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David Levien
13 Million Dollar Pop
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2011

Doubleday / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-385-53253-2
Publication Date: 08-09-2011
296 Pages ;$24.95
Date Reviewed: 08-28-2011

Index:  Mystery  General Fiction

Life wears us down at the edges, smudging away what makes us unique until we succumb to the pull of the humdrum. Our aspirations, our hopes, our uncompromising morals are carefully negotiated away as we seek the solace of comfort, to protect those we love and shelter them from the storms we might be willing to subject ourselves to. As much as we are sold the virtues of compromise in others, in our own lives it seems a bit more bitter than we are led to believe.

David Levien's Frank Behr novels, 'City of the Sun,' 'Where the Dead Lay' and now '13 Million Dollar Pop' (Doubleday / Random House ; August 8, 2011 ; $24.95) have charted a unique path in noir fiction. Levien knows how to bring on the pathos, and the darkness, but ratchets back so that none of what he writes seems affected. Frank Behr is not just a PI; he's an everyman who is trying to work out his economic and emotional destiny in a world where both are threatened easily and often. As '13 Million Pop' begins, Behr finds himself in an unusual and unpleasant position. But he also knows that he should feel lucky. Frank Behr, one-time standalone PI, is employed.

Levien's novel has a naturalistically loose feel to it. His prose is closely written, and feels sparse, almost as if words have been removed after the fact. The words disappear and within the first chapter Behr sees his routine bodyguard job turn into a finely-written shootout. Someone is trying to kill Bernard "Bernie Cool" Kolodnik, and Frank's quick response saves both their lives.

With prose that is sharp, smart and generally invisible, Levien's plot and characters quickly take center stage. Frank Behr is a wonderfully conflicted man. He's moved in with his very pregnant girlfriend Susan. He has responsibilities to her and their child, complicated by his past history. And while he'd prefer to continue his work in the lone-wolf world as a solo PI, he needs the health care and continuity that's provided by the Caro Group, a 21st century version of Continental Ops.

But Behr has a talent for undermining himself no matter what the circumstances. All he has to do is not investigate the shooting he was involved in only because he was doing a co-worker a favor. Levien's novel is a pitch perfect examination of how economic uncertainty undermines relationships in tough times, with the bonus of a compelling contemporary crime fiction plot.

That economic uncertainty is everywhere in the novel, and Levien uses this to create a large cast of very memorable characters that resist all stereotyping. Bernie Cool proves to live up to his name; he's actually a good guy, written against type. It's a very effective piece of work. His chief advisor, Shugie Saunders, is not such a good guy. It's not that he's bad. But he wants that which he cannot have, in this case, as is often the case, a woman far too young for him.

Lowell Gantcher, Bernie's one-time real-estate partner, is the perfect portrait of a man in above his head, pulled down by the same tide that is tugging on Frank. Waddy Dwyer is in town for some work that he's generally quite good at, but he's finding the Midwest more difficult than he expected. And Frank's boss, Karl Potempa, is not so happy with Frank as he might be. Levien is a master when it comes to using his tough prose to create and manage a cast of characters. He mixes up a potently memorable crew.

Once these people start to embark upon their generally conflicting plans and agendas, Levien knows how to dole out the pleasurable pain. Unlike many writers, he is able to keep his story tense without becoming overwrought. Everything is thoroughly believable. There's a very naturalistic feel to these stories. Without seemingly overtly literary or overly topical, '13 Million Dollar Pop' does have the documentary-like feel of social realism that makes the increasingly terrorizing plot all the more compelling. Levien helps propel his story with a background that is literally out of the local crime section of mid-western newspapers. The facts inform the fiction and keep it fresh.

David Levien's third Frank Behr novel is engaging and compelling beyond the definitions of genre. It has the darkness of a noir with a tense, page-turning plot, but the off-hand feel of a heart-felt examination of what happens to real people in otherwise undistinguished cities when the economy goes to hell. It's a novel of intense sympathy for everyone involved. We're all in our world together and Levien manages to make us feel the same way about his world. Reading '13 Million Dollar Pop' offers the reader a 13 million dollar jolt for the price of a hardcover novel. In these shaky times, that's one hell of a good investment. We'll call it entertainment with the understanding that enlightenment is for the Bernie Cools of this world. The rest of us are hoping to make it to the next paycheck.

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