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Book Review: Stealing the Dragon by Tim Maleeny

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Billed as the first in the Cape Weathers, PI series, Stealing the Dragon starts out with a bang. A cargo ship filled with knock-off designer jeans ends up wrecked, but the ship wasn’t just carrying clothing. It was also filled with illegal Chinese immigrants who had paid large amounts of money or had agreed to become slaves of “snakeheads” (the men who arranged for the illegal immigration to the United States) in order to get the chance to improve their lives.

Those illegal aliens aren’t the only secret, though. The ship carries a young woman aboard that is one of very few. Trained as an assassin, the woman slips through the ship and kills the snakehead’s group as well as the crew.

Looking at the plot, you’d expect to find something like this on one of those direct-to-DVD actioners starring Lorenzo Lamas. When I read the cover copy on it I dismissed it, thinking I’d probably saved myself some money, but that beautiful cover with the intriguing tattooed woman lurked — ninja-like — in the back of my mind. Then I saw a few generous reviews and thought, “Well, the author has a few friends.” Finally I looked at the price and thought the cost wasn’t so much and that cover is outta sight.

When I got the book and opened it to the first page, I became a believer. I didn’t put it down for almost a hundred pages. Granted, you’re not going to find anything new here. Cape Weathers is the obnoxious, laconic private eye that gets stamped out by a lot of writers, and interesting though she is, Sally Mei isn’t exactly original either.

So you’re getting what you expect, which isn’t a bad thing.

The thing that came as a complete surprise, especially in a first-time novelist, is just how easy the novel is to read. One of the major contributors to the pacing is the incredibly shortness of the chapters. They hurtle along filled with action or dialogue, both of which are easy to read. Stealing the Dragon is simply the fastest reading detective novel I’ve perused outside of Robert B. Parker. Come to think of it, I enjoy a lot of the same qualities about the Spenser novels that I liked in this one.

Tough guy private eye. Check (although Spenser could take Weathers with one arm tied behind his back). Really deadly partner. Check (it would be interesting to see Hawk matched up against Sally Mei; she comes with a lot more deadly accessories and looks great in a dress). Witty repartee. Check. Running his own game against cops, feds, and criminals alike. Check.

The book is for the most part divided between Cape’s search for his missing partner and Sally’s backstory of how she came to be an assassin trained by the Chinese Triads (organized crime). San Francisco, particularly Chinatown, comes to life on the pages.

I really enjoyed the writing, even though it was like a lot of other tough guy stuff I’ve read. Then again, I’ve read a lot of other tough guy stuff. There’s no harm in knowing what you want and how to get it.

The story is pretty straightforward. Cape goes around bumping into cops and criminals alike and pretty much becomes a lodestone for trouble and violence. The trick soon becomes staying out of jail while at the same time staying alive. Sally, other than the revealing flashbacks, is offstage till nearly the end of the book, but I really liked her history and her story.

I’ve read few books this year that move with the same kind of rapid-fire pacing and yet manage to convey a fairly intricate and complex plot. I never once stumbled or got lost along the way, and even though the novel is nearly 370 pages long, I read it in four sittings over the Christmas holidays.

I’ve already ordered the second book in the series and am looking forward to reading it. The book is very familiar in a lot of ways, but it’s just so enjoyable it really shouldn’t be a first novel. I can’t wait to see what a few more years and a few more books under his belt do for Tim Maleeny. Hopefully this is just the start of a long career for the author and the detectives.

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