Thursday, January 26, 2012

Devils in Exile / by Chuck Hogan

Neal Maven returns home from Iraq to find that the country he risked his life defending can't offer him much in return. Hundreds of applications and inquiries can't even land him a full-time job and the work he does get scarcely makes ends meet. By chance when he's seen expertly disarming a would-be thief at his night job as a parking attendant, Neal's introduced to a friendly stranger, Royce, another veteran, and a new line of work where his still-amped-up soldiering skills can be put to good use. It's a highly dangerous but highly lucrative occupation in which Royce, Neal and three others, all professional soldiers, infiltrate high quantity drug deals while they're taking place, ripping off the cash and disposing of the dope in quick fashion. The planning part of the operation can be tedious, each heist meticulously planned, and none of the others quite know where or how Royce gets his intel, but the money tends to make the hassle and any troubling questions go by the wayside. It's not just the money but the lifestyle and the girls that come with it which help Neal temporarily forget about his own fears ("Trouble seems to have a way of finding me.") and worries until some subtle missteps coupled with a flawed maneuver help the Feds get wise to Neal and the "Sugar Bandits."

Crime writer Hogan has found success in recent years with his fast-paced thrillers highlighted by morally ambiguous characters caught up in their own self-escalating conflicts. Prince of Thieves, reviewed on this blog some months ago, was adapted into a major motion picture, The Town, and served up much of the same criteria: blue collar Boston underdogs are lured into lives of petty crime and struggle to find a way out. In this case, the situation conveys at least a more patriotic, if not a more moralistic angle. Neal's boss Royce manages to convince Neal and his fellow recruits, with remarkably little effort, that the people they're stealing from are the real evildoers and the product they're disposing of after each little engagement is helping to save lives in the long run. He does this after dishing to his new pupils on the unfair way returning vets are thrust back into civilian life lacking the skills, and more importantly the mindset, to live a normal, honest life. The government trained them to wage war on America's enemies and that's what they're doing, so to speak. If they make a disproportionately enormous profit in ripping off other criminals, then so be it. This aspect of the story might work OK depending on your moral code and even despite the sketchy, insincere way Royce comes across, Hogan's first-person narration through Neal renders him a believable enough character to buy the scenario. The problem has to do with the girlfriend. Royce's lady Danielle used to be the resident senior goddess at Neal's old high school when Neal was a freshman. She's still up there on the pedestal, at least in Neal's eyes, though it's difficult to tell why. She's cranky, crabby, manipulative and generally abusive to Neal who she singles out as a sort-of errand boy. It doesn't take much to get her upset or stressed, moods she remedies with cocaine and other illegal substances. This plot element isn't the only thing detracting credibility from the story, but it may be the most annoying. Otherwise the book is a fun read, exciting and action-packed with good descriptions and a relatable context. (FIC HOGAN)

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