He often walks the mean streets… of upmarket Encino and Sherman Oaks. He can’t always tell a femme fatale without a background check and tracking device. He packs heat – when he can remember to get his gun out of storage. And – get this – his name is Junior. But he’s Chandleresque enough to crack wise at the drop of glock, or solve a murder – armed with an arsenal of strained similes – with more twists and turns than the Grapevine to Gorman.
Or two murders at the same time, for that matter. And that’s indeed the matter in Timothy Hallinan’s comically hardboiled though often convoluted Little Elvises, the second entry in the Junior Bender Series (after 2010’s Crashed). Junior is an adept and never-busted burglar who rubs elbows with those on the other side of the law, but he’s also “the crook’s cop” (“it’s a sideline, sort of”), a burglar who’s a troubleshooter and investigator for L.A.’s unjustly accused criminal kind when they’re caught in a trap and they can’t walk out.
In Little Elvises Junior himself is ensnared time and again by a troupe of secondary characters as colorful as anything to be found in the pages of a Hammett or Hiaasen novel, an ensemble that includes a sociopathic, morbidly obese borderline bedlamite for a hit man; a scorekeeping, ninety-something mob boss emeritus; a scheming scandal rag reporter intent on ill-gotten extravagance; and – perhaps most confounding of all – an ex he still covets and his precocious 13-year old daughter and unofficial on-call consultant for all things technological, though she “hasn’t hit the stage yet where the entire world seems like a personal imposition.”
Junior may need such expertise at this time, now that he’s being set-up by one of LAPD’s less-than-finest for forcing his way into a judge’s house, beating his wife, and stealing their jade collection, unless Junior finds a way to get the cop’s aging music mogul uncle out of a murder rap for the killing a tabloid reporter. As a Philadelphia record producer in the late 1950s and early ’60s, the uncle made a fortune by signing up several untalented but attractive young men, getting them to look, lip-synch, and snarl like Elvis Presley, and preparing them for their pretty boy close-ups for a nation full of enthusiastic teenage girls.
Cue the love interest as the comely if eccentric widow of the late journalist – the latter something of a scoundrel, it turns out – warms up merrily to Junior, while he warily reciprocates. After all, she’s a bit of an unknown entity in the midst of trouble-tossed circumstances, and he’s preoccupied with his investigation. Which might get a little sidetracked from time to time: Things get a little more complicated when Bender’s boozehound landlady implores him to look into the disappearance of her daughter. At this point, Junior may as well quit his day job for a while – with his new schedule, he’d be lucky to be able to steal a few minutes for a nap now and then.
Indeed, the plot thickens as the pace quickens in this rewarding if off-kilter crime caper. Little Elvises’ twists and turns have their own twists and turns – hairpin turns – as the narrative careens at hazardously high speeds through circuitous story arcs and screwball scenarios all over the map (well, mostly back and forth “over the hill” between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley). Reading along gets to be a whiplash of a challenge, but it’s well worth hanging on, cliffhangers and all. Along the way Hallinan’s tossing out more than the odd bon mot and witty quip; he captures the SoCal milieu perfectly and impeccably. As illustrated in his take on the modern obsession with plastic surgery and botoxicated makeovers, Hallinan asserts that one such dupe may even “had surgery on her vowels, which sounded like she’s spent her childhood as a prisoner in a BBC serial before escaping to Brooklyn.” In any case, her facial restructuring suggests a one-step-forward, two-steps-back course of inaction:
“Melissa Simmons spent a fortune on not aging, and she hadn’t. Instead of moving forward with the rest of us, towed in the wake of time’s arrow, she’d gone sideways, into a parallel universe where people’s faces morphed monthly, lips plumping, cheekbones swelling, chins clefting, noses shrinking, muscles relaxing to the point of paralysis, neck skin stretching as tight as a drumhead.”
Of course, not all that Junior Bender says and does – like his off-the-cuff approach to life and crime – is meant as a glib dismissal or designed to savage social and personal absurdities. In one exchange with his daughter – the one person, despite their breezy repartee, with whom he shares the most abiding and genuine relationship – she asks him why he lives like he does. At the time he laughs it off with a joke, but Hallinan makes us feel assured that one day Bender will let her in on the real and more deeply-seated reasons, the ones that allow him to admit that “I liked to flip coins, I liked not knowing whether I’d win or lose, and I liked it when the stakes were high.” Furthermore, he says, “I liked stepping into the maze of a puzzle … not knowing whether there was a Minotaur inside.”
That’s enough to keep me going for more – for Junior Bender #3 (out in July), and probably #4 and beyond: I like puzzles, too, and I’m just as curious about that Minotaur.