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Book Review: Illegal by Paul Levine

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Paul Levine’s latest thriller is more roller coaster suspense and action than courtroom drama, and I had a blast with the characters and plot. With this novel, Levine just throws his previous playbook out the window, pulls a page from Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art Of Murder,” and plunges his readers through ranks of gunmen, car chases, and crooked cops.

I absolutely fell in love with Jimmy “Royal” Payne as he makes a complete wreck of his life, then struggles to put to rights the life of a twelve-year-old boy who won me over, too. When I found out that Payne is the author’s new signature character and that a second book is already in the works, I was a happy reader.

Jimmy is a fantastic character. In this first book, he starts out so close to the bottom that anything he does is going to show as character growth. I kept picturing a young Richard Dreyfuss playing the lead, and I think that’s a good fit. Jimmy has been hammered at every turn by life, and in the opening chapters of this book he gets blackmailed into bribing a judge, which results in even harsher circumstances.

Watching Jimmy in action is kind of like seeing a chain reaction car wreck taking place in slow motion. You see it; you know it’s coming; and you can’t believe the guy can’t get out of the way of it. But, miraculously, Jimmy is the kind of guy who racks up a lot of damage and still manages to limp through by sheer force of will, cleverness, and desperation. I’m a sucker for those kinds of characters every time, and it stands to reason that Jimmy’s favorite fictional hero is Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files. Rockford is one of my favorites as well.

After Jimmy puts his life and career in the toilet at the beginning of this novel, things get even more interesting. A 12-year-old illegal named Tino comes looking for him after getting separated from his mother during a border crossing. Jimmy’s work to get some illegals their paperwork only a short time ago has made him a hero down in Mexico. But after Tino breaks into Jimmy’s office and steals money that Jimmy has stolen to get a cop in trouble, neither one of them are exactly enchanted with the other.

However, they need each other to escape from the police. It’s this forced symbiosis, this artificial father/son relationship, that takes shape during the course of this novel that is the heart and soul of the story. No matter what they do, they can’t escape each other. Especially after Jimmy’s ex-wife, whom he’s still in love with, forces them to work together to try to find Marisol, Tino’s missing mom.

The novel takes a little bit of time setting up all the characters at the beginning. But once the road trip begins, Levine drives the plot full tilt, like an eighteen-wheeler that’s just blown the brakeline on a downhill run. I couldn’t put the novel down, and I’m betting that any reader who picks it up won’t be able to either.

Levine deals with the illegal immigration and employee problems with honesty and presents both sides. But that’s a small part of the entertainment he offers. I never got the impression that this was a politically based book. Levine just uses the California/Mexico situation as a great backdrop to the simple father/son redemption story he wants to tell. I can’t wait till the second one.

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