The 1930s bank robber Ross Duncan is back to work on a simple kidnapping job that precipitates double-crossings and murder in Bartley’s (They Die Alone, 2012) historical noir series.
Robbing banks is much deadlier than it had been pre-1934. Now FBI agents are gunning for crooks, so Duncan agrees to abduct Hamilton, an investment banker with an affluent wife. But Duncan’s apprehensive right away—for starters, Hamilton has his young stepson with him. It’s not much of a surprise when Duncan awakens one morning to learn that he and a partner have been made patsies. He determines to find out why he was betrayed and see that the boy safely finds his mother. Bartley’s novel, the second in a series, is rich in its real-world background: The country is feeling the effects of the Great Depression, and though Prohibition has been repealed, it paved the way for criminal enterprises. The setting enhances a strong narrative, one that turns the mundane wry, like a recurring image of an old woman peeling potatoes while waiting to make the ransom demand, and shows both the Hollywood-style allure of gangsters and its ugly counterpart. Staples of noir abound, including the tough guy who lights a cigarette with a gun pointed at his face. But the protagonist—who doesn’t shy from delivering a pistol-whipping—also has a personal motive to help the young boy: His conscience is burdened by the death of a boy killed during one of his bank robberies. There aren’t many action scenes in the book—fitting, since Duncan is eyeing retirement—but readers won’t mind since whimsically descriptive pieces (a woman’s tanned skin is compared to “coffee with lots of milk and sugar stirred in”) and dialogue roll off the page like whiskey from a bottle. The novel’s best line occurs during a stunning, darkly humorous scene when Duncan rhetorically asks, “What is J. Edgar Hoover going to say about this?”
A superlative thriller that will set the hook for the rest of the series.