Tom Kakonis made a splash with his intense crime-thrillers in the late-’80s, early-’90s, including two novels about traveling gambler Timothy Waverly. After that, he dropped off the radar and struggled to get published thanks to the changing industry. The books went out of publication, declared minor classics by those in the know. But as luck would have it, Kakonis returned to writing in 2014—including a third (and final?) volume in the Tim Waverly series, and reprints of his earlier novels. The industry has changed once again, and now we have specialist publishers like Brash Books, the new crime publisher founded by Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman, operating under the… well, brash tagline of “We publish the best crime novels in existence.” (Their books are a curated collection of neglected award winners from the ’70s onward.) As a Michigander I’m enthused that Kakonis used a West Michigan setting since I once lived there, and grabbed an e-ARC from Brash Books in exchange for an open and honest review.
Ex-con and current cardsharp Timothy Waverly is heading leaving Florida for Northern Michigan getaway Traverse City. He has some half-baked ideas about seeing his son, maybe even stealing him away from his ex-wife, but instead gets drawn to seductive Midnight, sharing her bed and her troubles. She’s from out of town too, a wealthy Chicago debutante looking for a self-destructive brother who had the brilliant idea to double-cross a powerful Chicago mobster. Traverse City is a waypoint on organized crime’s cocaine-dealing empire, and the local hoods are ordered to make an example of those who try to double-deal. Midnight’s hunted by the mob’s hemorrhoidal hood, who sets the local toughs after her—Shadow, a pathological killer who delights in torture and rape, and Gleep, a hulking mound of Native American muscle. Waverly has backed himself into a tight spot, but he’s an adept player at this game; he knows when to bluff, when to call, and when to get the hell out.
Kakonis has earned plenty of comparisons to Elmore Leonard; indeed, there’s a good deal of similarity, though Kakonis is more like the lean and mean early Leonard, toughened up and faster-paced, but the same kind of portrait of desperate men…. to say nothing of the writing, all crackling dialogue and clipped prose with a rampant vocabulary. There’s a wry wit here, a rich sense of irony and some brilliant black humor—but Michigan Roll is also brutal and unforgiving, not a book for the fainthearted, with profanity and slurs thrown around and a rather grim sequence where somebody loses a hand just a hundred pages in. Kakonis does not explain or tell—the plot hits the ground running, so you grab on for dear life and formulate an idea of the plot via the ou manage to cling to. If Elmore Leonard is the Dickens of Detroit, does that make Tom Kakonis the Shakespeare of West Michigan? He makes great use of the local color and West Michigan white-bread, small-town setting.
Michigan Roll makes a convincing argument that Kakonis is one of the heirs to Leonard’s throne, a well-realized and deftly plotted tale of desperate underdogs. Waverly is a sympathetic character—former midwestern professor, ex-maximum security inmate, current card-counting gambler—but we only follow him as a PoV character for about half the book. We spend a smaller fraction of time with Midnight and Clay, which is a good thing as they both suffer from poor-little-rich-kid syndrome, too cold and self-centered for my tastes. No, the other half of the book follows the two hired goons Shadow and Gleep, prone to armchair philosophizing while they eyeball young women at the beach. As local muscle, intimidating and torturing to get what they want, neither is particularly likable—but both are well-drawn, with background flashbacks to show how and why they ended up as desperate underworld underdogs. They’re some of the high points in terms of Michigan Roll as a black comedy, their dark but comic discussions and snappy dialogue making these cretins a guilty pleasure to read.
Michigan Roll is ultra-hardboiled through and through—rough, lean, and brutal—yet deeply humane with its realistic (if unpleasant) characters. The writing is all crackling dialogue and clipped prose, trapping its violent and damaged characters in harrowing peril and bleak dark comedy. After reading this taut début I can see why Kakonis made such a splash: it’s so sharp and stylish I damn near cut myself. It’s not a book for the fainthearted, with more violence and profanity than has probably ever existed in West Michigan, and you may find yourself really enjoying the sections focusing on the two unpleasant heavies. If you like your thrillers intelligent, literate, but unforgiving, give Kakonis a try. As a storyteller of desperate underworld underdogs, Kakonis has few equals.