This is the third Joe the Bouncer novel, following on from The Bouncer (2018) and The Hard Stuff (2019). Joe Brody is indeed a bouncer. But as well as working the door at a New York strip club Joe does a lot of things. His classified history in the military left him with some serious skills and a bad case of PTSD. He spent a year at Harvard before being kicked out, which attests to his brains. No wonder, then, that his childhood friend Gio Caprisi, who is now a mafia Don, has Joe acting as peacemaker and sheriff for the criminal gangs working in the Five Boroughs.
Previously Joe has gotten involved in gun-running disputes, perfume heists, terrorist plots and armed robbery. All this action means he is on the radar of law enforcement, most notably of frustrated FBI agent Donna Zamora. She can’t seem to decide where she wants Joe to be when she puts the cuffs on – either a jail cell or in her bed. That’s right, Joe’s a lady killer as well as a… killer.
Joe is somewhat of an anachronism in today’s crime fiction world. He’s too good (or bad) to be true, a killer with a heart of gold, he even lives with his grandmother for goodness’ sake. While he has PTSD, and we see him having some nightmares, he doesn’t come across at all as tortured, or even having a dark side. He’s a killer, but only when necessary. Genial Joe gets along with everyone.
Gordon has gone against trend, dispensing with verisimilitude, or at least what writers and editors seem to believe readers think is real, in favour of entertainment, and I’m on board with this plan. It’s not just Joe, but the whole book that feels like a return to some of the best American crime fiction of the 60s, 70s and 80s. The emphasis is on entertainment in a way that I think the likes of Donald Westlake would approve of. Reading the Joe the Bouncer novels means going along with this, accepting that the story within and its characters are implausible to say the least. Gordon, for the most part, succeeds because he never lets the story settle, there is always something happening to drive the action on, and his principal characters, though reprehensible for the most part, are drawn with a degree of skill and subtlety, and are fun with-a-capital-F to be around. There is humour in these books, and it’s not cruel, but humour of the kind that involves funny people enjoying themselves.
However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and Against the Law would have been better served by being shorter – 340 pages is too much for this kind of caper. Better to finish sooner and leave the reader wanting more. Joe begins the story out in Afghanistan, hunting the man behind White Angel, a powerful opiate which is decimating New York’s junkie community, before returning to Queens to battle it out with hired killers from a military contractor, vengeful CIA agents and upstart Russian gangsters. And that’s just the Cliff Notes. I’m not sure which part Gordon should have streamlined, but I would definitely have kept the finale in the bathhouse which had serious Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises vibes.
If Against the Law sounds like it could have been rediscovered from obscurity by Hard Case Crime, that’s because it could. Why not check out our reviews of three of Donald Westlake’s early novels, The Comedy is Finished, Castle in the Air and Brothers Keepers?
CFL Rating: 4 Stars