@@@@ (4 out of 5)
After writing three very funny crime novels featuring the professional burglar Junior Bender, Timothy Hallinan produced Herbie’s Game. It’s not as funny. In this fourth novel in the series, Hallinan waxes philosophical in lengthy contemplative passages that show Junior’s serious side. It’s well written, as were its predecessors, and the story is engaging (if improbable). Despite the relative lack of laugh-out-loud material, Herbie’s Game is a fun read.
Junior Bender lives in a world populated by characters with names such as Louie the Lost, Stinky Tetwiler, Wattles, Handkerchief Harrison, Monty Carlo, and Burt the Gut. Every one of these individuals, all criminals to a fault, enters into the tale Hallinan tells in Herbie’s Game. The Herbie of the title is Junior’s mentor and surrogate father, the man who taught him the burglary trade. “If I were ever sufficiently misguided to write my own life story,” he muses, “the hero of most of Act One would be a burglar named Herbie Mott.”
The game of the title is, of course, burglary. But it’s not run-of-the-mill, hit-and-run burglary of the sort perpetrated by drug addicts. This is a thoroughly professional approach, and Junior;s name has never surfaced in police files. For example, one of Herbie’s precepts is never to take everything valuable when burglarizing a home. Always leave the one item that its owners are likely to find most precious. That way they’ll think “At least, they didn’t take that.”
Junior’s misfortune is to be known among the criminal class in the Los Angeles world as a crack investigator, the equal of the best that any police force can offer. Thus, when some clueless malefactor commits a crime against a powerful crook, Junior is likely to be called in to track down the perpetrator. Asking the police for help is, obviously, not a good idea. Herbie’s Game tells the story of Junior’s latest venture into investigative work.
A criminal go-between named Wattles has called for Junior’s help because someone has stolen the list of people who serve as a sequence of cut-outs in what he calls a “chain.” For example, if someone contacts Wattles to arrange a hit, he will pass a huge envelope to the first person in a chain, who in turn will pass along the large envelope inside the one he received, who in turn will pass the somewhat smaller envelope inside it to a third person, and so forth. Every envelope contains a large sum of cash. In theory, no person knows the identity of anyone other than the one who passed along the envelope and the one he or she, in turn, passes to. That way, no one can connect the hitman (or hitwoman) who may be the sixth or seventh person at the end of the chain to Wattles, much less to the person who ordered the hit. Though Junior is aghast that Wattles should have written down all these names, he is forced to take on the job because Wattles threatens to set his own hitman on Junior if he doesn’t.
Junior’s investigation turns deadly as soon as he learns that Herbie, the likeliest suspect, has been brutally murdered. As Junior pursues his inquiry, working gradually down the chain in hopes of identifying the hitman, threats against his life come to light. Even worse, there are threats against his ex-wife and the 13-year-old daughter they both dote on. The mounting danger leads Junior into rethinking the choices he’s made in his life. Feeling ambivalent about his work, he muses that “those of us who chose Herbie’s Game faced a lifetime of wearing a mask, of lying, or making—sooner or later—the kind of decision that had cost me my wife and daughter. I probably hadn’t even figured out yet all the things that choosing Herbie’s Game had cost me.”