The Debt Collector by Steven Max Russo

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The Debt Collector by Steven Max Russo front cover

Here’s a new crime thriller that will upend your expectations at every turn – Steven Max Russo’s The Debt Collector. The literati say there are only two plots in all of literature: a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. This story flows from the latter tradition, and it’s about a person who’s a stranger in almost every respect.

In the opening scene, Abigail Barnes is driving her BMW through densely urban northern New Jersey, hears a gunshot, and sees what must be a robbery in progress. A man wearing only some dingy underwear runs out of a liquor store carrying a six-pack of beer and brandishing a shotgun. He runs right in front of her car and she comes to a stop. Does she panic? Not at all. Does she slam the BMW into reverse? No way. She tells the man to get in the car and drives him home. Her friendly attitude confuses him so much, he forgets to take his gun with him. The next morning, here she is again at his front door with the gun and another six-pack.

That’s how Abby becomes acquainted with pleasantly inept Hector Perez, and he’s never met anyone like her. She’s a pretty, young, rather petite blonde, new in town from Baltimore, and she’s looking for work. She’s a debt collector – one who works on the dark side, hired by bookies, loan sharks and others having difficulty collecting what they’re owed. Like Hector, prospective clients take one look at her and laugh. They can’t believe this tiny woman could get their hard-case borrowers to pay up. She volunteers to demonstrate and they laugh again. For the last time.

Abby has a saying that works for her, ‘It isn’t violence but fear of violence that gets people to pay.’ And, eventually, you learn how she acquired her formidable skills in martial arts and avoiding the dangers that come her way.

Through Hector, she connects with his cousin Raffie, a small-time crook who works for a bigger-time mobster named Ronnie Slacks. Slacks wants Raffie to collect a debt from a travel agent, Benny Friedman, and Raffie turns the assignment over to his new acquaintance, Abby. She collects the money but unfortunately Friedman is murdered later that night. Now it’s in everyone’s interest to identify the murderer. A big-time investment company is planning to build a fancy new building in the town and, from the governor to the city’s mayor to the police chief on down, it’s in everyone’s interest to close the case as quickly as possible and seal the construction deal. But ‘close’ does not necessarily mean ‘solve.’

You have a police detective trying to find the culprit, you have Slacks feeling the pressure from the police and not caring at all about Abby or Raffie and completely willing to turn them in, you have Raffie wanting to blame Abby and rise in the organised crime hierarchy, you have Hector not sure what’s going down and you have Abby trying to figure out how to stay alive. For most of the men, the fastest and simplest solution – which seems to amount to blaming Friedman’s murder on Abby – is the best. Even better if she’s dead too. The only way out, she and Hector conclude, is to figure out themselves who killed Friedman.

The story is told from several points of view. The characters are busily scheming against each other and explaining each new development in whatever way suits their own best interests. It must have been very tricky for Steven Max Russo to write this, keeping everyone’s assumptions, right and wrong, straight. Their various stratagems make for a very entertaining plot, as well as strong character development, as you learn how each of them thinks. Russo has some surprises in store, too.

Abby is unsentimental; she just wants to get the job done. Hector and the gangsters develop a kind of grudging respect for her fearlessness, even when she outmanoeuvers them. I found her an appealing and entertaining character, and there is some humorous banter, especially between Abby and Hector. But, truly, she can think rings around all of those guys.

Gritty, urban North Jersey, the across-the-Hudson suburbs of New York City, the narrow streets lined with cars, the low-budget hotels, the walk-up offices – they all come through believably. Slacks’s Italian restaurant, Lucy’s, is utterly typical. It’s a fun read with characters to believe in.

Russo has had a long career as a New Jersey advertising executive and puts his creative mind to good use now writing fiction. The Deb Collector is his third novel.

Also see Juan Gómez-Jurado’s Black Wolf or Kimberly G Giarratano’s Death of a Dancing Queen.

Steven Max Russo Books
Print, Kindle

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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