Author: Duane Swierczynski

2011, Mulholland Books

Filed under: Thriller

Charlie Hardie, the star of comic book writer Swierczynski’s new trilogy of pulp thrillers, housesits for a living. He drinks bourbon, he watches old movies (nothing that was made in his lifetime) and he tries to forget his scarred, shattered history working as a consultant for the Philadelphia Police Department.

He arrives to his latest assignment, the three-story mansion of a movie composer, high in the Hollywood Hills one morning, and falls into his usual routine—checking the ingresses, the egresses, and the media-center situation—when a woman jumps out of the bathroom and hits him in the head with a microphone stand.

The woman, half-naked and scared out of her mind, is a famous movie star, and she’s being hunted by a secret society of covert assassins called the Accident People.

Who are these Accident People? Why do they want to kill the movie star? How’s Hardie going to save her?

That’s the premise and plot of this novel (not “the plot in a nutshell,” that’s the whole plot). The book itself delivers exactly what it promises: it’s ridiculous, fun, and entertaining. It has a whole lot of action and very little depth.

Hardie is a familiar modern archetype: the tough guy with the heart of gold and the checkered past. (He’s the guy Bruce Willis plays, always.) The movie star has looks and not much else. The team of assassins on their tails seems to be a shot at the movie industry (they call the hit “a production” and their code names refer to famous directors and actors), but it doesn’t have enough complexity to land clearly. The most diabolical aspect of the Accident People—that they appear to be figments of lunatics’ imaginations—never amounts to more than an obstacle for Hardie to hurdle.

In other words, this is a very simple book. The Accident People attack, Hardie defends. Repeat.

But then, the substance of Fun & Games doesn’t lie in its ingenuity or any kind of insight, it lies in the fact that Swierczynski has a craftsman’s talent for making essentially an extended shoot-out into a rollicking, compelling story.

The biggest reason this book satisfies is simply that Swierczynski doesn’t cheat. When Hardie faces a tough problem, he’s got to come up with an equally ingenious solution. He’s never saved by a bad guy’s gun malfunctioning, or by leaping off a building onto a truckbed full of pillow feathers that he didn’t know was there.

If there’s a way out, Hardie has to find it, and he has to make it happen. Furthermore, it costs him something. Every time Hardie gets hit, he gets hurt, and those dings and dents add up over the course of the book. He’s tough, but he’s not invincible.

That simple formula of intention, causation, and vulnerability keeps Fun & Games on its feet, despite its silly premise and a lot of other details that feel pretty dumb.

For instance, the Accident People can get whatever they want. They have connections everywhere and they have a guy they call (codenamed “Factboy” … ugh) who can exploit the Patriot Act on his smartphone and can find any piece of information in the world in a matter of minutes. All of that adds up to a pretty cheap way to raise the stakes.

Still, it’s called a “pulp” thriller for a reason: Swierczynski’s not going for reality, he’s going for entertainment and “cool” factor. On those scores, he succeeds. Fun & Games is a page-turner and a great book for the beach or an airplane. It doesn’t take much focus to engage with a shoot-em-up, and the roller-coaster ending makes the ride worth the time.

The next books in the trilogy come out in short order: #2 arrives this October and the series concludes next March. Judging from the half-a-cliffhanger ending, the three books are pieces of the same long story, but Fun & Games stands well enough on  its own.

Similar reads: The Wreckage, by Michael Robotham, for another simple thriller that doesn’t reach beyond its grasp; The Informationist, by Taylor Stevens; and Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith, is still my favorite thriller, possibly ever.

A review copy of this book was provided.