I’m a big Lou Berney fan, and I mean this in the most respectful possible way, but fuck Lou Berney. Fuck him in his eyeholes with a pointy stick dipped in some obscure dung-based Belizean poison. Seriously. He’s just too damn good.
I picked up an ARC of his first book, Gutshot Straight, a few years back at the Indy Bouchercon. It was a little depressing, frankly. Best thing I read that year, which was fine. It’s always great to find a good read, especially from an author I haven’t read before. Means I’ve got a whole new vein of ore to mine for reading goodies. But Gutshot Straight was a little too good. Elmore Leonard good. Ross Thomas good. The kind of good that, when I sat down to write my own stuff, whispered despairingly in my ear, said things like “give it up you poser, you’re never gonna top that.”
I figured that was OK, though. I’d only written one novel at that point. I figured I’d get better with practice. I figured I’d catch up, or at least get on the same lap with the son of a bitch. So I kept plugging and I have gotten better.
Damn thing is, so has Berney.
For those of you who’ve read Gutshot Straight, Berney’s new novel, Whiplash River, picks up with Shake Bouchon a couple years down the road. (I have to assume that those of you who haven’t read it either haven’t heard of the guy – not your fault, but you have now, so go out and get a copy – or else you’re just tasteless troglodytes who have no business reading anything, not even my blog. So go away. Now.)
Shake is living his dream – running his own restaurant on a beach in Belize. Living the dream except for the part about being behind on a juice loan to Baby Jesus, who’s better armed, less forgiving and more comfortable with usury than his biblical counterpart. Then a motor-mouthed septuagenarian who either did or didn’t (or maybe does or doesn’t) work for the CIA shows up, followed by a twenty-something couple of would-be hit people, the distaff side of which is both frighteningly competent and obsessively determined, and a vacationing FBI agent who spends her personal time making Shake a hobby so she can jam up the Armenian mob.
Stir in some random violence and a riff about the fertility tourism industry. Add another of Berney’s masterful MacGuffins (this time, the Speech That Saved Teddy Roosevelt, which proves a deserving heir to Gutshot Straight’s collection of biblical foreskins). Season with the septuagenarian’s international network of pissed-off friends (a German-speaking Central American fake Mennonite, a tomb-dwelling Cairo apprentice bartender, and a Fortune 500 energy company CEO with political aspirations who bankrolled his future by looting NGOs in Southeast Asia back in the day). Slather all of that over the rich meat of Shake’s star-crossed love affair with Gina, who’s back again, still as hot as a fresh street-vendor pretzel and just as twisted. Then bounce the whole thing from Belize to Mexico to San Francisco to Cairo.
Whiplash River isn’t a rich story, it’s positively decadent. It’s not meat and potatoes. It’s the seven-course meal you get when you turn a master chef loose in an unlimited larder. Sometimes less isn’t more. Sometimes more is more. It’s merrier. It’s magnificent. What do you want from your beach read this summer? A whacked-out jigsaw of a plot? Check. Fresh, compelling characters that aren’t just repackaged stereotypes from the last novel you read? Sure. Dialog sharp enough to use in a Ginsu commercial? Got it. Exotic foreign locals? More than one. A bang-up ending you won’t see coming? Try three of them.
And now I’m supposed to go back to work on my own novel.
Fuck you, Lou Berney. Fuck you twice.
C’mon back tomorrow for an interview with Lou.