Written by Jonathan Ashley — As a reader of crime fiction, sometimes I get a little concerned that the novels I love glorify the criminal life, that they may be somehow encouraging me to seek a life of gun, gangs and drugs. Then a novel like The Cost of Doing Business comes along and rather unceremoniously blows that all out of the water, reassuring me that there is no glamour in a life of crime.
The cover of this novel, one of the latest to come out from indie publisher 280 Steps, describes The Cost of Doing Business as ‘a crime novel’ – three words that, in a strange way, do it justice. This is not a detective story, there is no investigation, police barely get a mention – and the ones that do are corrupt – but this novel certainly has its fair share of crime, along with a healthy dose of dark humour.
Jon Catlett is a secondhand bookstore owner from Louisville, Kentucky – a businessman of questionable morals, who barely manages to stay sober and keep the shop going. When he decides to supplement its meagre business with a little prescription drug dealing, things start to sour between him and his best friend Paul, the overly cautious manager of Jon’s store, Twice Told Books. When a deal goes awry, and one of Jon’s suppliers – a needy, pushy small-time criminal – winds up dead in Jon’s office, Jon and Paul cannot help but be drawn into a world where breaking the law is just the cost of doing business.
After disposing of the body, finding themselves blackmailed by a famously crooked cop, and then dealing with the police officer in a similar way, Jon and Paul are in too deep to ever crawl out of the quagmire they created. But still, they soldier on, both men staying in the business for their own personal reasons. There is, somewhere in amongst it all, a misguided notion of friendship, but both are motivated by what they love. Jon is motivated by his love for his on-again, off-again girlfriend; Paul for his young son, who is in the custody of his ex-wife. And in the drugs business, once you’re in, it’s hard to get out.
Over the course of Jon and Paul’s rise from owner and manager of a slightly successful bookstore to controlling the heroin trade in Louisville, and much of the Midwest, they meet Russian gangsters, African-American street thugs, crooked cops, over-zealous narcotics detectives, and a femme fatale or two. The two men quickly learn that they can trust no one, not even each other, and as the situation spirals further and further out of control, they learn that once you’ve stepped outside the law, people will stop at nothing for the sake of business.
Jonathan Ashley’s debut novel is a polished, twisted work of noir, driven by the characters, particularly Jon, whose quick wit keeps the action afloat as they are dragged deeper and deeper into the dirty world of crime. The action is twisted and always surprising. In its plot, and its total lack or morals, it goes against ideas of what a crime novel should be. If you like to read an intricately plotted work of detection, then The Cost of Doing Business is not for you, but if you like novels that are a bit new, a bit different, that redefine what it means to be crime fiction, then this book will surprise you. It may make you cry, and more than once it will make you laugh out loud.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars