By Lance Charnes – If you like “ticking clock thrillers,” in this first-person caper, narrator Matt Friedrich faces a whole clockwork factory ticking toward deadlines, emphasis on “dead.”
If he doesn’t find certain stolen art, the women in his life will be dead at the hands of ʼNdràngheta, the Calabrian mafia, a group that makes those Sicilian guys look like amateurs. If he doesn’t find out who’s fencing stolen art, he won’t be paid the desperately needed $10,000 he’s supposed to earn for this mysterious gig. Meanwhile, he has to come up with a plausible tale and report in on time to his parole officer, who would send him back to the slammer if he knew Matt was flitting all over Europe on a venture with a growing body count.
But Matt is an engaging protagonist and you can’t help but hope he finds a way out of all these dilemmas–in time!
He trained as an architect and got into trouble working for a corner-cutting Southern California art gallery. In a tense early scene, we see him pushing up the auction price of a Corot landscape with fake bids. Eventually, his shenanigans landed him in the federal Prison Camp Pensacola for 14 months. Now Matt’s out of prison, working as a barista, staying with a generous friend, and broke. Lawyer fees and restitution payments take almost everything he earns.
He reconnects with a woman he met in Geneva, Allyson DeWitt, who said she sometimes needs art experts. She’s purposefully vague about the nature of her business and the identity of her clients, but a few weeks later, a bike messenger gives Matt a package containing a flash drive, a packet of €1,100 in used bills, a well-used fake passport, and a European itinerary. Consumed with curiosity, lust for Allyson, and the need for cash, Matt flies to Europe and the adventure begins.
Charnes’s writing is full of Matt’s self-deprecating humor, breezy asides, and an occasional pleasing literary flourish. They cleverly elucidate Matt’s character, putting you squarely in his corner, as in: “The pressure from the fifty hundred-euro notes in my pocket eventually cuts off the blood flow to my better instincts.”
Even though he’s seriously back-footed by everything he does not know (and won’t be told) about his assignment, Matt gamely plows ahead. He’s aware that stolen artworks are being used to move large amounts of dirty money, since cash has become too easy for governments to track. Allyson’s assigned him a partner named Carson, a woman short on details and temper. They make an interesting pair, as they delve into this complicated scam. Matt and Carson each have skills the other lacks, which makes for a believable partnership, even if Matt is never quite sure whether he trusts her.
Author Charnes has developed a meticulously complex, rapid-paced plot, and some of the ways the scam works are briefly difficult to follow, but you never believe for a moment that he hasn’t thought the whole thing through. The subtitle of this book is The Dewitt Agency Files #1, which sets you up for the final scene, when Matt the bike messenger reappears with an envelope containing information for his next case. Can’t wait!