Gutshot Straight by Lou Berney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Charles ‘Shake’ Bouchon is a wheelman who just got out of jail. Now in his forties, Shake is feeling the weight of a lifetime of bad choices, and he dreams of going straight and opening a restaurant. However, he can’t bring himself to turn down the offer from his old boss and former lover Alexandra, who now runs the Armenian mob in Los Angeles. Shake is supposed to drive a car to Vegas, deliver it to a man who will give him a briefcase in return, and then Shake flies back to LA and gives the case to Alexandra.
It seems like a simple job, but when he gets a flat tire, Shake discovers that there’s a woman named Gina in the trunk of the car. She tells Shake that she’s just a housewife whose husband had gambling debts who ran off, and now Shake has the bad feeling that he’s delivering her to be a hostage who probably won’t get out of the situation alive. Sympathy gets the better of Shake, and he doesn’t hand Gina over and instead they make off with the briefcase. Now he’s double-crossed the leader of the Armenian mob on the West Coast, and angered the most dangerous man in Las Vegas. The only thing they have for leverage is the case which is filled with something very weird and very valuable.
If you read that plot set-up, and said to yourself, “Hey, that sounds an awful lot like the Jason Statham action movie The Transporter, you’d be right. In fact, that’s what I thought, and I had a brief moment of disappointment that Lou Berney, a writer I like quite a bit, would borrow a plot like that.
However, I should have had more faith. What Berney did is to use that feeling of familiarity to set the reader up so that you’d feel like you’d know where it’s all going, but then he veers sharply in a new direction. It’s a switcheroo that works well because when the twists and turns start coming, I was blindsided in the best way.
It’s an extremely brisk crime novel filled with vivid characters and a lot of humor. It reminded me of the late, great Elmore Leonard in all the right ways while still having it’s own unique vibe. It also moves along briskly without a wasted page and wraps up in less than 300 pages.
With every Lou Berney novel I read, I wish I’d started reading him sooner.
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