing
is what it seems and everybody is trapped in hell. Of the seven
employees, only one is not a spy or covert op of some sort and is
truly innocent. This PR man, Jamie DeBroux, is a former newspaper
writer who needed this boring job to support his new child. The
writer, in other words, as gullible dupe. There's a twist. Jamie is
about to be seriously messed with.
Swierczynski's greatest creation here is Molly, a red-headed
killing and torture machine who is so bad she is good. All the
current summer crop of cinema fictional superheroes, including
Batman himself, would run and hide under the bed if they ever met
Molly. Think of Linda Fiorentino from The Last Seduction
and imagine her being a million times more ruthless and violent.
But Molly, who may not be who she claims either, has a soft side.
She is, after all, trying to provide for her ailing mother and
ventures to the dark side out of unrequited love and a desire never
to be a victim again. She's nuts, but a hell of a woman.
And she never loses control. Nor will she ever give up. But still,
she finds time in the middle of a small war to stop and fix her
hair. "The pain didn't matter though. Her appearance did,"
Swierczynski writes. After all, on job interviews: "A battered face
would not impress her employers." You should not root for her, but
you do. Molly is the ultimate guilty pleasure.
SEVERANCE PACKAGE is not for the squeamish. People are hung upside
down out of 36th story windows. Others get sarin gas blasts to the
face. Some suffer bullets to the head and other body parts or are
attacked with razor blades, pix axes, saps, you name it. The blood
flows. And yet, somehow the strongest manage to survive and fight
on, at least for awhile. If you like action, you will love this
book. It is a wild ride but also a fun read that keeps pages flying
Swierczynski is great at keeping the suspense building to a boil.
Readers have no idea how this story will end. It is not
clichéd. And in true noir fashion, he provides twists galore
that will keep you guessing even beyond the last page. In his
nightmare world, people fight and die, even if they don't know
exactly why or for whom. Few are truly innocent, and heaven help
those who are.
Noir was born in a time of uncertainly in the mid-20th century. Now
we live in another uncertain time in a new century and noir is
back, thrilling us with its bleak vision. Swierczynski is one of
the up-and-coming stars of the mystery world. Go out and read all
his books as soon as possible. You will not be disappointed.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 23, 2011