JUNIOR ELVISES makes it on to my list of top books of 2011 in part because it is witty, clever, and a good mystery. What makes it outstanding is the author’s ability to remind readers who were teenagersnin the sixties how very innocent we were until November 22, 196
Nothing is ever easy for Junior Bender. He is a burglar; everyone knows that. He is never violent, he never enters a home when people are present. Everyone knows that, too. He has a foolproof alibi for the time of the robbery. So why is he in a police station being accused of breaking into the home of a judge and attacking the judge’s wife? Detective Paulie DiGaudio lets Junior know that his alibi is no longer foolproof. “My name mean anything to you?” “Sure,” I said. “It’s a synonym for all that is admirable in law enforcement.” “Beyond that.” I said, “Philadelphia in the fifties. Imitation Elvises. Handsome Italian kids with tight pants and big hair.”
Those handsome kids were famous for fleeting moments but during those moments they made a lot of money and that money was managed by Vincent DiGaudio, Paulie’s uncle. The offer to Junior is straightforward. If he solves Vinnie’s problem, Paulie will make sure that alibi is foolproof again. Vinnie’s problem: something to do with murder.
Since his divorce, Junior has been living in a series of motel rooms. The motel of the month is Marge ‘n Ed’s North Pole, a Christmas themed business where the rooms, as much as possible, were identified by the names of Santa’s reindeer rather than numbers. The bright spot in Junior’s life is his daughter, Rina, a thirteen year-old computer whiz who can find her way into any place that has information Junior needs. She easily discovers that among the Little Elvises Vincent DiGaudio managed was Giorgio, a man-child of exceptional beauty who was completely devoid of any talent and was absolutely terrified every time he stepped on a stage. Giorgio was a shooting star that flashed across the television screen and the movie screen and then disappeared while on a movie project in Hawaii. Giorgio is gone but not forgotten; he has his own star on the music industry’s walk of fame. Vincent DiGaudio wants Junior to investigate that previously mentioned murder. Derek Bigelow, a reporter for every supermarket tabloid in the US, has been found dead, his body resting on Giorgio’s star. Vincent had made it known that he intended to kill Bigelow but someone got to him first. Vincent had a hit all set up for the next night. Now the police are going to be coming for him; his threats are coming back to haunt him.
In short order, Junior finds himself being chased by some murderous characters in a Humvee without any clue as to why. He meets Derek Bigelow’s wife, Ronnie, and before there is time to give it any thought, they become bedmates. And Marge, the owner of Junior’s motel of the month, comes to him, terrified, because her daughter Doris is missing. last seen with a decidedly unsavory character.
Junior’s life becomes dangerously complicated when he finds a note on his windshield – CALL IRWIN. Irwin is Irwin Dressler, a man of incredible power in the state of California. That he was in his nineties didn’t make his less dangerous. Irwin Dressler was ” The power broker, the man who made things happen, the guy with the secrets. The Wizard of Was.” Despite all that, Junior decides not to call him so Irwin sends some friends to bring Junior to him. Irwin doesn’t mind if Junior discovers who killed Bigelow but he doesn’t want a connection to be drawn from Bigelow to Vinnie DiGaudi. If Junior agrees to this plan Irwin will owe him a very big favor and Junior knows that isn’t something to be sneezed at.
As in all Timothy Hallinan’s novels, the characters, heroes, villains, and all the people in between, are perfect. Junior is not a hero in the truest sense of the word but when Junior gives his word, people know he can be counted upon to follow through on the promise. The rest of the characters are secondary in that, like CRASHED, LITTLE ELVISES is a Junior Bender book and make no mistake about it. Junior is the moral center of the books, honest as defined by his moral code. If Junior were a character in a fifties television Western, he would wear a white hat. Junior and Bret Maverick could be soul mates and the Maverick reference brings up something really interesting about the characters.
Hallinan uses the term “the Wizard of Was” to describe Dressler and as the title of a section of the story. Junior is thirty-eight years old but this book plays to the readers who remember the real “Little Elvises” who had their moments of glory on American Bandstand. We remember Maverick and Matt Dillon and the stories about the mob wars in New York and Chicago and Las Vegas. It was a more innocent time, those early teenage years, before all innocence was lost on November 22, 1963, a watershed moment for the world. Hallinan captures those days in the fifties when songs on the radio were a couple of minutes long and singers weren’t expected to set their own versions of DANTE’S INFERNO to music. Payola doesn’t seem like such a terrible crime fifty years later. He also reminds the reader that the important things don’t really change. In writing about the girls who screamed for the Little Elvises, he describes their devotion. “They were crushes, not love affairs.” Describes Justin Bieber and the Jonas Brothers for today’s tweens.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Tim Hallinan book if there weren’t more than a few lines that sneak up on the reader and evoke laughter. “Want to join Marge in a glass of vodka?” “Sure, it there’s room.” This one took me awhile – “…Arthur Love Johnson…used to be called Algae on account of his initials.” Then there is the word problem that I swear was on a test.
Hallinan has, again, written a story that is so much more than a good mystery. Buried in the funny lines and the character development are glimpses of life as everyone experiences it in one way or another. Be it Simeon, Poke, or Junior, Hallinan’s men are the good guys who do their best to do right. And Hallinan succeeds in writing some of the best books in the genre.
And he manages to tie up all the ends of all the stories in LITTLE ELVISES, making it a completely satisfying reading experience.
Like CRASHED, LITTLE ELVISES is only available as an e-book. Both Amazon and Barnes&Noble offer free downloads of programs that allow readers without a Kindle or Nook to purchase the books and read them on their PCs. No excuse not to buy these books for the ridiculously low price of 2.99 each.