There are books you take your time over and there are books that take the reader over. Owen’s second novel Criminal Enterprise falls bulls eye whack in the centre of the latter.
Set in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St Paul in Minnesota, FBI agent Carla Windermere investigates a sudden spree of bank robberies that graduate to murder. She is somewhat off an outsider, born in Mississippi, she moved to Minnesota from Miami with her now ex-boyfriend. She is also a black woman in a white male world and while being somewhat of a team player when it makes sense, she is not averse to following his instincts even if it means falling foul of her superiors Agents Harris and Doughty and getting into hot water. She is confident but in a low-key determined way that sometimes flairs like lava through a vent when she is stonewalled, especially when she knows she’s in the right.
Carter Tomlin, high ranking accountant, lives in a dream home with his beautiful wife, children and dog. He has it all – until he loses his job. The paycheques stop but his high-life overheads (mortgage, credit card bills etc) still hold their giant hands out every month. He tries to get another job but times are tough, second chances are thin. Driven from desperation, he plans to rob a bank, just one to fill the holes in the wall of the money dyke but he’s a white collar respectable guy. He doesn’t know how to get a gun. He doesn’t want to buy one through official outlets, not wanting a paper trail so he makes contact with Schultz, a shady guy with a gun for sale on Craigslist. Tomlin visits Schultz and they nearly close the deal but Schultz plays it by the book when it comes to gun sales – he demands to see Tomlin’s driver’s license. Tomlin is cornered, his scheme for making quick dirty cash looks to have run out of road before he even left the drive – but he wants that gun so badly, too badly.
The narcotic high of the power-thrill of that first taste of violence, fuelled by the proceeds of an unexpected bonanza, proves to be an insatiably deadly thirst, for Tomlin, those who stand in his way and those who help him. He is now set on a spiral of deadly intent.
Agent Windermere superiors go down a track of the tried and tested road of known gangs. Windermere finds a clue that should have stared everyone in the face from the get-go, a clue that sets the train of her own unsanctioned investigation in motion, one that gets her into trouble with her superior Agent Doughty and overall boss Agent Harris but she’s not one to be deterred.
Her old buddy, Agent Stevens, is now taking things professionally easy, away from the front line after a previous case where both the lives of Stevens and Windermere were in peril. His wife wants him safe, Stevens misses the thrill of the chase.
Over the course of the novel, Windermere’s investigation gains traction and grudging credence and cooperation from those who doubted her. The double life of Tomlin and the lives of Stevens cross paths in one of the most credible but fateful of ways – their daughters move in the same basketball circles.
Things seem to go well for Tomlin, now teamed up with a young punk secretary and her criminal boyfriend, they make bigger gains along with a growing body count but Tomlin gets greedy, making mistakes that set in play a deadly sequence of events that puts the lives of his family and that of an investigating officer in jeopardy, leading to a denouement that is truly heart stoppingly exciting and chilling in equal measure as Tomlin’s life unravels around him.
There is a also an excellently infused subplot of a missing middle aged woman who has vanished off the radar who suspected of murdering her husband for reasons that flummox Agent Stevens. This is elegantly weaved into the main storyline and was just as intriguing and acted as a nice slow burner of a chill-out room to where the reader could step into to take a breather from watching the Tomlin and Windermere super-tango.
Sometimes words and phrases like ‘page turner’, ‘fast paced’ are used but this book kicks the crap out of the cliché piñata and rightly so. I read this book in two sittings, not bad an innings for a paperback of nearly 500 pages. The chapters are physically short, no longer than 4 pages at most for each and read like a jolt of volt. I just wanted to keep on running, sorry, reading but it felt like running! There is no narrative ballast, every line and I mean every line is lean, taut, efficient muscle that fuels the engine of the story at frantic speed. The characters are credible and this is key, especially with Tomlin.
We all know someone like Tomlin, especially in these recessionary times. We might be one ourselves. He has led a law abiding respectable life but has taken a wrong turn that has destroyed him and his family and many others, innocent and not so innocent. However there are glimpses into his character and his potentiality for power tripping ; Tomlin reminisces about putting the fear of God into his staff, and enjoying it, when he once worked for a firm before he lost his job. They do say psychopaths are not all mad-eyed lunatics who wear dog heads for hats; most live and work amongst us. The danger is when their psychopathy is unleashed beyond the constraints of work and society, especially when they move into outlaw mode.
Perhaps the seeds of a man’s destruction are not planted by circumstance but watered by circumstance and this is what makes this book so chilling. We are not following the fortunes of a born criminal dropout, we are following the fortunes of ourselves but in some twisted parallel universe that we hope is not the one we live or will live in. His baby steps down the dark path are credible; the moment when the bones off idle thoughts are dressed in flesh, is just that; a moment, a heartbeat, a split second. That’s all the time it took before Tomlin went from barbequing burgers in his garden to barbequing his life. There were times when he could have stopped it all and returned to his old life but temptation was too strong from him to resist and it wasn’t long until he reached the point of no return.
This is one of the finest thrillers/crime novels I have ever read and I know I will similarly devour Laukkenan’s other novels, Kill Fee and The Professionals.
Criminal Enterprise is published by Penguin and is available in all good bookstores, usual e-book outlets and from Owen’s website http://owenlaukkanen.com
Owen Laukkanan lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada