Book review: funny crooks Down on Ponce

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Money laundering noir from Atlanta in the 1990s

James knocks on Sam’s door and asks him to kill his wife.  Sam asks, “Ever thought of divorce?”  James hadn’t.  Thirty thousand dollars later, Sam relents.  He promptly double-crosses James, tells his wife, and keeps the cash.  It’s all fun and games until somebody else kills James and his wife and burns down Sam’s mobile home.

The strong opening is followed by Sam going into hiding in plain sight on Ponce de Leon Avenue in east Atlanta.  He hooks up with a crew of colorful crooks: Charley who works at a funeral parlor and drives around town in a hearse, Bob who can’t talk but writes poems, and amputee Stinky.  Later they’re joined by Bug, a wisecracking lady’s man lunatic they help bust from an asylum, who may only be pretending to be crazy, but is insane enough to love killing his posse’s enemies.

We learn that people who live on the streets, especially criminals, are better adjusted than those dangerous freaks in the suburbs.  That’s the order of affairs in Down on Ponce, the 1997 novel by Fred Willard.  Street people’s approach to theft is individualized; suburbanites’ approach is institutionalized.  This is illustrated by the savings & loan crisis that preceded the action in this book but is alluded to, and the drug trafficking and money laundering that was ongoing from the time period of the book to the present day.  The cops in North Georgia don’t care because they see it as the natural evolution of moonshining, or something.

Sam figures that James was involved with a money laundering ring run by Dong Chandler.  Sam’s plan is to trick Dong into believing that his crew is experienced in laundering money through the Dutch Antilles or Costa Rica.  That way they can steal the money and figure out who burnt down Sam’s mobile home at the same time.

Sam is a sharp protagonist.  Maybe too sharp.  His foresight and leadership over the crew are on par with Robin Hood.  His morals are more variable.  He always stays a step ahead of his opponents, and outwits them in every conversation.

Sam’s fellow travelers are eccentric and constantly craclomg jokes.  They get embroiled in random, comical situations. Willard’s writing style is entertaining and even joyful—he seems to love being in the company of the characters he creates, and it’s infectious.  It’s a humorous book, and its humor helps distract from the excessive anti-suburban, anti-conservative, and anti-institutional messages of the story.  The book is also so funny that after a while you stop taking the book seriously.  It’s marketed as “hard-boiled” or “cracker noir,” but the levity of the constant gags undercuts the hardest edges.

Three stars out of five.

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Corrupt general gets the payback he deserves in Two Thieves and a Puma

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Toward the end of the Indian wars, the U.S. military surplused property it no longer needed.  A few corrupt supply officers and clerks cashed in by selling property off the books.  The Western Two Thieves and a Puma (1980) by John Reese tells the story of two men, one who served as a general and one who was a sergeant, who participated in such siphoning.  The fates of the two men are tied together because they marry a pair of Italian-American sisters, whose family is always looking for financial opportunities.  Each of the men go into the cattle business for themselves on neighboring ranches in California.

Decades later, the wife of the former sergeant Whiting has died.  He is struggling to make ends meet because his herds have diminished.  Meanwhile, the ranch of former general Hethcutt, who is arrogant and incompetent, is thriving somehow.  A high number of Hetchutt’s cattle exhibit Shorthorn traits although Whiting was the only one of the two ranchers to buy Shorthorn stock.  Whiting keeps a detailed, encoded log book of Hethcutt’s cattle to use as evidence in a cattle rustling lawsuit.

Whiting’s property is often used Lon Tsan, a roving opium den operator.  Lon Tsan has mostly Chinese customers.  His other main customer at Whiting’s ranch is a cougar named Sneaky.  The puma had been orphaned and raised as a cub by Whiting’s daughter.  The puma becomes partly domesticated and totally addicted to Lon Tsan’s product over the years.  Although the premise sounds far-fetched, it works.  Sneaky becomes a lovable, sympathetic, and not entirely docile character throughout the book.

Jefferson Hewitt, a full partner and field agent of a bonding company (a detective, really), arrives and offers to help Whiting with his claim.  Hewitt is an excellent marksman with sufficient resources to hire a lawyer for Whiting and a temporary gang of men to pull security around the ranch.  Although Whiting has a very solid lawsuit, he suspects Hewitt is involved in the case for bigger, undetermined financial reasons.  Those reasons don’t become clearer until the final third of the book.  The action culminates to a final confrontation between the forces of Whiting, Hewitt, Lon Tsan and Sneaky versus the forces of Hethcutt.

Overall, Two Thieves and a Puma is a great read.  Although nobody in the story is without blame, it’s satisfying to watch the little crook take on the big crook and win.  In this regard, the book is similar to the Walter Matthau movie “Charley Varrick,” which was based on a book also written by John Reese.  The characters in Two Thieves and a Puma jump off the page, warts and all.  The financial intrigue is very compelling and Reese has a good sense of timing for revealing critical tidbits and explanations as the plot progresses.

It’s impossible to describe without spoiling the end, but there is an aspect of the ending that isn’t very good.  I wish Reese had written the ending just a little differently.  But overall the book was excellent–very satisfying, tight, clever, and lively.