It’s so nice to have Lou Berney back for a second round. His first novel, GUTSHOT STRAIGHT, promised and delivered great things while setting an extremely high bar for future efforts. In WHIPLASH RIVER, he meets the standard set by his debut and raises it without succumbing to the temptation of formulistic plotting.
"You don’t have to have read GUTSHOT STRAIGHT to thoroughly enjoy WHIPLASH RIVER, but you’ll want to, simply to savor more of Berney’s work and characters while you’re waiting for what hopefully will be next year’s installment."
As the book opens, Charles “Shake” Bouchon is attempting to go straight, leaving his life of crime as a wheelman behind, by running a restaurant in the seemingly idyllic vacation spot of Belize. The establishment features food to die for but misses on the “location” standard. Shake is also in hock up to his eyeballs, having utilized the services of a local loan shark who has no bones about breaking those debtors who are past due on their payments.
Shake’s fortunes take a turn, for better and for worse, when he encounters Evelyn Holly and Harrigan Quinn. Holly is an FBI Special Agent, working undercover on her own dime to attempt to jawbone Shake into rolling over on his former, extremely legal employees. Quinn is a seasoned citizen, best described as 300 pounds of manure in a 200-pound bag. He takes up residence in Shake’s restaurant, attempting to make friends with outlandish stories that may or may not be true.
Things come to a head when Shake saves Quinn from a dinnertime assassination attempt that succeeds only in shooting up Shake’s restaurant. The assassins are a somewhat mismatched pair of lovers named Meg and Terry. Meg is the spark plug of the team, a bit over-the-top but driven and loyal. When Terry is slightly injured during the assassination attempt, she vows revenge upon Shake. This in turn initiates a series of incidents that results in Shake, with Quinn in tow (or maybe it’s the other way around), taking it on the lam from the assassins and one angry loan shark, with Holly bringing up the rear, attempting to protect Shake, whom she hopes to convert into an asset.
Meanwhile, the whole kit and caboodle is being trailed by an extremely dangerous killer named Babb, who is after…well, anyone who crosses his path. But not to worry. Quinn has a plan involving the theft of an American antiquity that just happens to be located in Egypt. Shake is reluctantly on board, but on one condition: Gina, the lost love of his life, has to be brought into the mix. Before WHIPLASH RIVER is over and done with, no one and nothing --- from Shake to Egypt to the enigmatic Quinn --- will be the same.
Does this all sound madcap? Yes. But Berney makes the proceedings seem fairly plausible, in no small part due to his characters, who seem at least partially rooted in the real world. Quinn, in particular, is amazing. Everyone encounters a Quinn at some point, a person who is outlandish and whose conversation walks an extremely fine line between irritating and entertaining. There is also the interplay between Shake and Gina, as the two star-crossed and erstwhile lovers do an uneasy dance that may or may not continue once the music ends.
You don’t have to have read GUTSHOT STRAIGHT to thoroughly enjoy WHIPLASH RIVER, but you’ll want to, simply to savor more of Berney’s work and characters while you’re waiting for what hopefully will be next year’s installment.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 24, 2012