So you know that unlikely event that crops up in popular crime fiction where somebody is committing crimes for an altruistic reason? Tends to kill my enthusiasm for a caper book/film/whatever – when the writer tries to have his cake and eat it too, by trying to give you a “likeable” character doing dirty deeds. The cake tends to taste like poo and smell ‘bout like it too.
In Fifteen Digits, the new one from Nick Santora, Rich Mauro has a new job at a fancy-pants law firm… in the mailroom. He’s a hardworking kid taking the first steps toward a career as one of the associates at the firm, with the job and going to law-school at night. But he’s beginning to notice the stubborn substance of the whole upstairs/downstairs thing at work, with his potential in-laws and pretty much everywhere else in the world.
His problem is that now his evil future in-laws are becoming pro-active about getting him out of the picture, and as much as he loves and trusts his girl, Rich is convinced that they’ll grind her down before he can afford to keep her in the fashion to which she’s grown accustomed. So when an upstairs petty-tyrant approaches Rich with a can’t-fail, no-one-gets-hurt scheme to make some serious scratch, Rich eventually, reluctantly and very carefully jumps at it. Thing is, he knows that they’re going to need the cooperation of the whole mail room and the guys he works with seem like pretty stand-up, law-abiders.
His coworkers are literally the best people in the world, but they’re never-the-less down for a little white collar crime – after all – there’s a lot of money to be made. But what do they want to do with their shares of it? Give it away of course. To atone for previous sins, to rescue helpless children, to support a poor community church. That’s why these guys steal. And it reminded me of this line from my interview with Gary Phillips “What self-respecting thief would return the money?” (Incidentally, Gary’s new anthology Scoundrels deals with “Financial Crime” – make a good companion piece to Fifteen Digits)
How did this ruthless law firm end up with the four most selfless people in all of New York City working in their basement? Really, what are the odds? I dunno. Might as well ask how the correctional facility in Prison Break ended up with the five sweetest hardened criminals in the same cell block (reformed, innocent, framed, genius). Oh wait, Santora wrote for that show too… which might explain a thing or two. (Hey, I’m not picking on Prison Break – it was preternaturally silly, but totally enjoyable.)
The success of Fifteen Digits’ high-wire act is due not to graceful precision, but rather the hard mathematics of counterbalance. For every eye-rolling moment of gosh-darn, good-samaritanism indulged in, there exists an eye-gouging act of brutality or depravity. Yeah, it just went there. For as fantasy-land as the characters’ motivations may be, the consequences for their good-hearted bad-behavior are appropriately nasty and weighty.
And hey, I applaud that.
Jedidiah Ayres writes fiction and keeps the blog Hardboiled Wonderland.
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