Crime writing is not easy, as Raymond Chandler noted some 60 years ago when reflecting on his early days writing pulp fiction: "[T]he demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”
Phoef Sutton certainly knows the demands of the genre. A film and television writer (“Cheers,” “Terriers”) who has lately penned crime novels with Lee Goldberg and Janet Evanovich, Sutton goes it alone in “Crush,” the first of what appears to be a series.
The title is the nickname of Caleb Rush, who is first observed by 18-year-old Amelia Trask from a safe distance: “Cold eyes and muscles, he was standing … like a piece of furniture. Only larger … his hands looked like they could squeeze the air out of her windpipe in a second.”
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The formidable Rush is a bouncer at the Nocturne, a Hollywood nightclub where his friend Catherine Gail is a bartender-slash-tae kwon do master. It soon becomes clear that Rush’s “slash” includes bodyguard and all-around protector of women: In one night he stops a fight over one woman, then thwarts a group of would-be date rapists of another. But that’s nothing compared with the butt-kicking he must do when a black Lamborghini roars up to the Nocturne out of nowhere, its skeleton-tatted driver and his Russian henchmen intent on snatching Amelia off the street.
Rush’s subsequent entanglement in Amelia’s life and welfare reconnects him to “filthy rich, arrogant” Stanley Trask, president and CEO of GlobalInterLink, “who a whole lot of people probably wanted dead.” Rush had made that assessment some seven years before when he worked on a security detail protecting Trask that went terribly wrong. Now Amelia is Rush’s client, and she needs his protection from the Russian mafia and his help in finding Tony Guzman, Rush’s friend and colleague who worked the elder Trask’s security detail.
It might be helpful to keep this bare-bones plot in mind, because Sutton embroiders the story with a rogue’s gallery of Rush’s friends and villains who entertain as well as serve to misdirect the reader’s attention. Chief among them: Rush’s stepbrother, Zerbe, a hacker on parole who’s confined to Rush’s apartment with an ankle monitor; Victoria Donleavy, a feisty ex-cop and owner of Tigon Security, the private security firm hired to protect Stanley Trask; and Bob Steinkellner, a failed magi-holic who didn’t realize “performing magic tricks actively repels members of the opposite sex.”
A perpetual loser, Steinkellner got suckered into one of Stanley Trask’s early swindles and tried to kill the media mogul years before in the debacle involving Rush, Guzman and Donleavy. Steinkellner is now on parole, and Walter Trask, co-founder of GlobalInterLink and Stanley’s brother, has been found doing the dead man float in Stanley’s pool. Is it a suicide, as Amelia and Stanley Trask contend, or was it murder? Could Steinkellner be to blame? And what does any of that have to do with the Russian mafia threats against Amelia?
To answer these questions, Rush goes on a breakneck tour of the Southland, from Bel Air to the Venice Canals, Manhattan Beach to downtown, in his 1966 Pontiac GTO, the ultimate muscle car for a muscle kind of guy. Along the way, readers are treated to the author’s trenchant descriptions of L.A. locales and the diverse characters who call the city home, including Skeleton Tat, Amelia’s would-be abductor, a man who loves mixing sounds and beats as much as killing people and who emigrated from Tkibuli, Georgia, to L.A. to realize his dream of becoming, if one can imagine, the next Phil Spector.
Sutton is clearly having a good time with his characters and in paying homage to such figures as James Ellroy (whose “Hollywood Nocturnes” becomes the name and location of the bar where Rush and Gail work) and the midcentury vocalese act Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, who show up here as a trio of detectives. With nonstop action and variations on the man-with-a-gun distraction that go Chandler one better, “Crush” is also an homage of sorts to Chandler’s pulp fiction and, moreover, Elmore Leonard’s crime fiction.
Like Leonard, Sutton writes great dialogue and lavishes almost as much care and attention on his villains as he does his heroes. And while “Crush’s” plot seems at times needlessly convoluted and its themes may not rise to the level of the great Leonard’s, there’s enough acerbic wit and energy here to make spending a few hours in Caleb Rush’s fast company worth the ride.
Crush: A Novel
Prospect Park Books: 214 pp., $15 paper
Woods is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, has written four mysteries and edited several anthologies.
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