Duane Swierczynski,
The Wheelman
(Minotaur, 2006)

Put on a neck brace before reading, because this book will whip your head around.

In the The Wheelman's opening sentences, two bank robbers are making their exit from the bank with a bag containing $650,000. As they go through the vestibule, someone in the bank flips a switch that locks both doors, trapping them. Lennon, their wheelman, is waiting at the curb and sizes up the situation. He jumps the curb and smashes the car into the glass door, shattering it. The robbers hop in the car and they're off. But, oh no! A woman is pushing a baby carriage right in front of them. Lennon has to make a choice -- woman or carriage. He picks woman and runs into her. She is last seen flying off the hood of the car.

Duane Swierczynski, along with Charlie Huston, are the modern masters of the fast-paced, surprise-filled, blood-soaked, hard-boiled, all-American crime thriller. What's remarkable about Swierczynski is the frequency and casualness in which he kills off major characters. Toward the end, this book is getting severely depopulated as people are shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, dropped from on high and blown up.

The bank robbery at the beginning of the book is the launch pad for the whole plot, which happens over about a week at various locations in Philadelphia. The plan is to stash the cash in a safe place, then light out for the territories until the heat blows over, then return for the money. As it happens none of them leave Philly and the money disappears. Wheelman Lennon, a resourceful fellow and a very hard man to kill, is the man we follow around through the mayhem.

Then other people enter the story and the plot thickens up like molasses. Are there hidden agendas? Double crosses? Vendettas? Secret identities? Narrow escapes? Traps? Chases? Shootouts? In spades, dude, in spades.

And who actually has the money? You'll find out on the last page and chuckle. In fact, black humor pervades this novel.

This is the book that introduces Michael Kowalski, a government agent of some kind who has a significant role in the end of the book tying things up. He becomes a major character in Swierczynski's next novel, The Blonde.

Severance Package, which ratchets up the insanity to 11, is still his best book.

book review by
Dave Sturm

14 May 2011

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