Book Review

Stakes worth playing for in a caper novel

By Carlo Wolff
January 22, 2010

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You don’t have to play poker to enjoy “Gutshot Straight,’’ a highly entertaining caper novel with a title straight out of a high-stakes game. All you need do is grasp the concept of long odds, embrace the notion of noir lite, have a sense of humor, and relish oddball characters.

There’s at least one McGuffin in play, too, including thin air. Read the book to find out what I mean. It’s hardly a chore.

The hero is Charles “Shake’’ Bouchon, just out of jail after doing time for grand theft auto. His former lover and sometime boss, femme fatale Alexandra Ilandryan, hires Shake to drive a car from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, deliver it to Dick Moby (a.k.a. “The Whale’’), pick up a briefcase from him, return it to her and collect $20,000. Stuffed into the trunk, to Shake’s dismay, is Gina Clement, a pretty young thing who tells him she’s a Mormon housewife and doesn’t know why Moby’s goon, Jasper, snatched her. Turns out Gina is all about appetite, Shake far more about restraint.

Like the trunk and its surprise contents, Gina isn’t what she seems. She deploys different identities for various purposes, charging the plot with unexpected twists. As she reveals parts of herself both psychological and physical, the chemistry between her and Shake grows. Thickening the plot is Lou Berney’s mastery of locale including Vegas, LA, and Panama City.

At the heart of the mystery is the briefcase, like Gina, a Pandora’s box:

“Inside, set into a custom-cut foam bed designed to protect it from jolts and jounces, was another case. It was the size of a large manila envelope, not much thicker than one, and made entirely of glass. Pressed inside the glass were dozens and dozens of square, thumbnail-size pieces of what looked like dried, yellowed parchment. Shake counted: ten rows across, ten rows down.’’

What that “parchment’’ is doesn’t become clear for some time. What happens to the contents of the briefcase is delicious and just, enthralling and unpredictable. It involves wild dashes across continents, and explorations of the convention culture of Las Vegas, the seamiest side of the pawnshop business, and, of course, car culture. This book, like the similarly pop-savvy 1971 cult film “Vanishing Point,’’ involves a lot of car chases.

Among my favorite characters: Ted Boxman, a hapless Vegas conventioneer whose wallet Gina swipes; Dikran Ghazarian, Lexy’s bodyguard, “a prehistoric thug with a shaved head like a bullet that hadn’t been fired yet’’; Roland Ziegler, a smarmy fugitive financier who evokes Robert Vesco (and Nixon press secretary Ronald Ziegler); and Vader Wallace, a “mean young black con’’ who winds up donating a “candy-apple, mint-condition 1969 Plymouth Road Runner’’ to Shake - against Vader’s will (Vader’s twin brother is named Darth). Here’s Vader talking to his wife from the joint:

“A friend of yours just left,’’ Artemis said.

“Vader sniffed the plastic mouthpiece. It smelled bad, like pickles gone off. He caught a CO watching him sniff the phone. The CO looked away real quick. Yes he did.’’

Berney has written feature screenplays and created TV pilots, according to his publisher’s publicity. What the hype doesn’t mention is how well he renders characters, detailing them so vividly and deftly you can distinguish their tones of voice, even their tics. Like Carl Hiaasen, Berney delights in the cartoonish. Like Elmore Leonard, he can drive a plot. What sets him apart is how well he evokes love, making the romance at the heart of this cinematic book as compelling as the mystery.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer in Cleveland.



304 pp., $24.99