Scratch the Surface by Josh K Stevens

2 Mins read

Midwest gangster Deuce Walsh is having a bad day. He woke up beaten and with a gun shot wound, in an abandoned factory on the edge of town. The two men he’s just killed weren’t goons for the Chianti brothers coming to finish the job their bosses started, but two innocent guys expecting to meet their girlfriends for a hook-up. It’s time to get patched up and out of town, because it’s suddenly become clear that Deuce Walsh doesn’t have a future.

Seven years later and Deuce has become Ryne O’Reilly, mild mannered office drone and expectant father. He’s living a nice peaceful middle-class existence in a suburb in some nameless location in the Mid West. He is a safe distance from his old stamping grounds, or so he thinks, because that is all about to change.

The only fly in the ointment is Colm, his girlfriend Caitlin’s brother, who is a nice guy but a bit of a deadbeat. Colm probably has five get-rich-quick ideas a day, all of them stupid in one way or another, and all of them seem to involve Ryne. Colm’s latest winner is to join a high stakes poker game, and Ryne has to warn him off as he recognises the set-up for what it really is – a loaded game design to reel in suckers like Colm and fleece them. It’s no real surprise then when Colm calls later in the day to say that he is down $50,000 and he needs Ryne’s help.

Ryne heads into town hoping to talk a way out of the game, but has to call on all of his experience as Deuce when the situation quickly escalates. To his immense relief he doesn’t recognise any of the players in the rigged game, and dares to hope that Deuce can stay dead. Unfortunately Colm is entranced by Ryne’s bad-ass performance saving him and realises his future brother-in-law has a dangerous past.

Colm turns out to be something of a gangster wannabe himself, and reveals he has his own crew. In reality, they are nothing more than four men who have never grown out of their adolescent fantasies, but all of a sudden Colm has visions of them taking over the city, and Ryne’s plea for him to be discrete about his past fall on deaf ears. Inevitably, the Chianti brothers here about what happened to their rigged game and Ryne’s past catches up with him. Ryne and Colm are captured and given 72 hours to come up with the $50,000 or pay the consequences. It is time for Ryne to become Deuce again, because he has just three days to turn Colm’s crew of amateurs into a professional heist unit.

Scratch the Surface is a blast from start to finish, moving smoothly from a pulp gangster yarn to a comic caper thriller as the story goes on. While very good, it perhaps misses some ‘oh, wow’ moments. Ryne is a great protagonist, likeable but with a definite edge, and some classic sarcastic putdowns. Colm, petulant and perennially unlucky could be a character in one of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels. Its style also owes a little to Elmore Leonard and perhaps Quentin Tarantino too, but the writing’s not quite to that level. Scratch the Surface ends on a satisfying cliff-hanger which sets up the second book in what will be trilogy nicely. I’m going to be along for the ride.

Scratch the Surface is released 28 April.

280 Steps

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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