The Debt Collector

Your expectations will be upended at every turn in Steven Max Russo’s new crime thriller, The Debt Collector. Supposedly, 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 Abigail Barnes is a stranger in almost every respect.

In the opening scene, Abby 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 and carrying a shotgun runs out of a liquor store and right in front of her car. Does she panic? Not at all. Does she slam the BMW into reverse? No way. She tells him to get in and drives him home. Confused, he leaves the shotgun behind. The next morning, she’s at his front door offering his gun.

That’s how Abby becomes acquainted with pleasantly inept Hector Perez. She’s a pretty, young, rather petite blonde, new in town and looking for work. She’s a debt collector on the dark side, hired by bookies, loan sharks, and others having difficulty collecting what they’re owed. Like Hector did, 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.” Unfortunately, one person Abby collects from is murdered later that same night. Now it’s in everyone’s interest to identify the murderer. Because a big-time investment company is planning to build a fancy new building in the cash-strapped town, everyone from the governor, to the city’s mayor, to the police chief, to various local gang leaders wants to close the case pronto. But Abby realizes “close”’ does not necessarily mean “solve.” That will be her job.

The characters busily scheme against each other, explaining each new development in whatever way suits their own best interests. (I can’t help but think how tricky it must have been to write this, keeping straight everyone’s assumptions, right or wrong.) Their various stratagems make for a very entertaining plot, as well as strong character development, as you learn how each of them thinks. And Russo has some nifty surprises in store, too.

Abby is unsentimental; she just wants to get the job done. She’s an appealing and entertaining character, and author Russo provides some humorous banter, especially between Abby and Hector. But, truly, she can think rings around all of those guys.

Gritty, urban North Jersey, the narrow streets lined with cars, the low-budget hotels, the Italian restaurants, the walk-up offices—they all come through believably. Russo has had a long career as a New Jersey advertising executive, and puts his creative mind to good use now writing fiction. It’s a fun read with characters to believe in.

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