Written by Patrick Shawn Bagley — Brooklyn, 2005, is where things begin in Patrick Shawn Bagley’s debut, published by indie outfit 280 Steps. Joey Connolly is working as a hitman for local mob boss Carl Petucci but he can see the writing on the wall. The Russian mafia is making inroads and it’s only a matter of time before bloated dinosaurs like Petucci become extinct. Connolly might not be a scholar but he has enough street smarts to know it’s time to get out of the game.
Fast forward to 2009 and Connolly is now Collins, proud owner of Whitey’s Blues Bar in Chicago and a legitimate business man. He employs Grace Turner, daughter of a local Blues legend, to manage the club. Life is good. But as The Sopranos showed us, once you are in the life you can never really get out.
Armed men break into the club, kidnap Grace and deliver a message. Collins has to do one more job for Petucci: kill a pornographer in the FBI witness programme who turned state’s evidence a few years back after falling out with the mob. Todd Evans had made a sex tape with a mob lord’s daughter. He’s now living in Wesserunsett, Maine, having slipped the FBI leash, and is working as an estate agent under the name Evan Barker. Petucci wants his head on a plate and any copies of the tape that remain.
Do that and Petucci gives his word that Turner will be released unhurt and Collins will be left alone. Collins has no choice but to accept even though he knows there is no way Petucci can afford to let either of them live afterwards. Somehow Collins will have to get to Maine, confirm Barker really is Evans, kill him, find the tape, then come back to rescue his friend.
Meanwhile, over in Maine, things are about to get complicated. Hag and Earl are the kind of losers that can never escape the criminal life and are destined to stay at the bottom of the food chain. Hag has just spent six months in jail in Canada after being caught with $80,000, the proceeds of a drug deal he had completed for local boss Stony. It was a particularly unpleasant stay in prison for Hag, and enough to convince him it’s time to get out of Stony’s shadow and start earning some real money. His solution is that they become hitmen, and you just know how that’s going to end. A drunken conversation with local police officer Wanda Philbrick results in them thinking they’ve been hired to take out her husband. Only Hag and Earl don’t realise Wanda has left her husband and is temporarily living with her boyfriend, Evan Barker. Yeah, the one Collins is looking for. The stage is set for a darkly comic misadventure.
Reading a summary of the plot it is easy to see that the ghosts of Elmore Leonard and Donald E Westlake loom large over Bitter Water Blues. While never hitting those heights, it is still a commendable debut. Too many of the characters are over familiar, as is the set-up. It’s fairly easy to tell how the book will end from the midway point.
Nonetheless, there are some saving graces and perhaps they come in unexpected places. The character of Wanda is a particular highlight. Bagley paints a picture of an intelligent woman just coming to the realisation that she deserves more than smalltown Maine can give her, and that if she doesn’t stop ducking some difficult decisions, it will be too late. Bagley has shown enough in Bitter Water Blues to make us think he is a young writer worth persevering with.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars