Charlie Hardie, an ex-cop still reeling from the revenge killing of his former partner's entire family, fears one thing above all else: that he'll suffer the same fate.
Languishing in self-imposed exile, Hardie has become a glorified house sitter. His latest gig comes replete with an illegally squatting B-movie actress who rants about hit men who specialize in making deaths look like accidents. Unfortunately, it's the real deal. Hardie finds himself squared off against a small army of the most lethal men in the world: The Accident People.
It's nothing personal-the girl just happens to be the next name on their list. For Hardie, though, it's intensely personal. He's not about to let more innocent people die. Not on his watch.
Fun and Games by Duane Swierczynski is only the second novel to come from the garage-full of talent driving Mulholland Books, but already the imprint - sprung fully-formed from the Hodder & Stoughton stables - has established for itself, and consumers too, a identity all its own: of quality, high-octane crime thrillers from American writers. Only last month, Marcia Clark set the bar sky-high with Guilt by Association, a pulse-pounding legal procedural, but with a leap, a bound, and a lizard man called Charlie Hardie, Fun and Games raises the standard still higher.
Hardie is an accidental hero in every sense of the phrase. A policeman until some unspeakable crisis stole away his family, and his faith in the institution of law and order, he's taken to serial house-sitting in the three years since: watching over luxury condos while they're otherwise unoccupied for bourbon money and not much more. When he's not mainlining old movies one after the other after the other, he whiles away the time before, during, and after assignments drinking and navel-gazing - but however out of shape Hardie may be, he's still got some of the old officer in his DNA. To wit:
"Like most Philly cops, Charlie had taser training. And if you have Taser training, you have to ride the lightning at least one. It's a rule. Just so you know firsthand what you're dishing out.
"Hardie's first time became a kind of legend in law enforcement circles. Because just a few seconds after the training officer put the contact pads on Hardie's back and gave him a fifty-thousand-volt kiss and started to explain the effects of the shock, Hardie coughed and began to stand up." (pp.101-102)
Charlie Hardie has been through the ringer in his time, but whether through luck or resilience or sheer, unadulterated stubbornness, he just keeps on keeping on. "Unkillable Chuck," (p.118) as a local reporter dubs him, had "tried his best and lost - just like Rocky. That didn't mean he didn't give it his all. And that was something to be commended." (ibid) And something that comes in hella handy when our misbegotten drifter stumbles into the scene of a crime... in progress. For in the abode of his latest client, away from it all on the hard-to-find Alta Brea Drive, Hardie finds fallen starlet Lane Madden.
Shellshocked and strung out on a speedball, Lane has taken refuge in this seemingly secure apartment after narrowly escaping a car crash contrived by The Accident Men, a company of assassins who treat each kill as if it were a Hollywood production, tailor-making from their subtle slayings narratives fit for the tabloids. Lane was supposed to have taken a nose-dive into the treacherous Decker Canyon, but by the skin of her teeth she managed to get away to the house on Alta Brea Drive, where she and Hardie will have to survive the home invasion from hell.
And for once, the marketing is on the money, because Fun and Games is exactly that: fun and games. Short at less than 300 pages and sweet, if by sweet we agree to mean action-packed, thrilling - damn near addictive, even - this first escapade in Charlie Hardie's winningly witless company makes for an exciting and singularly satisfying evening's reading.
So much so that I begin to think all authors should do a run on Deadpool or Punisher before they publish books, because Swierczynski, with a wealth of such experience behind him, brings certain essential lessons of sequential art to the table in Fun and Games. Namely a sense of what is strictly necessary, and the brutal kill-your-children willingness to strip away all else; and a notion of pace and flow, of high beats and low, that has this first of three Charlie Hardie novels pumped up from the word go, and never less than high-octane thereafter.
Of course, with comic book highs come comic book lows, and alas, there is in Fun and Games something of a dearth of characterisation - a common problem in the medium aforementioned, though assuredly not an inherent one. In any event, Swierczynski spends too long dishing out precious tidbits about who Charlie Hardie is and what terrible thing happened three years ago to make him this hopeless semblance of man; piecemeal reveals where an actual character arc could and should be. The only other issues I would raise with regards to Fun and Games are a couple of awkward narrative contrivances, such as the inability of Chuck and Lane to call for help, whether by hook (no landline and a power cut which puts paid to the internet) or by crook (terrible cell reception means mobile phones also so happen to be out of the question).
But contrivances along those lines are par for the course; let's not be pedantic about them. Anyway, the pace of Swierczynski's first novel for Mullholland Books is such that there's not often the opportunity to stop and wonder about such nominal things. And lest we forget, this is only the first of three misadventures starring house-sitter come accidental hero Charlie Hardie, the second of which - Hell and Gone, due out in October - is sure to answer many of the questions Fun and Games leaves one with. Fun and Games is in every other respect a mile-a-minute crime thriller - fearless, funny and utterly accessible - fit to leave you breathless by its last, explosive moments.
Fun and Games
by Duane Swierczynski
UK and US Publication: June 2010, Mulholland Books