I’ve been fortunate during the past few months to discover several excellent writers in the action/suspense/mystery genres, whose work I’d never read before (Don Winslow, Charlie Huston and Brent Ghelfi), and I’m happy to announce that I’m now adding Duane Swierczynski to my list of must-read authors. These are writers who know how to tell a great story with strong, solid characters in them that you either love or hate, and enough surprises to keep you sitting on the edge of your La-Z-Boy recliner right up until the last page.
Swierczynski’s “The Wheelman” is the novel that made me an instant fan of this relatively unknown author. Like Huston’s “Hank Thompson” series, the lead character (Patrick Lennon) in this fast-paced novel quickly discovers just how bad a day can get when one simple mistake causes a bank heist to head south in a big way.
Lennon, an Irishman who came over to the United States as a child, is a wheelman, who drives for crews that take down banks. He’s probably the best wheelman in the business and never enters an unknown situation that he can’t get out of. The clock starts ticking for Lennon in downtown Philadelphia at a Wachovia Bank the moment Holden and Bling find themselves trapped inside a bank’s vestibule with $650,000 in stolen funds, unable to find a way out before the police arrive.
Lennon knows exactly what to do to save his cohorts and hammers the gas pedal of the getaway car and then drives the rear end of it straight into the bank’s entrance, shattering the glass door and enabling the two robbers to get out through a gap and into the car. Then, as Lennon, floors the accelerator and shoots the car across the street to their getaway route, a lady with a baby carriage magically appears in front of him. To suddenly stop means a long prison term for all three of the men in the car, so Lennon hits the lady, but just manages to miss the carriage, giving the child in it a chance at life.
Lennon now only has a brief period of time to make it to a long-term parking lot several blocks away where they can exchange cars and get the hell out of Dodge before the city’s law enforcement agencies converge on them like a hounds cornering a fox. They leave the money in the trunk of the getaway car, hop into a different vehicle that the police won’t be looking for, and hightail it to the airport, where the three of them have tickets for safer destinations.
Unfortunately, they never make it to the airport as a double-cross shifts into play and the Russian and Italian Mafia become involved. That’s when Lennon’s day goes from bad to worse and he has to become a stone-cold killer in order to stay alive long enough to retrieve the money and get out of the city, all in one piece. Before it’s over, Lennon will be beat up, tortured, shot, almost blown up in a fireball, have acid poured down his throat, lose someone he loves, find himself betrayed more than once, and stuffed down the same pipe twice as the bad guys try to do away with his body. And, all this does is piss him off to no degree!
What the author has created here is a roller coaster ride of pure adrenaline that literally shakes the brain cells in one’s head as the reader attempts to keep pace with the multitude of surprises that zap the lead character every time he turns around to take a breath. I don’t think it would be a far cry to say that before the story is finished, Lennon finds himself in a hell with no exit doors and a clearer understanding that almost no one who participates in a life of crime can be trusted, not even your closest friends.
Another understanding that also comes through for our Irish wheelman is that anyone can be killed, and in this novel, the body count keeps growing right to the end. Along with the above, the characters of Katie, Saugherty, Wilcoxson, Fieuchevsky and Perelli, as well as many others, are all colorfully drawn with their own distinct personalities that come alive on the written page. They seem so real that you almost can put faces on them.
The ending, however, leaves you with your mouth hanging open, saying to yourself, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Let’s back up. This can’t be happening!” But, it is happening, and the author pulls no punches in leaving you with an ending that shocks and delivers the goods in a way that few novels do.
Clearly, “The Wheelman” is the type of novel with regard to sheer craftsmanship and undeniable talent that every beginning author dreams of writing, and Duane Swierczynski has hit a home run right out of the park his first time up at bat. If you enjoy reading top-of-the-line crime fiction, then this is the book to pick up. After that, you’ll want to get the author’s other two novels, “The Blonde” and “Severance Package.”