3 out of 5
When PI Ben Gates takes a punch, he narrates something wittily to himself, then stands up with a grin and offers a different, equally witty line to his offender. When PI Ben Gates is accused of letting money be stolen and a murder be committed while he’s on security detail at a rich man’s party, his first reaction is to crack wise, and when this doesn’t earn him any friends – neither the rich man, or the detectives that have shown up, or the insurance investigators, or even his fellow PIs – he continues to crack wise and maybe even throws a punch or two from good measure. When guns are pointed at him; when a fire rages around him – you got it: again with the good-humored rapport. Ben Gates lives in the kind of cartoon world where you coil a length of hose around a bad guy and send him spinning; you tip a pile of paint cans over and watch people lose their balance.
It’s easy to visualize all of this – Ben would make a great character in a cheek-chewing Coen Brothers’ type light-hearted caper, or perhaps as a TNT / USA serialized caper-of-the-week Dad TV show lead – but in book form, it’s all a bit too loose and whimsical to really land. Robert Terrall crafts a worthwhile – if very low stakes – mystery around the cause of that aforementioned missing money and murder, and it’s definitely amusing reading Ben punch and smack talk his way up the ladder and around a ring of potential culprits, even when no one really wants him much involved. This is a good hitch for Gates’ somewhat antagonistic approach – almost a ne’er do well who can’t help but try to solve the crime – but it also works against the book because we’re not given enough time to really feel out Ben’s personality enough to fully go along for the ride: he’s in it to save his reputation, sure, but not one much seems too affected by either the money or murder and so neither are we, the reader, and it thus feels more like we’re following the whodunnit because there’s nothing better to do, rather than there being a compelling reason.
To be fair, Gates has had appearances prior to this book, but I’ve dropped in on the middle of series before and not had my head spun in the way Terrall writes; this is clear from how he treats other characters, who drop into the story at the blink of an eye – several characters within a single scene – and then are treated like old familiars. Again, this is all pretty slick, as these characters do remain relevant throughout the book, and everyone and everything gets tied up into the resolution – which is also the most fun and satisfying part of the book, ending on a good note – it just comes across as way too fleeting and somewhat vapid. This is, perhaps, true to the dimestore nature of the Hard Case Crime imprint; unfortunately, HCC has put out so many awesome books that when you read an average one, it sticks out moreso.