Void Moon

by Michael Connelly

Published by Little, Brown and Company

400 pages, 2000

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Outlaw Juice

Reviewed by Frederick Zackel


Cassie Black has stopped trying to go straight. An ex-con, 10 months out of Nevada's High Desert Institution for Women, she has been making a precarious living as a saleswoman at a Los Angeles Porsche dealership. But once a thief, always a thief, and six years behind bars -- including five years in lockdown -- have failed to cure Cassie. She misses the game.

In the old days, Cassie was a "hot prowler" stalking "marks" along the Las Vegas Strip, deftly separating gamblers from their winnings with the help of her partner/lover, Max Freeling. She'd first encountered Max -- "a beautiful man" with "a presence" -- when she was dealing cards in a casino and he "had taken the number two seat" on a slow midnight shift. He wasn't there to gamble; he was watching the other players, looking for his target. Cassie, intrigued, told Max, "I don't know what it is [you're] doing but I want to learn it. I want you to teach me. I want in."

The pair had gone on to become "high-roller robbers." After their first few heists, Cassie recalls, they'd kept at it simply because of "the charge it put in their blood. She remembered how they could stay up the rest of the night making love after a job was finished." But Cassie's world had suddenly collapsed when, in the course of yet another robbery, Max had stepped into a trap laid by a casino hotel security agent -- and fallen "twenty floors to his death after crashing through the window of a penthouse suite." In her shock and sorrow, Cassie had permitted herself to be arrested. She was subsequently tried as an accomplice in the attempted theft and then convicted of manslaughter in Max's demise. In her despair, she'd even given her baby daughter -- her strongest last link to Max -- up for adoption.

Finally paroled, Cassie thought she could live quietly. All she wanted was to surreptitiously keep an eye on her daughter Jodie, who now resides with her adoptive parents, the Shaws, in L.A.'s Laurel Canyon -- completely unaware of Cassie's existence or the story of her late father.

But then one day, as Michael Connelly relates in Void Moon, Cassie spots a "For Sale" sign on the Shaw house and learns that the family is moving to Europe. Fearing that she'll never see her daughter again, Cassie decides to give up her law-abiding life for one last robbery "big enough to disappear on. To get a new start." Her goal is to disappear forever with her daughter.

Bearing this in mind, she meets with a guy named Leo Renfro. Leo -- who dispatches crimes and provides special information that criminals will need -- agrees to provide Cassie with the Big Job she wants, as well as the two passports she'll need for herself and little Jodie.

Connelly is brilliant in this early part of Void Moon -- setting up the score. His writing here shows how much he loves this stage of the composing:

In the following days, while she waited for word from Leo, Cassie Black found herself dropping into the rhythm of preparation that was both familiar and comforting to her. But most of all the prep time was exciting, putting a thrill into her life she had not felt in many years.

The preparation was also a solitary time of introspection. She studied her decision repeatedly and from all angles. She found no cracks, no second thoughts, no intruding guilt. The hurdle had been in making the choice. Once decided upon it only brought her relief and a great sense of freedom. There was the excitement of danger and anticipation in her that the years of incarceration had robbed from her memory. She had forgotten how truly addictive the charge of adrenaline could be. Max had simply called it outlaw juice because he could not put his feelings into words. In those days of preparation she came to realize the true essence of the incarceration was aimed at removing that charge, of washing it from memory. If so, then five years in lockdown had failed her. The charge of outlaw juice was boiling in her blood now, banging through her veins like hot water through frozen winter pipes.

We watch Cassie ready herself physically for the Big Job and gather her equipment together. Connelly, who has done his homework for the enjoyment of his readers, lingers lovingly over all the high-tech gadgetry she needs. We also watch Cassie watching her daughter's house and she earns our sympathy.

She's ready by the time Leo gets back in touch. He describes the job he's planned for Cassie as a contract heist, to be executed on behalf of some party who prefers to remain nameless. The target is a Tex-Mex baccarat player who keeps a half-million dollars in cash in his Las Vegas hotel room. Cassie's share for the robbery would exceed a fourth of the total: more than enough to get away with her daughter.

But, Cassie learns, this heist presents problems. Apparently, the only time her target is alone with the cash is when he sleeps in his hotel room every night. So Cassie will have to get in and out of the room without interrupting his slumber. Worse, at least from a psychological standpoint, is that this theft will take place in the same Cleopatra Casino hotel where her beloved Max Freeling lost his life.

Leo, a great believer in astrology, further complicates her job with a warning. "Whatever you do," he tells her, "no matter what happens, don't be in that guy's room between three-twenty-two and three-thirty-eight in the morning. Okay? That's Wednesday night going into Thursday morning." He explains how Earth's moon will be moving between two astrological houses during that period -- an event that gives this novel its title. "And so it's a bad luck time, Cass. Anything can happen under a void moon," Leo says. "Anything wrong."

