Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Review: “Little Elvises” by Timothy Hallinan

Little Elvis2

The only problem with this book is that you’ll laugh so hard the tears are apt to short out your eReader. A screw-ball comedy worthy of Johnathan Latimer’s William Crane and cynically funny as Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder stories. You just can’t help but love Junior Bender.

But this isn’t just a funny book. This is serious hardboiled noir and Los Angles, and the area around L.A. make even the most screw ball character believable. I think I went to high school with Fronts and Marge has been my land lady more than once…

Little Elvises is a romp through LaLa land inside a convoluted plot that somehow is familiar and decipherable and, most of all, enjoyable. Junior Bender is a high-end thief and burglar who not only has never been caught, but is well known by the authorities, but often finds himself in the unenviable position of solving problems for other criminal elements and those who can’t seek “justice” through the law. He’s the crooks cop; the lost and found detective for those on the other side of the fence.

The Little Elvises opens with Junior being detained by the police for the Hammer job, which he wasn’t involved in. A judge and his wife were robbed at gun point and the wife was pistol whipped. Naturally the cops are under some pressure to bring the perps in. It’s well known that Junior never uses a gun, and he has many alibi witnesses. Case closed,… but not so fast. It doesn’t matter that Junior is innocent to Detective DiGaudio, because he has intimidated the witnesses. As he tells Junior, “It doesn’t matter whether you did it. What matters is that we can make you for it.”

Junior quickly sees that they are working towards “an act of generosity” on the part of the cops. Seems detective DiGaudio has an uncle, Vincent (don’t call me Vinnie) DiGaudio who back in the fifties made a mint turning out “Little Elvises” in the music business. Little Elvises; Handsome Italian kids with tight pants and big hair and little or no talent. American pop culture imitates itself, the way it stamps out little tin copies of anything original that makes money. For instance all the Little Elvises from Philly who were churned to the surface in the wake of Elvis Presley. Vincent DiGaudio, who lined his pockets with the star dust of the imitation Elvises is rumored to be mob connected. But only rumored, you understand. Just because he’s Italian. In Philly. In the music business, why would anyone think he was mobbed up?

It seems Uncle Vincent has a problem, and Detective DiGaudio, who can “make Junior” for the Hammer job, will forget all that if Junior helps out Vincent. That’s cool with Junior, and expedient. He’s got a life to live, an ex wife and a teenage daughter who just might be falling in love with a black kid. Now Junior, in theory, wouldn’t have a problem with the racial difference, but old prejudices die hard when it’s his teenage daughter involved. So, Junior takes the path of least resistance, and agrees to help Uncle Vincent with his problem, unless of course the problem involves murder. He draws the line there, even working for criminals.

It’s murder.

Seems a scandal rag writer was killed and his body dumped on one of the Little Elvises Hollywood Walk of Fame Star. Further, the dead writers foxy wife knew where he was the night he was killed. After a little investigation, Junior locates the dead writers car near Uncle Vincent’s abode.

Junior’s job is to establish an alibi, or an alternate suspect for the cops in order to get him, and uncle Vincent off the suspect list for the Hammer job and the murder. Along the way he gets involved in a missing person case looking for his land lady, Marge’s daughter, who has gone missing after being married to a shady character who just may be a serial wife killer.

There is also the curious mystery of one of the Little Elvises sudden departure from a movie set years ago.

He also has to get close to Uncle Vincent while staying clear of the possible mob guys, including the worlds oldest mobster. There’s also a wild card character, Fronts, who just wants Junior to stop looking. Fronts is a 350 pound dope fiend who carves poetry and other things on his own chest with a very large knife and is practically unstoppable short of using a Howitzer. Junior also falls for the dead writers ex wife, who may just be the real murder. He is also dealing with his  responsibilities and feelings over his coming of age daughter. It all makes for a caper/scam/murder romp through the mean streets of L.A.

The pace is great, the dialog hardboiled and comical, the narration is well balanced and cynical, and the characters, though obviously over the top, are way too believable for Hollywood. The plot is equally funny, over the top, but real inside the sense of place. The story will keep you puzzling as Junior navigates the twisted minds and morals of the characters. My only real problem with the book was that in a couple of places the story, told through dialog exchanges could get so circuitous that you’d have to read them twice to follow along. Well worth it and there was always a laugh or wry smile after the recap.

I’d whole heartedly recommend this fun read to anyone that loves crime fiction and great noir written with the ghosts of Donald Westlake and Johnathan Latimer sitting in the room listening to 45 rpm records from the Payola days of Rock N Roll.

Tim Hallinan is the Edgar Nominated author tim Halliananof The Queen of Patpong: A Poke Rafferty Thriller (Poke Rafferty Thrillers) ,the  Simeon Grist Mysteries as well as The Junior Bender Series. Tim is also a major contributor to Bangkok Noir which brings together twelve authors that write about Thailand. Half the proceeds of the sale of this excellent collection go too charities to help Bangkok’s poorest kids. He also is a contributor to SHAKEN: Stories for Japan which is an eBook conceived totally to benefit the earth quake survivors.


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Article first published as Book Review: Little Elvises by Timothy Hallinan Blogcritics




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