Following the events of Michigan Roll (1988), gambler and ex-con Tim Waverly has been hiding out in Florida for a year while the mob tracks him down over a little incident from the first book—the destruction of half a million dollars in drugs, and disruption of the mob’s profitable drug trade up Michigan’s tourist coast. Waverly’s gambling pal Bennie Epstein has collected their loose bills and heads north to pitch a deal to Dietz, the cold, calculating, and sadistic Chicago mafioso hunting for Waverly. Epstein and Waverly offer to pay the mob back, plus interest; everything’s square, and they walk away (alive). Dietz has other plans, and demands an extra $300,000 to cover damages, payable in two weeks. On top of that, he’s not planning to just walk away: with Waverly in his gunsights, his plan is to take the cash, see if the pair can scrape up the extra $300k, and then snuff them both anyways.
As coincidence has it, Waverly just bumped into his high-school sweetheart the other day. After getting invited to her husband’s meet-and-greet for the rich and famous, he found out about her husband’s secret deals: a backroom poker game involving an Arab prince who throws around millions in cash. That, he hopes, is his ticket out of this jam; otherwise there’s no way he’ll be able to come up with enough money in time. D’Marco Fontaine—the local hitman hired to shadow and ice Waverly—has made his presence continually known, tailing the gambler and keeping him off-balance. Of course, he has his own problems—one of Dietz’s lieutenants shipped his nephew off to Florida, ostensibly to learn something from a real cold killer… and said nephew, Sigurd Stumpley, is a slovenly slob whose presence disgusts Fontaine, the proverbial thorn in his side. His continual mistakes—and other outside interference—may cost Fontaine his perfect shot to end Waverly…
Thus begins another fast-paced, hard-boiled thriller, and already you can tell there’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of action heating up. Kakonis’ writing is well and hard-boiled; maybe not as bone-cutting sharp as in Michigan Roll, but it retains both the exhilarating pacing and deep characterization. It’s a fascinating look at life in the underworld, a grim portrait of desperate and broken men. Waverly himself is more desperate here than in the first book, with Fontaine putting the screws to him; he’s like a man on a tightrope, balancing his need to win enough cash to pay Dietz off with the rekindled relationship with his childhood crush. Gambling makes a center-stage appearance near the finale, and there’s some great poker sequences where Waverly needs to out-duel a bunch of wealthy bit-players, a cutthroat redneck, and an Arab prince. The tension is ratcheted up for an amazing and bloody finale, where all the plot threads—and various thugs—converge on Waverly and Epstein.
One of the aspects that made Michigan Roll a standout for me was its characters, namely the oddball pair of mafia enforcer thugs who’d pontificate, argue, wax philosophical, and turn into blood-curdling sadists, depending on the time of day. Here, we have a perfect odd couple: D’Marco Fontaine is a professional, priding himself on his regimen of diet and exercise, and infuriated that he let himself get talked into taking a hanger-on. Sigurd is a lazy, slobbish racist, just about nearly worthless as a mafia enforcer; he spends more time checking in with his mother back in Chicago, rambling on about his “brilliant” film and advertisement ideas, and bragging about his many overblown achievements. He ignores just about every piece of good advice (and every command) Fontaine issues, which leads to some of the most absurd screwball comedy you can find in a crime novel; seeing the two of them interact and even grow as characters is pure entertainment.
Double Down follows the same formula that made Michigan Roll a knockout read; it may not be as razor-sharp, but at times it’s more inventive, and Kakonis’ pacing really hits its stride. The expert characterization shines and the dialogue cracks like a whip: this is a novel that just oozes style and low-life atmosphere, a brutal and crass portrait of underworld desperation. Also, it’s great to see the gambler Waverly actually do quite a bit of gambling. If you like a lean, mean thriller in the vein of Elmore Leonard, Double Down is a safe bet. If you have yet to read Michigan Roll, look into that one; if you liked it, you won’t be disappointed by the first of two sequels.
I received an e-ARC from Brash Books and NetGalley in exchange for an open and honest review.