Rowan Petty is a grifter on a downward roll. He’s eeking out an existence in Reno, pulling phone scams for a guy who he had originally brought into the business. His wife left a long time ago, his daughter doesn’t speak to him. It’s the holidays, and that’s a bad time to try to cold call people to detach their money from them. So one cold night on the street he meets Tinafey, like the comedienne, but all one word, a hooker with a smile, and pretty soon he’s helped her out of a jam, and he has to make a decision. I first came across Richard Lange’s short story collection Sweet Nothing when I was judging the Crime Writers Association’s Dagger award, and I pushed one of the tales, Apocrypha, to which we gave the prize. And Smack works for the same reasons his stories do.
Grifters live in a world where decisions you have to make outside the grift can always lead to trouble. An old friend, or colleague, of Petty’s, approaches him with a score. Don’s been on the downward spiral too, ever since his wife died, but he picked up a tip on a big cache of money smuggled out of the Middle East and being stored in LA by the brother of one of the thieves. Petty had turned it down, but it’s the holidays, he’s sick of working for someone, and his daughter’s in Los Angeles. So he says yes to the job, and invites Tinafey off for a holiday trip. Of course, it’s no holiday. No sooner has he started to reconcile with his daughter, she’s in the hospital, and the job, which looked hinky in the extreme, becomes more attractive, even after parties unknown start butting into the action. From this point, Lange weaves a tale which involves battered veterans, con men, his ex-wife and her brawny enforcer of a husband, and those various crooks who might get in the way.
It’s a classic noir, where it’s almost impossible to get what you want, and in which every possible road out turns into a dead end. Petty’s a scammer, and used to be a good one, but he’s not a hooligan, and the world of violence is one he’s always wanted to avoid.
Lange makes this work not in the way he resolves the plot, but in the way he draws his characters. He controls the pace of the story beautifully, letting the twists grow naturally, and letting the reader experience them through the eyes of those characters, particularly Petty, but also the soldier Diaz, whose original scam this was, and who’s coming to collect. There’s a constant sense that trust is a fungible commodity in this world, and of course the grifter’s world is in some ways a metaphor for our own. The tensions are internal, and the real beauty of the story is the way the reader begins to root for Petty, an amoral thief whose life involves cheating marks, to succeed in something far more serious. The Smack is an exercise in finely pitched writing, and the kind of noirish tale you relish even as you dread turning the page to get closer to its conclusion.
The Smack by Richard Lange
Mullholland Books £14.99 ISBN 9781444790047
This review appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets