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I got up and stared at myself in the bathroom mirror, first thinking about how great I looked, then thinking about how the cops weren’t going to catch me.

Yet another Hard Case Crime novel from my vacation crime fiction binge earlier in the year. Jason Starr is a frequent name in the Hard Case lineup, from the Bust/Slide series he did with Ken Bruen, and I thought I’d give Starr a try before I got around to those other Hard Cases. Originally published in the U.K. by No Exit Press in 2000, it became Hard Case Crime 056 in 2009.

HCC-056 – Fake I.D. – Jason Starr – 2000

Tommy Russo is a wannabe actor working as a bar bouncer in New York City, but he desperately wants to be more. A chance meeting at the race track sets him down a road of no return: the road to being a part owner of a racehorse… if he can pony up ten grand. Tommy’s job isn’t exactly raking him in the big bucks, and as his acting opportunities dry up, he sets out to get the money, any way he can…

This is a guy who has a stable, if dead-end, job, and several hot women after him, yet his desire to buy a race-horse and make a name for himself means he’ll sacrifice everything in the attempt to get there. There’s really only one way for Tommy to go: down, taking the fast, hard and ugly route. The novel is the chronicle of Tommy’s fall, told from the perspective of Tommy himself.

Fake I.D. falls into that sub-genre of crime fiction akin to a moral fable, where a doomed protagonist makes bad decisions in life and spirals forever downwards. These tales deal with an aspect of greed: usually either adultery, or as with Fake I.D., gambling. I’m not a huge fan of the style, but I have to say, this one did everything right: Tommy is a very sympathetic protagonist, and despite his flaws, he’s actually really likeable. His motives are understandable, and things build in a slow, incremental pace… At least, until around the middle of the novel, where his true colors come out, and his desperate actions spiral out of control.

What makes Fake I.D. work is the first-person narrative and the characterization of Tommy: you get into his mind, follow his hopes and dreams, and you really do root for the guy. Of course, his dreams are always dead-set against reality: he may know he’s betting on the winning horse, but subconciously, he and we both know he’s just throwing his money away. The first-person narrative is a dead-on sell for me. You start to realize how unreliable a narrator he is when he defends his half-baked desperate deeds later in the book, acting like he’s on top of the situation when things are wildly out of his control. This makes looking back as his earlier, more forgivable acts an eye-opener, casting Tommy in a new light and putting him into perspective.

So while the doomed character/moral fable isn’t my favorite crime story style, I ended up really liking Fake I.D. Having grown to like Tommy, it was even more excruciating when he went off the deep end in his desperate scrabble for cold hard cash, destroying himself and everything he held dear in the process.

Fake I.D. is a seriously good little book, a testament to the adage that there are no bad Hard Case Crime novels. Starr’s writing is top-notch, tightly-paced with a firm handle on things; this is spot-on vintage noir circa 2000. This is a fantastic look at the darker side of human nature, a deep and flawed character written by an expert hand. I couldn’t put it down if I tried.