Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Hooray for the Hit Men: Cheering for the Bad Guys

Have you ever wanted to just kill someone? Someone who really, really deserved it? I have. As a mystery reader, I can fantasize plenty of ways to implement vengeance or vigilante justice. And it can be a good safety valve; having "murdered" my target (who of course richly deserves it) in several different juicy and lingering ways, I am completely over the whole thing and ready to move on. Hiring someone else for the job would never occur to me. Where's the satisfaction in that? Fortunately, I don't have the kind of serious problems that require ultimate solutions in the real world, but not everyone is so blessed. That's where the hit men come in.

Raid and the Blackest Sheep is the first book by Finnish author Harri Nykanen to have been translated into English. In it Nygren––who has served several terms in prison for various frauds and who was a suspect in a daring robbery that netted millions and received international attention––is making a retrospective journey of his life, delivering to friend and foe alike what he feels that he owes them. He has hired a young gunman, Raid, as driver and bodyguard. And if anyone tries to interfere, well, Raid is armed and ready to handle any situation that might arise.

For such an urbane, gentlemanly, nonviolent career criminal, Nygren seems to have made an obsessive enemy in uptight Detective Lieutenant Kempas of the Helsinki police. Kempas, sure that Nygren is planning another big heist, mobilizes his force to track the pair as they wander north in Nygren's distinctive classic V-8 Mercedes. Meanwhile, the more laid-back and tolerant Detective Lieutenant Jansson, in rehab at a spa for a back injury, is receiving occasional phone calls from Raid to reassure him that while Nygren is back in the country, no new uber-heist is being planned. When Kempas calls Jansson to get information about where Raid and Nygren might be going, Jansson feels compelled to get involved. The police have learned that Nygren has terminal cancer, and Jansson doesn't want him picked up by the grim Kempas. He cuts his sick leave short and starts looking for the pair with his sergeant, Hussen.

Also tracking Nygren and Raid is the psychopathic killer Sariola, along with a couple of his enforcers. Savriola had been a participant with Nygren in the lucrative Post Office robbery a few years earlier. While he walked away with millions, he has spent it all and is planning to help himself to Nygren's share. Since Nygren has a nonviolent and fair reputation among fellow criminals, he figures it will be easy. When they catch up with Nygren at a diner and pull their guns, Raid knocks Sariola down and pours a fresh pot of coffee onto his crotch––not perhaps the wisest thing to do to a vengeful psychopath.

I enjoyed the travels and travails of Nygren and Raid, and am pleased to see that another book in the Raid series has been translated into English. The author has written over 30 books in several series, and if Raid and the Blackest Sheep is indicative, they are a bit lighter and more humorous than many of the angsty, alcohol-soaked Nordics I have read.

In Martha Miller's Retirement Plan, Lois Burnett, retired army nurse and sharpshooter, and Sophie Long, her partner of 32 years, are having a tough time financially. The money they had carefully saved for their retirement was stolen by Lois's drug-user daughter, Brenda, who had earlier left her son, Matt, with her mother to raise (great daughter, huh?). A chance remark by a friend during card night sets Sophie thinking about a novel source of retirement income. Lois, who had been taught to hunt by an uncle as a child, had purchased an M-16 assault rifle years ago, before the new regulations requiring registration of assault weapons. Sophie reasons that they have an anonymous weapon, a trained sniper, and a fair number of acquaintances with righteous grievances who wouldn't mind paying a few thousand dollars (just a few; most of their circle are on fixed incomes) for justice.

Morgan Holiday is a divorced 40ish homicide detective who moved home to care for her aging mother. As her mother's Alzheimer's progressed, Morgan was forced to put her in a nursing home. While her mother often doesn't know Morgan on her regular Sunday visits, she can still beat Morgan at chess more often than not. Morgan's partner, Henry, is nearing retirement and lets her lead on most of their cases. The last thing he wants now is this complicated case involving the series of apparent professional hits close to home. Morgan is on very good terms with her neighbors Lois and Sophie––years ago she even babysat for their grandson Matt.

Lois's first job is a convicted pedophile who has begun hanging out and chatting with neighborhood children. Nothing the police could act on, of course, until and unless a local child goes missing. Another is an abusive ex-husband who has tracked his wife through three moves, despite court orders to leave her alone. The constant harassment and terror led the woman to seek a more permanent solution. The people Lois and Raid kill are all wicked and beyond the reach of the justice system. Does that excuse their actions or those of their clients in hiring them? It's such a permanent solution. What if it was the wrong decision, if some sort of redemption was possible for their low-life targets or, heaven forbid, the wrong person is shot? On sober reflection, tempting as it might sometimes seem, I think I'd better find a different retirement hobby.


  1. Have to put in a good word here for my favorite hit men (and had you told me I would cheer for them 10 years ago, I'd have said you needed a check-up!): Barry Eisler's John Rain, of course, then Thomas Perry's "Butcher's Boy," and finally Lawrence Block's Keller. I cannot begin to explain how these characters can be made sympathetic, but I know part of my enjoyment comes from the whole cloak-and-dagger aspect that is similar to my favorite espionage titles. Love the woman who makes people disappear, too, again by Thomas Perry: Jane Whitefield.

  2. Bonnie, I don't know John Rain. I enjoy both the Butcher's Boy and Block's Bernie. I wonder if we like these protagonists because they have ethics, however warped. So did Robin Hood.

  3. Rain is pretty interesting. He is half-Japanese and operates (at least initially) in Japan--going so far as to have surgery to enhance his epicanthic folds to fit in better. He *does* have a sort of code of honor: no children, no women, no non-principals (i.e. no assassinations "to send a message" to someone else). As with other pros, he devotes at least as much energy to preventing his own demise as he does to ensuring that of others. His specialty is deaths that appear to be accidents or natural causes.