by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr

Published by Hard Case Crime

254 pages, 2006

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Punch Line

Reviewed by Anthony Rainone


Irish writer Ken Bruen (The Guards, The Killing of the Tinkers) and New York fictionist Jason Starr (Nothing Personal, Twisted City) have combined their considerable talents to write Bust, the first dual-author novel in the Hard Case Crime stable. I have to state immediately that this book is laughable -- literally. Bust is a black-comedy caper of the darkest and raunchiest order, and the comedic team of Bruen and Starr is one to be reckoned with, along with the historic likes of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, or perhaps Cheech Marin and Thomas Chong. These two authors will have readers laughing at the vilest of moments, making those readers concerned for their own sanity, if not the authors'. Don't dismiss Bust as not having bona fide mystery aspirations, however; there are several vicious murders in these pages, as well as a heaping helping of blackmail intrigue, a love interest and a pair of plodding detectives who would feel right at home in the meatiest of crime-fiction offerings.

The book revolves around New Yorker Max Fisher and his one major problem: he no longer wants to be married to his wife, Deirdre. The impediment to divorce is that the couple didn't make out a prenuptial agreement. Bruen and Starr explain:

Deirdre would get away with the townhouse, the Porsche, and at least half the money, and Max was ready to stick out the rest of his life being miserable before he would let that happen.

Fisher is a successful Manhattan businessman, who owns his own computer networking firm and is always complimentary in his self-appraisals ("Here was a hip guy, not showy, but with refined taste and a serious edge"). Fisher's morality is the exponential antithesis of his business acumen, however. After starting an affair with a hot-to-trot employee named Angela Petrakos, a woman with her own agenda, Fisher decides to take dear Deirdre's life.

But the more Max and Angela talked about it the more it seemed like the only logical solution. He had offered Deirdre ways out, but she didn't want to take them, so what was the alternative? He was proud of himself, actually, for holding out for so long. A lot of guys who went through all the bullshit that he'd gone through wouldn't have had half his patience -- they would have hired someone to knock Deirdre off a long time ago.

A bit too conveniently, Petrakos' cousin has "a friend" who can make the hit. Thomas Dillon, aka Popeye ("'Cause he ate spinach and we should keep the deal green."), looks like a "cartoon character," mainly because his lips are mangled. "[A] gobshite tried to ram a broken bottle in me face," Dillon explains, "his aim was a little off, happened on the Falls Road, not a place you'd like to visit." His debased features only reflect the black chunk of coal that he has for his heart. Dillon is not only homicidal, but bad to the bone: To take his mind off a particular murder, he thinks about the time he beat his dog to death -- after starving the canine for a week. That's apparently more relaxing. Although he longs to be part of the inner circle of the Irish Republican Army, Dillon's "demented" behavior makes him a perpetual wannabe.

The RA had many guys who hung on the fringes, did off-jobs for The Boyos but were never seriously considered part of The Movement. They were mainly cannon fodder, used and discarded and if they managed a big score, no problem. Dillon had actually made some hits for the Boyos, but it didn't get him inside, not in the inner circles where it mattered.

Meanwhile, Angela Petrakos is your classic femme fatale, a woman of Irish-Greek descent who, we're told, "knew how to use what she had, and by Jesus, she used it." Integral to her psychological makeup is that she doesn't want to be left alone and destitute. The other half of her equation is that she can be as ruthless as Dillon, though in a more intelligent and cunning manner. Petrakos is running a scam on Fisher, hoping to get his money. While the lovelorn and neurotic businessman naïvely believes that he has a future with Petrakos -- distinctive for her short skirts, big hair and fake boobs -- she's actually devoted to the sadistic, Zen-reading Dillon, her partner in crime. However, their relationship is becoming awfully damn complicated.

Getting Max's money was turning out to be a lot harder than she'd thought it would be. Besides, after hearing on the news about how brutal Dillon had been with the two women ... she wasn't sure she wanted to marry him anymore ... But she couldn't break up with him now. She had to wait until this mess was over with and then decide what to do.

After Deirdre's murder finally goes down, the investigating detectives in New York's 19th Precinct, Kenneth Simmons and Louis Ortiz, develop strong suspicions about Max Fisher's involvement. It doesn't help that he continues to meet for afternoon trysts with Petrakos, wearing a curly blond wig to the hotel in hopes of disguising himself. (Both the detectives and the reader have a great time with this twist.) Nor does it help Fisher's case that Petrakos fails to notice Detective Simmons following her from that hotel. An altercation with a hiding and gun-wielding Dillon back at Petrakos' apartment produces the expected, deadly results. Yet, things are only going to get messier for this scheming threesome.

If Bust introduced no more key players beyond Fisher, Petrakos and Dillon, that casting would still be the equivalent of a royal flush. You could take your chips to the cashier's window and collect your winnings. Happy as a clam. Yet, there's a fourth character who's shot-gunned into this fictional mix. His name is Bobby Rosa, and he's a wheelchair-bound ex-con and disabled Gulf War vet (although he was only wounded post-Iraq, shot and paralyzed by the jealous boyfriend of one of his lovers). Rosa is yet another psychotic residing within the confines of Manhattan Island. While his preferred means of earning a living is armed robbery and bank holdups, he spends his days snapping photos of unsuspecting women in their bikinis.

Bobby added the tit shots to the collection in his bedroom. He had three walls covered with Central Park boobs, taken during the past two springs and summers. He had all shapes and sizes -- implants, flat chests, sagging old ladies, training-bra teenagers -- it didn't matter to him. Then he had an idea, and said out loud, "The Hot Chicks of Manhattan." It had a nice ring to it; he could see it as a coffee table book.

Rosa's love of sleaze is perhaps only surpassed by his affection for heavy-metal music and firearms ("He'd had a lot of women in his time, but given the choice between a woman and a gun, he'd take the gun."). Life is tough for Rosa, beyond the fact of his being disabled. His mother is living in a nursing home (though he seriously contemplates suffocating her), and his bowel movements must commence with a jar of Vaseline (don't ask). Rosa happens to be in the Hotel Pennsylvania one afternoon, when Fisher and Petrakos arrive for their usual tryst. Rosa snaps their photograph mid-coitus, with the help of a room key supplied by his friend Victor, and realizes after the fact that Fisher is suspected in his spouse's murder. Rosa's attempts to blackmail Fisher with the photo and a tape recording unleash a series of events that will not only leave you laughing out loud -- if you haven't been laughing up to this point -- but will make you wince, too. Hint: think of the Seinfeld episode that featured a girl in a wheelchair.

The closing of this short novel leaves the reader almost back at the beginning, and that is somehow philosophically fitting. Each chapter of Bust opens with a quote or saying, several of which come from the Buddha. An aphorism that might have been appropriate for Max Fisher would be, "A fool and his money are soon parted."

During a reading from Bust held at Manhattan's Black Orchid Bookshop in early May -- a reading that was as hilarious in its performance as the words on this novel's pages -- author Bruen intimated that he had another project in the works with Starr. One can only hope that's true, for these two brilliant crime-fiction writers have certainly sown fertile ground with their first joint effort. They ought to be able to reap more books from it. Seamless in its crafting, Bust is an absolute winner. If Hard Case Crime's track record holds up (and it should), this book will be in line for many award nominations next year. Bruen and Starr -- that has a golden ring to it. | June 2006


Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.