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.

Armchair Adventures

In case you wonder what the *** mean in my reviews, there’s a key on the book reviews page. They’re a good guide to how much I liked a book—since my reviews leave open the possibility a read I found meh might suit someone else perfectly.

****The Dead Don’t Sleep
By Steven Max Russo—It has taken five decades for the long arm of retribution to reach halfway around the world and tap the shoulder of Frank Thompson. Today, Frank is a recent widower living in rural Maine, and he doesn’t talk about Vietnam, but the buddies of the American he shot there so many years ago have found him.

The three men are full of plans for tracking him down, and for the massive, highly illegal firepower needed for this mission, one fueled with alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. They’re all about Frank’s age, nearly 70, which is a stretch. I can imagine guys in their twenties and even thirties talking themselves into such a crazy plan. Yet the author makes clear the years haven’t added to these guys’ store of common sense or muted their violent tendencies.

From his home in New Jersey, Frank’s nephew Bill knows about the danger and wants to help. He has zero experience with the kinds of situations Frank has seen, and his indecision alone is enough to tell you he’d be a liability in any kind of showdown. “Stay home!” I kept telling Bill telepathically. He doesn’t listen.

This is Steven Max Russo’s second thriller. He’s an advertising executive and lives in New Jersey, which accounts for his solid descriptions of life here in the Garden State.

*****The Wild One
By Nick Petrie – This is Nick Petrie’s fifth thriller featuring PTSD-afflicted Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Peter Ash, and it retains all the energy of his earlier works. Ash’s old war-buddy seeks his help in locating an eight-year-old boy, who disappeared a year earlier from his Washington, DC, home, after witnessing his mother’s murder. The kidnapper is most likely the boy’s own father, the presumed killer, and he’s most hiding out with his tight-knit family in remote northern Iceland.

The mother, Sarah, ran a computer security business. On a client’s servers, she discovered career-ending evidence of criminality among Washington’s political class. She sets up a mirror server with an unbreakably long encryption key preserved in only one form, in the photographic memory of her son Óskar. The bad guys want it.

Ash has plenty of antagonists, aside from his internal demons. There’s the mysterious crew following him: do they want him to find Eric and Óskar? Or not? There is Erik’s paranoid extended family, not averse to ensuring their privacy with violence. There is the head of the Icelandic Hjálmar, relentless in trying to bring Peter in. But perhaps his greatest adversary is Iceland’s brutal, dead-of-winter weather. A more apt metaphor would be difficult to find. So, throw on a couple of sweaters, make yourself a cup of something hot, and settle in for a wild ride.

If there’s anything to object to in Petrie’s work, it’s a tendency to reach a little too far in the closing pages. In this book, a final act of violence puzzled me, because it came out of the blue. But that wasn’t enough to negate everything solid that had gone before. Do note that Ash is now a wanted man and has no passport or I.D. It will be interesting to see how he gets back to Oregon. I’m hoping Petrie plans to tell me.

Photo: Sasint Tipchai for Pixabay