Herbie’s Game, by Timothy Hallinan
When Junior Bender was a young man, just starting his criminal career, he had an on-the-job run-in with an older, more experienced burglar: the one and only Herbie Mott. The guy could have just told Junior to scram, or else set him up for a fall, but for some reason he took the kid under his wing. And, over time, he taught the up-and-coming crook the tricks of his trade, both practical and esoteric, and become something of father figure to Bender — maybe the only real father he had, as things would turn out.
But the long and short of it is that Bender knows Herbie pretty darn well, as there’s a lot of the old man’s style in him. So when “executive crook” Wattles (of the many blow-up dolls) shows up at Bender’s hotel room, creepy hitman in tow, and “asks” him to find out who broke into his office — or else prove it wasn’t him — he’s got a pretty good idea who was actually responsible.
Problem is, when he goes to ask Herbie what he thought he was doing, he finds the old man dead — murdered quite painfully, in fact. It looks like his killers were trying to get something out of him, but Bender doubts they succeeded. Not that that makes the loss any easier to take.
But there’s a bigger problem, now.
You see, Wattles is one of those guys who likes to set things up for other people — jobs, thefts, hits, you name it. And when he sets it up, he uses what’s called a “disconnect chain” to ensure the person he’s hiring has no idea who his employer actually is. He sends someone out with an envelope stuffed with money and other envelopes — one inside the other — and that person hands the next envelope over to the next person and keeps their part of the money. And it goes from person to person until it reaches the intended recipient, who does the job without ever knowing who told him to.
All well and good, but that’s where it gets “interesting,” to put it mildly. The thing that was burgled from Wattles? It was a written list of who all was on the disconnect chain for a particular hit. It would seem that someone isn’t happy the killing took place, and is working their way through it to find out who ordered the hit.
So maybe they asked Herbie to steal it, and maybe they just figured Herbie had it? But who are they? And why are they so angry? Who was the victim to them?
(Who was the victim, for that matter?)
Now, Bender’s a smart guy — maybe too smart for his own good. There is a reason why other LA crooks keep press-ganging him to solve their serious problems for him. But then, he’d work this one just to find out who killed his mentor, as he owes the old man more than he could ever repay in seven lifetimes.
(Though, admittedly, having Wattles’ seriously creepy hitman, Bones, lurking around the corners of his life is quite the motivator.)
Unfortunately, as Bender pushes around the corners to find out who tortured Herbie to death, the corners start pushing back. He’s always prided himself with staying a few steps ahead of any situation, but now he’s getting the feeling he’s fallen seriously behind — and in a case like this, that can be very fatal.
Indeed, before long, his own family is being threatened, forcing him to introduce his present to his past in a less-than-comfortable manner. Even worse, digging through the details of his dead mentor’s life means discovering things about the old man than he soon wishes he hadn’t. Some old secrets should remain that way, as some revelations are much too painful to endure.
But you know Bender — he’s nothing if not wily. So hopefully he’ll live just long enough to curse learning the truth about Herbie’s Game.
We won’t have any such compunctions, though. As with this book’s three predecessors (Crashed, Little Elvises, and The Fame Thief), Timothy Hallinan nails another grand-slam neo-noir right out of the ballpark. Herbie’s Game provides a wry and intelligent read that stays pitch-perfect — neither too dark nor too light — with great characters, a lot of heart, and a LA underworld that keeps getting more playful and complex as the series goes on.
But such an excellent narrative would mean nothing without the gold-hearted guide that is Junior Bender. So if you’ve been wanting more information on how he came to be who and what he is? I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed in his fourth outing. If anything, you’ll be wanting the fifth to come out sooner, as these books are quickly becoming must-read events to look forward to.
Herbies Game drops July 15th, 2014, and should be available at all Schuler Books and Music locations.
– Jim Tremlett, Eastwood