THE CHALLENGE of any long-running novel series — a bitingly funny take on a Los Angeles burglar, for example — is keeping it fresh and defying the concept of diminishing returns. The stakes increase as the installments add up, and only a handful of writers manage to get their protagonists to evolve while still keeping the books inviting to new readers.
Timothy Hallinan is one of these writers. He’s an old hand at series fiction — his Grist and Rafferty books are well worth checking out, strong examples of his versatility and knack for character and cast building. His newest series features the lovable thief Junior Bender, who proves there’s something to the idea that bad guys have more fun. With King Maybe, the fifth Bender novel, Hallinan strikes the right balance once again. Not only does he capably push his series, starring the aforementioned thief’s thief Bender forward in interesting and unexpected ways, but he also manages to present the novel as an entertaining, freestanding work unto itself — a book that can be picked up and enjoyed as if it were a standalone. It’s the kind of thing that makes other series writers jealous.
Crashed (2010), Hallinan’s first Junior Bender novel, introduced readers to the quick-witted thief when thieving was his entire occupation. In that book, an unlucky run-in with one of Los Angeles’s deadliest crime bosses put Bender in the awkward position of investigator-for-hire, minus the ability to choose his client. From this debut through King Maybe, we see Hallinan’s lead evolve from lifelong burglar/reluctant investigator to something more conflicted and complex: a private eye for those who cannot, reasonably, hire a private eye to do what they’re looking for. A reverse Robin Hood, of sorts: he helps thieves investigate things, which puts him in the crosshairs of not only his clients, but of the criminals they’ve hired him to sniff around. This doesn’t mean Bender avoids the bread and butter of the thief business — namely, stealing valuable items to fence for profit. But it does give him a Chuck Jones/Looney Tunes-esque perspective on his chosen profession — cartoon disasters and all:
As busy as I’d been trying to stay alive in the Slugger’s house, the moment I heard that car hit the gate, I had the unmistakable sensation that I’d just left the cliff behind and that there was probably a considerable drop beneath me. But I hadn’t had time to look down and see just how far the fall might be.
King Maybe finds Junior Bender in an odd predicament, one he doesn’t seem all that used to: his win streak appears to be over. A botched robbery attempt involving a rare stamp pits Bender against the stamp’s owner: a deadly hired gun with an affinity for baseball bats described by Hallinan with precise bite:
He was called “the Slugger” because his persuader of choice was a Louisville Slugger Prime 915, made entirely of “composite,” such an informative word, with what the company’s advertising copy refers to as “a massive sweet spot” and a relatively light swing that gives the user “the best possible feel” when he brings the bat through the zone.
The bungled theft puts Bender in the sights of said killer and forces him to take a gig he’d normally pass on. But in dire need of cloud cover and support, Bender loosens his usually savvy standards and caves under pressure from his friend, Jake Whelan.
The assignment involves the titular “King Maybe,” a bigwig Hollywood producer known for collecting options and keeping them in developmental limbo — “He’s the man who says maybe. Maybe we’ll do this. Maybe I’ll make your movie. Maybe I can get the stars you want. Maybe it’ll put you back on top of the heap.” Maybe is a vibrant, entertaining character in his own right, but he also provides cutting commentary on the film industry that dominates Hallinan’s Los Angeles:
He held up two fingers. “Two guys, Junior. There are probably only two guys on the entire planet who can greenlight a movie that costs a hundred fifty, two hundred mil without going through a committee of people whose only job is to say no, and Jeremy Granger is one of them. The other one is someone, if I was being nailed to a cross, he’d be looking for blunter nails. Used to be we had studio chiefs, moguls, and they were awful, a lot of them, but most of them, if you cut them deep enough, you’d find someone who liked movies. Now the studio chief is a spreadsheet […]”
Whelan is desperate to get “King Maybe” to give up the rights he holds over Whelan’s own potential film, Ambient Violet — “a movie that’s actually about something, something more important than The Rock’s pectoral muscles or the physics of warp speed when you’re wearing a tight sweater in outer space.”
