Bagmen

By William Lashner

Thomas & Mercer. 385 pp. $14.95 paperback

nolead ends nolead begins


If they gave a Pulitzer Prize for snappy dialogue, William Lashner would be a betting favorite every time.

Dialogue is a big part of what makes crime fiction go. "Show, don't tell" is OK advice, but the giants of the genre - Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross McDonald, Dashiell Hammett - knew conversation counts. Let the characters tell the tale.

Consider the volley on the first page that sets Bagmen's mood. Philly criminal lawyer Victor Carl is visiting Boyds to buy some duds for a political bash, a form of social gathering hitherto unknown to him, and he's sparring with sales clerk Timothy over some pricey and foppish footwear:

Politics, stripped of its masquerade of policy, is an exercise in pure personal ambition. Right up my stinking alley, you would think. But the shoes gave me pause.

"You've got to be kidding me," I said.

"I never kid, Victor, about $500 shoes."

"Five hundred? For a pair of slippers? I'd sooner go barefoot."

"You might as well, if you intend to wear those . . . those clodhoppers you came in with."

"They're my normal work shoes."

"What kind of work, Victor, exterminating? Because I've no doubt they're lethal on cockroaches, but they just won't do with a tuxedo. Now this fine pair of Guccis would be just perfect."

"They have bows on them, Timothy."

"You'll be the belle of the ball."

"That's what I'm afraid of."

And off we go, to follow Victor on his adventures in the demimonde of Philly's political fixers, the bagmen, the good folks who make sure favors are dispensed to supplicants. Blessed are they who have a friend who has friends in City Hall.

Victor is an essentially decent man. It's just that his moral compass wobbles badly in the presence of money. Not that a whole lot of money has been coming Victor's way. His practice of law has been, to put it politely, undistinguished: "a desolate territory of bounced checks, lying clients and lost causes."

Then Melanie Brooks shows up, a law school classmate and erstwhile idealist whose "sincerity had somehow been battered to death like a baby seal." She asks Victor to take over a case in which she is representing one Colin Frost, who has "some political connections" and is charged with possession of heroin with intent to distribute. (No equation intended between the first and second of those activities).

Quick as you can say "sleazy," Victor gets Colin off, deftly using some information supplied by Melanie to put pressure on the judge. Turns out Victor's court appearance was really a test, and he's passed with lurid colors. The seedy little victory wins him the favor of Melanie's law firm, Ronin & McCall, and the chance to pick up some work, since Colin, though not headed for jail, will be doing a stint in rehab. "He does some work for us," Melanie explains. "Independent contractor stuff, you know the drill. Limited knowledge, limited responsibility."

Melanie's law firm has a profile so low Victor hasn't ever heard of it. Why? "Maybe because it has an exclusive clientele that would rather remain nameless," Melanie says.

Are they criminal lawyers? "More like jungle guides," she answers.

Now Victor figures it out: "So you're legal fixers," he says.

"Of a type, yes. But if you want something achieved in this world, you need someone like us. Ronin & McCall. We Get It Done. That's our motto, or maybe it's Pay Up. I sometimes get them confused."

Uh-oh, Victor. Better run. But you know he won't.

Victor's new work includes cleaning up messes for a Pennsylvania congressman with a voracious sexual appetite who needs somebody to restrain him, not guide him. When Victor's work on his behalf gets one woman killed, Victor is horrified. When it gets a second one killed, we find the point where Victor's moral compass stops wobbling.

Lashner, a former prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice who has traded law for full-time writing and who lives in the Philadelphia area, lays down a twisting plot line but has the narrative skill to keep the reader on the road.

Politicians don't fare well here. Lashner's skewering of the pols is hilarious and merciless and maybe a little too easy, given how many people apparently think politics is the eighth deadly sin.

Although the book is set in Philly, it doesn't really have a lot of local flavor, unless you count political corruption as a purely Philadelphia phenomenon, which is tempting but, even in the shadows of City Hall courtyard, implausible.

Lashner has a talent for creating memorable characters - or maybe caricatures would be a better word. Either way, they're a lot of fun. He introduces Victor to a group of bagmen who in another era would have done Damon Runyan proud. Especially amusing is Maud, "eyes . . . coldly blue, . . . blonde hair . . . hacked short, . . . face pockmarked, . . . body. . . all sharp edges and angles," a female fixer with loads of friends in City Hall. "If you want anything zoned, anything cleaned up or knocked down, anything cleared or shut down by Licenses and Inspections, anything from the Sheriff, the Prothonotary, the Register of Wills, anything anywhere in city hall, no matter how high up, she's the one you want to talk to. And she's a great friend of the mayor's."

Ah, corruption. So sad to read about in the paper, so much fun to read about in Bagmen.

215-854-2537