By Duane Swierczynski
St. Martin's Minotaur. 223 pp. $23.95
If you are partial to fast-paced thrillers that present this world as an unforgiving, blood-soaked wasteland, you should love Duane Swierczynski's first novel, "The Wheelman." This bittersweet slice of noir unfolds in Philadelphia, when a botched bank robbery leads to an ever-widening circle of retribution and death. Our hero -- he is somewhat less depraved than everyone else -- is Patrick Lennon, the wheelman of the title, Irish by birth, solitary by nature, who prides himself on being a nonviolent criminal. He does not rob banks; he just drives the car. But when an assortment of mobsters, crooked cops and greedy amateurs tries to steal his share of a $650,000 bank job, he does what a man must.
One reason the novel works so well is that Swierczynski honors Elmore Leonard's rule that writers should leave out the parts that readers will skip anyway -- scenery, weather, stuff like that. Thus unencumbered, "The Wheelman" explodes into nonstop action. At the outset, Lennon is parked outside a bank waiting for his two partners to emerge with the loot. But because of a security device, they become trapped in the bank's glass-walled, bulletproof vestibule. Lennon calmly backs the car into the glass and frees them. As they speed away, a woman and a baby carriage appear in their path. Lennon makes a split-second, Solomon-like decision -- he spares the baby, wishes the woman a quick recovery and rockets on. The robbers stash the $650,000 in a parked car for safekeeping and head for the airport, only to have a van appear out of nowhere and ram them. When Lennon comes to, two young men are stuffing his battered body down a pipe at a construction site. He is soon hanging upside down, naked and bleeding, with certain death below, but manages to free himself and kill the men. That leaves him with two goals: to find the money, which is gone when he returns to claim it, and to take revenge on whoever betrayed his carefully planned heist. And that's just the opening scenes -- then the pace picks up.
Lennon's revenge is complicated by the fact that one of the men he killed was the son of the local Russian mafia boss. He finds himself pursued by both the Russian and his counterpart in the Italian crime syndicate. Several crooked cops are also after him and the money. Another complication is that a sexy red-haired Irish lass named Katie, who may or may not be Lennon's lover (and may or may not have betrayed him), falls into the hands of the mobsters. Given all this provocation, Lennon has no choice but to kill a great many people.
And yet I found the violence unobjectionable, even amusing. This may be because I have developed an unhealthy tolerance for mayhem, but it's also because of the way the author handles the elimination of various villains. Swierczynski doesn't deal in the stomach-churning cannibalism of the Hannibal Lecter novels or in those gruesome autopsy scenes that Patricia Cornwell and others inflict on the unwary. His killings are brisk, matter-of-fact, potholes on the road of life. "Lennon squeezed once, and the guy's head sprayed apart." "He jabbed the pen into Andy's neck, aiming more toward the back so the blood wouldn't spray all over him." "One of them squirmed on the floor, and Lennon pumped a bullet into him." Sweet Katie is equally lethal. After pistol-whipping the Russian mobster, she finds herself chained to a pipe and facing serious indignities, but she manages to lure her captor into a compromising position, whereupon "she smashed her knee into his Adam's apple. It was the most effective way to kill a man with a single body part, be it the flat of a hand, an elbow, or a knee." Ah, those Irish girls.
These desperate characters are not without hopes, dreams and worldviews. Although Lennon dislikes violence, he thinks it a necessary rule of life that (to clean up his language a bit) if someone messes with you, you mess with them back, but worse. We aren't told about his childhood in Ireland or how he got to the United States (that boring stuff that Leonard warned against), but along the way he learned that "there was no help in this world. You were always lugging the load by yourself." The gangster's son who died with a pen in his neck had dreamed of being a rock star: "He was going to break out huge like Springsteen or Bon Jovi." A nasty ex-cop turns barroom theologian after Lennon burns down his house: "By his third boilermaker, the world seemed to make more sense. Sure, his house was burning . . . burnt . . . extinguished . . . but so what? That was why God made insurance." Swierczynski's novel, like those of Leonard, offers an undertow of humor beneath the churning sea of man's inhumanity.
Swierczynski is the editor of the Philadelphia City Paper and the author of "This Here's a Stick-Up," a nonfictional look at bank robbery. His knowledge of both the City of Brotherly Love and the mind-set of bank robbers helps make "The Wheelman" the delight it is.