Whelan cashes in all his chips with Bender to get the thief to steal the movie file from King Maybe’s office. What should be another routine swipe goes sour, putting Bender in Maybe’s sights. Double-crossed and in Maybe’s debt, Bender finds himself in an unenviable position. But the mogul is willing to barter. He’ll make things square — and even pay Bender a few bucks — if the thief can steal a few “odds and ends” from his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s house — which sports an “absolute mother” of an alarm.
Maybe is the natural next step for Bender, as Hallinan crafts a denser, darker, and more complex novel that doesn’t lose any of the series’s charm. From the first scene, Bender’s voice and tone are firmly established, making him an engaging and entertaining viewpoint character. An intricate plotter, Hallinan manages to orchestrate the tension masterfully while keeping the humor sharp and biting. Rarely does the humor overshadow the plot, and when it does, the extra chuckle tends to be worth it.
Bender is glib, sharp-tongued, and clever — which goes perfectly with the book’s steady pace and cinematic visuals and tempo. You wouldn’t be hard-pressed to imagine Bender on your screen in a new series to binge-watch. Hallinan has honed the ability to take a humorous detour and know just when to stop perfectly, making it feel like the plot is about to unravel, only to have it tighten and refocus as the joke’s punch line is delivered. This is evident from the first few chapters, as the reader accompanies Bender on a robbery cut short by “The Slugger,” who has a penchant for whistling the deadly earworm “Achy, Breaky Heart.” Hallinan drops lyrics into Bender’s increasingly tense narration, as he tries to scramble out of the botched home invasion. The growing anxiety of the narrator, coupled with the ludicrous (but hard to forget) lyrics makes for a scene that’s both thrilling and hilarious — something Hallinan accomplishes a few times in Maybe.
It’s worth noting that while the book is definitely funny — you’ll never think of Billy Ray Cyrus the same way again — it’s not a humor book, which is a fine but important distinction to make. The mistakes never feel like gags and the characters, and though larger-than-life, never feel like comical parodies. The dangers are deadly and real and the stakes never veer into the land of sitcom or skit. The laughs are layered on a precise and carefully orchestrated crime novel, one that doesn’t overexplain or slow things down for readers, but manages to ride along at a good clip.
The Hollywood and Los Angeles of Junior Bender — “where plagiarism is like a character flaw” — are luminous, but the glamour is skin-deep, masking something more dirty and sinister underneath. Hallinan’s writing is visually driven but not overly descriptive, giving you just enough wiggle room to figure out your own camera angles and details so you feel like you’re part of the story. Even when describing something relatively mundane, like a former car mechanic space, Hallinan keeps it interesting:
Garlin Romaine lived and worked in a onetime auto-repair shop south of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, less than a mile from Ronnie’s place. It took up a double lot, just oily-looking asphalt and a low-slung, architecture-disdaining building to which someone had added, obviously as an afterthought, a slender Art Deco tower probably scalped from a teardown somewhere else in the city.
Hallinan finds a way to not only put Bender and his cohorts through their paces with the precision and gusto of a master, but he also does it with a big helping of heart and emotion. The characters feel nuanced and complicated — a reader just discovering Bender with King Maybe might be inclined to seek out his four earlier capers to better see how things came to be (and for that, she would be rewarded). Bender’s mysterious lover, Ronnie, shines in this installment — her murky criminal past adding a layer of intrigue to her already entertaining, sexy, and sharp-tongued persona. Though this is a Bender book, her presence adds notably to every scene she’s part of. Maybe is very much a culmination for the Bender series, and it pays off handsomely for those who’ve been with the conflicted crook since the first book.
Smart, refreshing and never dull, Hallinan’s vibrant King Maybe sees an author at the top of his game and a series in full, magnificent swing. Welcoming to new readers but packed with the character development and forward motion series aficionados long for, King Maybe proves that it’s not about diminishing returns with long-running characters, but creating believable, engaging challenges for them to face as they evolve.