Even before then, however, her best-laid plans start to go awry. After reaching Vegas, her contact there -- an electronics store clerk and lowlife hustler who provides the pinhole camera, microwave transmitter, night vision goggles and other high technology she'll need to pull off her heist -- tries to rip her off; dealing with him puts her behind schedule. Then she discovers that her wealthy mark is ensconced in the very same penthouse suite where Cassie's luck turned so horribly wrong all those years ago.

More obstacles slow her down, until a third of the way through the novel Cassie finally breaks into the baccarat player's hotel room -- only to have the sleeping man wake up. Cassie, trapped with his money in her possession, realizes her gun is "pointed dead center" at him. It is the time of the void moon.

This first third of Void Moon is unquestionably the best part. Connelly is firmly in control, and he's having all the fun any writer can have with wonderful material. Cassie Black is a finely detailed and sympathetic character, well worth the time readers spend with her. The preparations for her heist are smart and intelligent, the "outlaw juice" is adrenaline-flavored and the story's suspense is delicious.

But then Connelly's tale abruptly shifts gears. The morning after Cassie's heist, Vincent Grimaldi, director of security at the Cleopatra Casino, contacts an unscrupulous Vegas private eye named Jack Karch for help. Seems the dead baccarat player was no innocent; he was a Mob courier, and the money he carried was a pay-off for a local city commission's vote on a new Strip hotel. Furthermore, the money in his possession amounted to $2.5 million, not the half-million Cassie had been expecting. "We have to get that money back, Jack," says Grimaldi. "It's spoken for, know what I mean? We need to get it quick."

That Connelly is recycling a staple of crime fiction -- small-time crook snatches big-time crooks' dough and has to run like hell -- is not a problem. Readers appreciate a thriller for the rituals (what others might call "formulas") of the story; these plot conventions are stepping stones, not obstacles. Part of Connelly's appeal over the past dozen years has come from his success in "writing the ritual." His eight previous books were, like Void Moon, structurally sound thrillers. His plots generally race along like a train on its tracks. He is highly aware of his readers' need for vicarious excitement, whether it means taking us into a casino's security center or placing us inside a Porsche racing through the Hollywood Hills. And he uses smart dialogue to push his story's action forward, hitting the right beats at the right time. Though Connelly is no lyricist, his descriptions can still be absorbing in their functionality. Here, for instance, he recounts Cassie's monthly visit to her parole officer in Van Nuys:

A maze of roped-off cattle rows folded the long lines of ex-cons back and forth in the waiting rooms and hallways. There were lines of cons waiting to check in, lines waiting for urine tests, lines waiting to see parole offices, lines in all quadrants of the building.

But Void Moon does have a serious weakness: Jack Karch.

This novel's resident bad guy, Karch is the son of a 1960s Vegas magician ("The Amazing Karch!") who ran afoul of the Mob. The mooks smashed the prestidigitator's fingers and his son grew up to be both a crooked P.I. and (not unexpectedly) a psychopathic killer. He's an expert at burying unwanted corpses in the desert.

Karch is professionally competent -- no doubt about that. Within six pages after the baccarat player's demise, this detective has the first of several solid leads. Within another 40-odd pages he has the murderous thief identified as Cassie Black. But unlike Cassie, Karch seems to face no obstacles in his path and that diminishes the energy of his malevolence as well as Void Moon's suspense. His villainous impact is further depleted by his petty, bullyish behavior. There are also aspects of Karch's character -- "the black silk magician's pocket" sewn into his pants, the spent shells he saves from every murder he commits and keeps in a mason jar -- that never quite pan out for the reader, that always seem like loose ends.

Karch does keep the plot moving here. As he chases after Cassie, we learn that he was also a player in Max Freeling's last adventure. And Void Moon's pace certainly escalates when Karch discovers Cassie's daughter Jodie and then kidnaps her, knowing that a mother will stop at nothing to rescue her baby.

Yet the reader can't help but wish that the good and noble Cassie had a more worthy opponent in this book.

One last caveat: Michael Connelly's most glaring weakness as a thriller writer is that he plays fair with his readers. Astute ones -- those who know the ritualistic tricks of the thriller trade -- can sometimes read between his lines and "see" what lies down the road. Two strangers may make eye contact, for instance, or someone will stare where he or she should not be staring. These small out-of-the-ordinary "tics" are enough to suggest what comes next. They can seem irritating to some. But if Connelly didn't put such tics into his narrative, other readers might feel blindsided by plot twists coming out of left field. He's in a no-win situation.

Void Moon is not great Connelly. But it's good Connelly and it will suffice until we get better from this author. I know of few writers who are so consistently enjoyable. | February 2000


FREDERICK ZACKEL is a contributing editor of January Magazine.