- - Thursday, March 10, 2016

ONCE A CROOKED MAN: A NOVEL

By David McCallum

Minotaur, $25.99, 352 pages

Professional hit men are all very well, but if you really want imagination in crime, find yourself a professional actor. That is the advice of David McCallum who of course is a professional actor.

He recommends someone like Harry Murphy who has experience in playing many roles and who uses his knowledge to bamboozle the brutal Bruschettis who have been living off illegal drugs for years. Mr. McCallum is a familiar face to television watchers of “NCIS,” and years earlier as Ilya Kuryakin on “The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and he writes as though he could match Harry’s wits in this rollicking comedy thriller. The book’s apt title echoes an old British nursery rhyme about a crooked man who walked a crooked mile and found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile. It is a part Harry was meant to play. He is an actor with a lot of experience but like most who make their living in the theater, he is now and again unexpectedly out of work, and coping with a low bank account despite the economy of living in a fifth floor walk-up in New York.



It is after a potentially unsuccessful audition that Harry finds himself in need of a restroom outside a Chinese restaurant where they won’t let him in. That is when he finds himself in an alley outside, where he also finds himself eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation among a formidable criminal group consisting of Enzo, Salvador and Max Bruschetti who are plotting to get out of 16 years in an illegal drug business in which they had been careful to keep no records. Their only problem is that they must get rid of some of their loyal employees whom they are, alas, dismissing as “dead meat.” But in the alley, Harry is taking careful notes with names and facts. He isn’t quite sure what he has unearthed but he has the feeling it may be more profitable than another audition.

What Harry does with his information is dangerous and almost puts an end to his life as well as his career but he takes the position that he is out of work anyway and he encounters several very pretty women so that compensates for the risks. Mr. McCallum has a genial and mischievous writing style and he cooks up a broth bubbling with misdeeds and murders and clearly doesn’t take most of it too seriously.

A Colonel Villiers is one of the potential victims of what the Bruschettis admit is a massacre and Harry decides to save his life despite the fact that the colonel is a nasty piece of work. This is one of the points at which Harry realizes that within recent hours he has been involved in two attempted murders and become a familiar face to people far more dangerous than those in his usual audiences. But he has also come into possession of a large sum of drug cash neatly packed in an old suitcase. As Mr. McCallum puts it, when Harry lifts the lid of the suitcase, the sound issuing from his lips “suggested to an elderly gentleman three rooms away that a hotel guest was in the throes of passion.”

Moving right along, Harry suddenly finds himself the prisoner of the comely Detective Sergeant Lizzie Carswell who assures him the police have been following him all the time. After a session with her in a bathtub Harry doesn’t care. And he finds himself in severe competition for Lizzie’s attentions with the rich and handsome drug smuggler Max. Harry faces numerous setbacks as Mr. McCallum’s plot spins off in many directions, but the characters are so entertaining that it doesn’t matter than you can’t always keep up with the action. Harry’s fate is no surprise, nor is the fact that he manages to keep the cash stashed away and he is even offered a new and promising audition as a sign that adventure pays as well as crime. Mr. McCallum is great fun and it is obvious why he is so engaging in the television thriller in which he plays a forensic expert. His sense of humor would fit the work of a man who digs into dead bodies.

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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