The catalogue of the Hard Case Crime imprint features many titles by famous crime authors, but is also a good source for new and interesting names. This was the case when I picked up Bust, a 2006 title by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, a pair of established but new-to-me writers with a handful of awards and nominations to their credit. Bruen in particular has had success (film adaptations) with his series of mysteries set in Ireland.
After getting through an SF book full of tired stereotypes and cliches, I have to admit being wary of the way Bust started out. The familiar trappings of a noir novel set in New York City are rolled out in the first few chapters: an unhappy and philandering businessman, a femme fatale with a killer body, and a killing – staged as a burglary – that spins out of control. Once again, the whole drama takes place in New York City. However, these elements set up one of the most unpredictable and wildly entertaining stories of the entire HCC series (so far).
A successful salesman named Max Fisher is hiring an Irish criminal to kill his wife. The hitman talks like a seasoned associate of the NRA, but he’s really a fringe criminal with psychopathic tendencies. He is also the boyfriend – not a cousin’s friend as Max believes – of the woman with whom Max has been having a torrid affair.
This woman, Angela Petrakos, is in the city drifting from boyfriend to boyfriend after a chaotic and traumatic upbringing. From Ireland and with a Greek father, Angela has learned to use her miniskirt and accent to attract Max’s attention; she hopes to have Dillion kill Max’s wife and then extort his considerable fortune. We are told her history in bits and pieces, and appreciate her toughness but also her plain overconfidence. The unstable Dillon seems to represent her eventual undoing.
The only reason he was with Angela at all was because of the way she was in the pub that night. Usually, he liked dumb women, but Angela looked good there, giving mouth to the ugly bartender. He’d planning to take off after a couple of weeks, but he couldn’t afford rent yet, so he figured he’d live with her till he found a decent score.
Throughout most of the book, Max is a rather pathetic character. After he started taking Viagra pills, he’s been on a constant mission to cheat on his unhappy marriage – hiring Angela after he walked into his office with a tight blouse. He is obsessed with sex to the point of absurdity – frequenting strip clubs with his business clients and struggling to maintain any sort of eye contact with women. His affair with Angela, who doesn’t find sleeping with someone to get a material advantage, leads to the idea that he should get his wife killed. His ability to conceal this plot from the police matches his ability to conceal things in general:
In the bathroom, Max put a coat of spray-on hair fibers over his bald spot. The fibers could only be detected on very close inspection or by touch. The only problems were when it rained or when he was nervous — sometimes the fibers melted and dark streaks dripped down his neck.
Max isn’t even the sleaziest character in the book. That honor goes to Bobby Rosa, an ex-con with two obsessions: photographing women sunbathing in Central Park and fantasizing about committing mayhem with his large gun collection. He is also convinced that his acting classes at a local community college have given him a stage-worthy presence, but his ambitions for crime and celebrity have been cut short by a shooting that has left him paralyzed.
As part of a desperate scheme to raise cash, Bobby breaks into a hotel room, where Max and Angela are having sex, soon after the murder. Bobby snaps a few pictures, and acts like a confused hotel employee when Max spots him. The next day, Bobby visits Max in his office with demands for money; this all takes place after the murder, so Max’s thin cover is already threatened at this point.
Prior to the meeting with Bobby, however, we are given a striking clue that Max’s plan was not going to turn out as planned. Dillon (whom Max knows as Popeye, for his strange appearance) is not exactly the tidy professional:
Trying not to look at Dierdre’s body, he walked back out toward the front of the house. He went upstairs to make sure it was ransacked like the downstairs was. He saw that most of Dierdre’s jewelry was gone, then noticed that Popeye had broken the jar that held his kidney stones . . . In the center of the room was a turd. Max squinted at it, truly horrified.
The dark humor pervades Bust, which centers around Max and Angela, two characters that are not terribly bright but may be just clever enough to survive the horrible series of events that they kicked into motion. Bobby and Dillon are characters I’ve seen before in crime fiction; the impulse murderer and the twisted blackmailer. They are both capably described, if unpleasant to spend much time with.
There is one incident which fell flat with me – Dillon attacks a Japanese tourist in Times Square for no apparent reason. The tourist is wearing a “Giuliani Rules” T-shirt at the time. If it’s a commentary that the relative safety of New York is an illusion for visitors, it’s certainly not a statement backed with the facts; New York, since Giuliani’s tenure, has been a far safer city than other American cities (Chicago and Baltimore come to mind). There’s no other apparent purpose for the episode, so I considered it a misfire.
Other than that, Bust is a fast, enjoyable read about a group of seriously flawed characters. Angela in particular evolves into a compelling antihero, and I wouldn’t mind reading about her misadventures again. 7/10.