Last month, I posted my thoughts on Steven Max Russo's second novel, The Dead Don't Sleep, and now I get to focus on his first book.
Skooley (I kid you not), is a small-time criminal with aspirations of greater things (and, let's be honest, delusions of at least a bit more grandeur than he actually possess). He runs afoul of actual bad guys in Florida and makes himself scarce, hiding out in New Jersey for awhile. He gets a job in a restaurant and meets Ray. Ray isn't as an accomplished thief as Skooley, but he'd like to be. And he knows where to start: their fellow co-worker Esmeralda had an idea.
You see, she's got aspirations and dreams of her own. Hers are on the legal side, it's nice to say. She's a housekeeper, a restaurant hostess at night, and does some grunt work at a hair salon when she's not working as either of those. She's trying to save money for beauty school while taking care of her mother and younger siblings. She's making progress, but it's slow and she could really use a little boost.
Esmerelda tells Ray about the owners of a house that she cleans who take off for a month or so every year at this time. They're the kind of people who leave cash and expensive things around with no one to check on them. Ray tells Skooley.
So Ray and Skooley break and enter, with the idea of spending a couple of days carefully and thoroughly pillaging this house. Almost immediately, things don't go according to plan and the three conspirators are mired in distrust, frustration, and assorted moments of larceny.
There's a subplot involving a real estate agent named Loretta. She blows off a little steam one night after work by having a little too much to drink. Somewhere between being one and three sheets to the wind, she runs into Skooley on a break from his plundering. In case there was any doubt at this point for the reader, what happens next definitely qualifies Skooley as a villain. Other than that, it wasn't until the very end of the book that I saw anything redeeming about this storyline. Once I did, it all made sense. But man, I spent a long time wondering just what Russo was trying to accomplish with it.
I wouldn't call this fast-paced, it's more of a slow-build. More than that, it's steady and always tantalizing about what's coming next. Steady enough that you won't want to put it down.
This is really an Elmore Leonard-esque plot and batch of characters, but it has none of Leonard's style. Which is not a complaint—I'm trying to describe, not challenge—if he'd tried, I'd spend a few paragraphs describing the ways that someone who isn't Elmore Leonard shouldn't try to ape his style. Instead, you get the same types of characters in tight situations, which is good enough.
There are really two conclusions to this novel—and both are a lot more satisfying than anything I thought the novel might be leading to. And the last line is a killer, make no mistake.
All in all, a solid Crime novel featuring lowlifes, misguided people, and a few hardcore bad guys. It's also enough evidence for myself that I'm going to grab the next Russo novel in a heartbeat. I dug this one, I think you will, too.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel from the author in exchange for my honest opinion. I am grateful for that, but not so grateful that I changed my opinion.