The Last Kind Word by David Housewright
The Last Kind Word by David Housewright (Minotaur Books, 2013) has provoked me into a reflective mood and I find myself thinking about a great friend of mine who died some years ago — we old folk have this problem of friends dying on us. Adrian was something of a legend in the place I used to live. From the earliest age, he demonstrated a remarkable flair for getting the best out of machines. Starting off in a local garage, he reached the point where Alpha Romeo were trying to induce him to join their international racing team to get the best performance out of their cars. He turned them down which, in a way, was the real start of the legend. He prospered locally, maintained in a comfortable lifestyle by a massively loyal customer base. He had the knack. It’s not an ability you can ever strictly define but, every now and again, you come across a person who quickly proves to have it in his or her chosen field of endeavour. I have now added David Housewright to my short list of people who have the writing knack. I only wish I had encountered him earlier, this being the tenth in the series featuring Rushmore McKenzie.
I’ve been reading for decades and have met almost every variation on themes it’s possible to devise. Yet this book produced such a perfect package that, even though it’s not the most original thriller dealing with an undercover operation, it’s the most entertaining I’ve read for a long time. It just has such a pleasing storytelling power. The plot develops with such an appropriate logic, you would want it all to work out like this every time this situation was replicated in the real world. Sadly, of course, such wish-fulfillment would never be realised. People have a tendency to be rather more unpredictable and brutal than we see here. But this offers a template for happy-ever-after outcomes from gun-running, kidnapping and armed robbery scenarios. . . You would always want to see this balancing of means and ends in actual government operations.
So what makes this all so magical? Well, without getting into any mockery, the ATF came up with a world-winning strategy, appropriately named Operation Fast and Furious (not the Vin Diesel film, OK). They were going to release a pile of weaponry and ordinance into the criminal underworld, track it, arrest everyone that touched it, and then recover all the weapons and explosives. Sadly, what works well on paper, rarely performs up to expectation when transferred to the real world. A lot of these weapons disappeared. This was politically embarrassing. The hook for this novel is that one of the missing AK47s has surfaced. It was used in a bank robbery. The youngish robber is refusing to name names. So, to get a lead on where the rest of the guns might be, McMenzie goes undercover as a notorious and rather violent career criminal. An escape from the police cruiser taking them to prison is staged. Pretend and actual criminals escape. Now it’s up to our hero to infiltrate the gang and find out where they bought their weapons. A piece of cake — that’s the idiom to bear in mind.
There’s just one problem. Well, actually, there’s more than one problem but, in the immediate aftermath, the most important is the gang proves almost completely dysfunctional. None of them are really capable of being “proper” criminals apart from one who was in the army. In effect, they are just a group of people who have the misfortune to live in a part of America sinking ever deeper into recession. Whereas the more prosperous parts of the country are recovering, the unemployment here is crippling. None of them can begin to make ends meet unless they steal. Small scale theft is not going to cut it, hence the resort to banks. The mystery is how they managed to avoid being taken off to jail after the first robbery. Now they even have a nickname. Better still, almost everyone in the local community knows what they are doing — it’s a small town with everyone living in every else’s pocket. This makes McKenzie’s arrival big news. Now everyone’s all agog to see what he’s going to do. Even the corrupt local law gets in on the act and demands a share in the proceeds from any new robbery he might plan. And then there are the local criminals who think they run serious crime in the area. They might be upset if they didn’t get their share too. And there might just be gunrunners and, if they supplied the firepower to take down a big target, they might want a cut too.
The way this all works out is literally delightful. The gang members are absolutely credible and described in a way guaranteed to encourage us to root for them. We want them to get away with it. Except, once McKenzie drops the boom and calls in the ATF and FBI, everyone must be taken down. Even if the federal authorities were to look the other way, the local law would want to arrest these individuals. They have, after all, been going round robbing people using the threat of firearms to reinforce their demands. The fact no-one has actually been shot is more luck than good judgement. They have been dangerous and have no doubt frightened if not psychologically damaged guards and customers in the places robbed.
So, appropriately enough, my last kind word is that The Last Kind Word is clearly one of the best thrillers of the year. David Housewright has won the Edgar Award before. He deserves to be in the running again with this book.
A copy of this book was sent to me to review.