Crashed (Junior Bender #1) by Timothy Hallinan (Soho, Nov. 2012)-We meet talented thief Junior Bender as he prepares to break into a house in order to steal a painting for a client. The problem is, the house is swarming with Rottweilers. Getting past that pack of barking death won’t be easy, but the presence of a safe underneath the painting more than makes up for it. Junior can never resist a safe. After the painting is acquired, he meets with his contacts and finds out that more than a simple business transaction is on the menu. Actually, blackmail is, and his shining mug on a surveillance camera will be exposed if he doesn’t agree to the plans. Caught by the shorthairs, Junior is forced into business with Trey Annunziato, the beautiful and brilliant daughter of a crime lord, who, after her father’s rather untimely death, is now the head of his crime empire. Trey is making a film of the adult type and has managed to snag former child star Thistle Downing for the starring role. Unfortunately, Thistle is a shadow of her former self, held together by drugs and desperation. You may ask yourself why Trey needs Junior. Turns out someone is trying to sabotage the film, and Trey wants Junior to find out who, and help to make sure the film gets made. Easy, right? Not so much, especially when the saboteurs are willing to resort to murder.
Crashed is told in Junior Bender’s sly, sarcastic, and sometimes erudite voice and he is most definitely not your common criminal. He certainly doesn’t mind relieving well to do folks of their high value burdens, but watching as a talented former child star, now a drug addict, is forced into porn is another thing entirely. In fact, Thistle sort of “adopts” Junior after he helps her through a throng of media vultures, and he can’t bear to see her do this film, not when, at the height of her fame, she was such a shining star. Some of that shine is still there, too, buried underneath the drugs, and the scenes with Thistle, when she’s coherent and brilliant, are sometimes heartbreaking. Her sadness and loneliness are palpable and Junior can’t help but ask himself “what if this was my daughter?” Speaking of which, Junior actually does have a very precocious daughter in sixth grade, Rina, with a mother that he’s still in love with, and I’m hoping for many more scenes with her in the future, ‘cause she’s rather awesome. But I digress… Junior starts to have some serious second thoughts about Thistle doing this film, but how will he get her out with his hide intact? It’ll take some doing, but with a little help from his friends, he’s definitely up to the task. And what friends! Junior surrounds himself with a quirky cast of characters that never cease to amuse, amaze and sometime surprise with their kindness and loyalty. Junior’s group of criminal contacts don’t have hard hearts, and the ones that do are the ones he does his best to steer clear from. Crashed is an unusual, funny crime caper with a ton of heart, and falling for Junior, for me, was inevitable. The author has quite a handle on human nature and it shows in his characterizations. Readers are given a look behind the surface glam of L.A., and the city is almost a character unto itself. For me, Crashed is a shining gem to be cherished not only among crime fiction fans, but also among fans of just plain good writing. Don’t miss this little wonder of a book.