17 Nov 2005
Patrick Lennon has problems like Kmart has blue light specials. Like Yankees have championships. As the getaway driver, his job was simple: get his partners from the Wachovia bank in downtown Philadelphia to the airport and collect his share of $650,000.
But he didn’t expect his partners to get caught by the bank’s security system, or the SUV to crash into the side of his car, and he knew that getting stuffed naked down a concrete pipe at the construction site wasn’t part of the job description. Don’t consider that a spoiler; it happens on page 20 of “The Wheelman,” the debut novel by Philadelphia City Paper editor Duane Swierczynski.
It would be lazy to mix and match cultural references to try and describe this crazy novel, and I don’t think any of them would take. Elmore Leonard? This is more violent. Donald Westlake’s Stark novels? This story’s pace leaves it in the dust. “Pulp Fiction?” “The Wheelman” has the style of a sawed-off shotgun. If you put a gun to my head — a technique this book’s collection of crooked robbers, crooked cops and Russian and Italian mafiosi would sneer at as being for pussies; strapped to a board and menaced with blowtorch and circular saw is more their style — “The Wheelman” reminds me of Mickey Spillaine without the moral authority. Just a lotta guys with guns hunting each other and waiting for the right moment to drop a bullet in someone’s ear when they’re not needed anymore. The trash at MacDonald’s gets treated with more respect.
So consider this fair warning: “The Wheelman” is a Punch-and-Judy show, with the emphasis on punch, as well as kick, stab, slam, blast and fry. It zooms along, with Lennon getting hammered like a cockroach on the kitchen floor on his quest to find the money, find who ratted them out, and get the hell out of Philly. Swierczynski sets off some great set pieces, such as how Lennon gets away from the bad guys in the garage, The torture scenes alone would get Mel Gibson’s interest, but since he’s too old, Colin But several times the high-speed narration hits several plot holes and parts fly off the car. Implausible connections are made, a gun vanishes unexpectedly, and a line about a suitcase nuke turns out to be a throwaway remark, which was a shame. On this high-decible thrill ride, a small nuke would have fitted right in.
Genre:13 This is a bank heist book. There’s a bank heist. There’s double-crossings. Beatings. A few killings (all right, I lost count after the first 20 or so). A couple points nicked because I didn’t like the ending.
Realism: 13 People who are killed stay killed. People who are beat hurt. I can believe a couple could infiltrate a book party and not be found out.
Character: 11 Lennon’s background is sketched in before he tries to rob the grocery store bank, but it didn’t work for me. A reasonably high score; heist books are not known for their character studies
Setting: 15 Philadelphia, lovingly described. Worked.
Theme: 11 “The Wheelman” starts and ends with a monologue from the author that feels tacked on. Lennon’s not thinking these thoughts, the writer is. So why should I care?
Style: 10 Points lost here for unclear writing. Several times I had to reread portions to figure out what was happening, and there were a couple of errors here and there.
Bonus: 5 I wanted to like this one, and a few parts made me laugh.
All categories are ranked 1-15 with up to 10 bonus points added.
What do these numbers mean?
Other links to “The Wheelman”
- Duane Swierczynski’s blog: Secret Dead Blog
- Dick Adler’s review with the great title: “Wheelmen Don’t Eat Quiche.”
- Toni McGee Causey’s review on her blog.
- January Magazine’s list by J. Kingston Pierce