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Book Review: The Wicked World by Richard Lange

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Hollywood bartender Jimmy Boone is the hero of Richard Lange's first novel, This Wicked World. Cast in that role, Jimmy Boone seems a poor fit. He ain't no Sam Spade; he don't crack wise with a gat in his puss. Mike Hammer could beat the crap out of Jimmy Boone and never bust a sweat. Philip Marlowe would notice that Jimmy Boone isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. Worse: Jimmy ain't got no class! He dresses like a bum and drinks like a sissy (Scotch, orange juice, sweet vermouth and cherry brandy? Ick!). Worst of all: Jimmy walks the mean streets with a toothless, wormy pit bull named Faggot.

Jimmy Boone's parole officer thinks Jimmy Boone is a loser. Jimmy Boone thinks Jimmy Boone is a shit magnet. Loretta the dog-rescue lady thinks Jimmy Boone has a good heart. Jimmy's friend Amy doesn't know what to think of Jimmy Boone. By the time they finish This Wicked World, readers may not know what to think of Jimmy Boone either.

This writer thinks Jimmy Boone is a guy who got tired of kicking himself around and decided to let novelist Richard Lange do the kicking for a while. If that sounds kind of wacky, it isn't, really. Jimmy's life is arguably better under Lange's strenuous management.

Before Richard Lange made Jimmy Boone into a crime-fiction hero, Jimmy did petty burglaries, served a hitch in the Marines, beat an innocent man near to death, spent four years in stir and ruined buddy Carl's hifalutin, rent-a-goon bodyguard business. Since Richard Lange made Jimmy Boone into a crime-fiction hero, Jimmy does somewhat better: Jimmy solves a murder, rescues an abused dog, exterminates a gang of stone-cold villains, saves two friends from being thrown into the street, and lays a cool roll of hot dough on the murdered man's widow and child.

The downside is that, while he's doing those good deeds, Jimmy Boone gets tied up, beat up, cut up, kicked, stomped, clubbed, punched, pistol-whipped, shot at, and nearly drowned. Pieces of Jimmy get ripped away and eaten by savage dogs. As if all that weren't enough, friend Amy pisses Jimmy off and leaves Los Angeles for a new life in Montana.

Dames! They'll do it every time.

Even so, tough guys like Spade and Hammer and Marlowe shouldn't laugh at Jimmy Boone. Bartender Jimmy does have one asset that may yet land him in the Hall of Hard-Boiled Fame with the best of the professional dicks: Novelist Richard Lange, who created Jimmy, writes prose that is lean and mean. From the Prologue:

Los Angeles was not its haughty self in the rain. It was like a wet cat: humiliated, confused. People stepped gingerly on suddenly slippery sidewalks, looking like they'd been lied to. The gutters, clogged with garbage, overflowed, and water puddled in busy intersections.

"Oscar waited for the bus with a mumbling loco and a couple of old ladies who shared an umbrella. The rain came down harder, the drops slamming into the pavement like suicides. Oscar zipped his jacket and pulled the hood over his head.

Beyond generous use of his ability to create a mood, a scene, a character, Mr. Lange put a bit of thought into This Wicked World. The book isn't just so much mindless violence. There is stuff here to ponder and to argue about.

For cops and public servants and do-gooders of every stripe: "Most of the people you're dealing with on the street don't want your help. They want to be free to beat and be beaten, to rob and be robbed, to kill and be killed."

Describing the arch-villain, Taggert: "He stares at death in the mirror every morning and carries it around inside him every day, and that gives him all the power in the world. Look into his eyes the next time you get close. The end of everything is in there. You can't reason with a man like that. You can only kill him or follow him."

Look closely at This Wicked World, you spot a few mistakes. For example, Lange doesn't seem as familiar with Marine Corps training and the use of firearms as he needs to be and if he is, it doesn't show here: veteran grunts like Jimmy and Carl won't walk into a shootout with weapons obtained from god-knows-who that they haven't zeroed or even bothered to test. There are a couple of places, too, where characters' actions in response to motives detailed seem more than a bit outré.

This writer knows that a competent editor will save an author from boners such as those (Shame on you, Little, Brown!). Readers who don't customarily pick such nits probably won't notice the mistakes because they'll be too busy having fun with Lange's story.

Thus my verdict is that This Wicked World is rock-em, sock-em, arm-breaking, armchair adventure. The message is about doing the right thing, about how much trouble the effort brings us, about what it's worth to us as human beings. Moral ambiguity is a leitmotif in This Wicked World. Good and Evil are a hard pair to separate throughout. Wrong things (even armed robbery and murder) can look like right things if they're done in a just cause by people who for whatever reason try too hard to do right.

So it is with Jimmy Boone. Driven by his need to accomplish just one good thing, Jimmy leads a small crew of his friends neck-deep into the muck of thuggery.

When the blood all dries and the dust all settles, Jimmy Boone thinks he's about through with Los Angeles. This writer suspects, however, that Los Angeles is not through with Jimmy Boone. Fans of crime fiction, having read This Wicked World, will hope that Richard Lange finds new adventures for Jimmy (and a better editor) soon.

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