Heaven's a Lie by Wallace Stroby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Crime fiction fans know this rule well: If you come across a bag of money, don’t take it.
Fortunately, Joette Harper is apparently unfamiliar with stories like No Country For Old Men and A Simple Plan. Otherwise she would have known better, and we wouldn’t have this great book to read.
Joette has been riding an epic streak of bad luck. Her husband died, she lost her job at a bank when it got bought out, and her mother is fading fast in a nursing home. With a mountain of medical bills to pay she’s lost her house, and the only job she can find near her mother is as a desk clerk at a crappy motel. While working one night she witnesses and a car accident and while futilely trying to save the driver’s life, she finds a bag with almost $300,000 in the flaming wreckage. Acting on impulse, Joette takes the bag and hides it from the police, but she doesn’t realize that it’s drug money stolen from a very dangerous man named Travis Clay who wants it back.
Once he’s established the set-up, author Wallace Stroby then takes us through a story that is familiar, but he manages to subvert expectations at several points. It’s mainly the character work that sets this one apart, and with Joette in the lead we’ve got a smart woman who is the kind of person who would risk her own life to try and save a stranger from a burning car, but her circumstances have made her desperate enough to take the cash. This isn’t a greedy person, she’s just someone who really needs this money, and that makes you sympathize with her from the jump. She’s also smarter than a lot of the characters we get in these situations as she immediately stashes the cash in secure locations and does a good job of covering her tracks.
The antagonist Travis Clay could have been a cliché or an Anton Chigurh rip-off as a violent man seeking his money, but while he fits that profile in some ways, there’s again a sly nudging of things off the typical beats. Usually there’s a kind of pragmatic ruthlessness to characters like these, but Clay gets obsessed with the idea of recovering the money which leads him down increasingly bloody avenues that start to cut off his options even as he is pressuring Joette.
It all works and builds a nice tension so that even as the book builds tensions and seems headed towards an expectable outcome, you start to realize that things aren’t going to work for anybody like they planned.
Wallace Stroby is a writer I like a lot and who I think should be getting a lot more attention. His Chrissa Stone novels starting with Cold Shot to the Heart was one of the better series about a professional thief you’ll find this side of a Richard Stark novel, and his last book Some Die Nameless was a great thriller as well. This is just the latest example of why crime fiction fans should be reading him.
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