WAY PAST LEGAL
By Norman Green
HarperCollins. 256 pp. $24.95
LIKE A CHARM
A Novel in Voices
Edited by Karin Slaughter
Morrow. 336 pp. $21.95
The narrator of "Way Past Legal," Manny Williams, is 28, an ex-convict, a serious bird-watcher, a thoughtful man when circumstances permit and the father of a 5-year-old boy. He lives in Brooklyn, has tattoos from his wrists to his shoulders and knows nothing about his origins: "I never knew my parents, some sanitation guys fished me out of the trash in front of a building in Williamsburg." His youth was spent in foster homes and institutions where he learned to fight to survive. Books were available in one of his foster homes, however, which helps account for his intellectual side. By profession he is a nonviolent burglar -- he never carries a gun -- but as the novel opens he has teamed up with an armed robber named Rosey to rob some Russians who are running a stock scam. The robbery goes smoothly, but their troubles begin when they find they've stolen more than they expected, nearly $2 million in cash. The three guys they'd hired to be lookouts start demanding more money, whereupon Rosey kills them. Manny fears he might be next, so he takes preemptive action -- he steals the money and heads for Maine, where he imagines he will start a new life.
First, however, he has to claim his son, Nicky. The boy was born while Manny was in prison, and as for his mother: "She got into crack while I was away, she was dead by the time I got out, the state had Nicky, and that was that." Manny kidnaps his adoring son from the foster home where he's living, and together they head north. It is a premise of the novel that Nicky is a beautiful and charming child whom adults find irresistible. In northern Maine, Manny's car breaks down, and he is befriended by an old couple who take him and Nicky in. Along the way, however, Manny makes an enemy of a nasty deputy sheriff and attracts the attention of the sheriff. The sheriff, however, cuts Manny some slack after Nicky becomes the best pal of the sheriff's mentally handicapped son. The Maine characters' dialogue is given more or less literally, as in: "The lobstahmen up here use the honah system."
As you might expect, the Russian gangsters want their $2 million back and soon make their way to Maine. Manny knows he should flee to Canada, but he hates to leave his new friends, plus he doesn't want his son to think he's a coward. Norman Green's plot is, upon examination, more than a little corny: Criminal Redeemed by Son and Noble Maine Folk. Still, Manny is an interesting character, whose story spins out briskly and suspensefully, and the portrait of Maine is nicely focused. Green is described as having been a truck driver, construction worker and plant engineer. Somewhere in there he also learned plenty about the world of crime. No doubt he had his reasons for this detour to Maine, but next time I hope he'll keep his criminals closer to their native habitats.
The publisher calls "Like a Charm" a novel, but that is stretching things a bit. Let's call it a series of related stories by some talented writers from both sides of the Atlantic. Karin Slaughter, the young Georgia author of "Blindsighted" and "Kisscut," wrote the opening and closing stories and edited the rest. In her opening story, set in Georgia in 1803, a frontiersman covets an Indian woman, is rewarded by a medicine man's curse and meets an unhappy end. The Indian woman's charm bracelet, which embodies the curse, becomes the link that unites these stories, as it passes from owner to owner over two centuries.
In Emma Donoghue's "Vanitas," the bracelet is found in the attic by a girl living on a plantation in Louisiana and brings bad luck both to her and the young slave who attends her. The girl, Aimee, says of her native state: "It's good for making money, but not for living; that's why Napoleon sold it so cheap to the Americans." Two of the best stories are by the English novelists Peter Robinson and John Harvey. In Robinson's, the charm bracelet leads an African American GI to be falsely convicted of rape in London during World War II. In Harvey's, it causes a jazz musician to run afoul of a jealous and very nasty gangster.
Lee Child, an Englishman who now lives in this country, contributes a wry story that turns on a dilemma the police face: If you take too many cases, your rate of convictions goes down. Thus, "You avoid the cases you know you can't solve, and you jump all over the cases you know you can solve." Other writers represented include Laura Lippman, Mark Billingham, Denise Mina, John Connolly and Jane Haddam. If this collection is the literary equivalent of Mickey Rooney's "Hey, kids, let's put on a show," it's also a diverting introduction to 15 of the more interesting crime writers now at work.