I recently read An Ordinary Decent Criminal by Michael Van Rooy. It has a great cover — dark, dark blue with the title in somewhat flawed white block letters, the author’s name in also somewhat flawed red block letters, and the distant outlines of a little night-lit town along the bottom. Presumably the photo shows us the sleepy berg the novel’s title character will be menacing. Winnipeg. Yeah, that seems about right. I’ve never been to Winnipeg, and probably you haven’t either, but we’d both guess that it would look like this. And Winnipeg seems like exactly the quiet type of place a violent ex-con might settle down if he was trying to clean up his act, make his marriage work, and raise his infant son in peace and safety. Which, it turns out, is exactly what our eponymous narrator Montgomery Haaviko has decided to do, and Monty really does seem like an ordinary decent criminal, though the local sheriff labels him with that sobriquet somewhat facetiously. As a narrator, Monty is charming and instantly likable. You care about him and want him to do well.
The trouble, as the jacket blurb from Michael Koryta suggests, presents itself on the very first page. Despite our hero’s stated desire for a nice boring life, this novel (in Koryta’s words) “would have Quentin Tarantino smiling from page one.” Regardless of how you feel about Michael Koryta and Quentin Tarantino, the blurb gives you a good idea of whether this book will suit your tastes. Other reviewers have also drawn the comparison between Van Rooy’s novel and Tarantino’s films, though I would suggest that ultimately a better comparison might be to an Elmore Leonard character attempting to live on Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane. Monty has an undeniably troubled past and he still harbors dark impulses and an encyclopedic knowledge of criminal skills, but he’s a thoroughly sympathetic character who really seems like he’s trying to be good. But Winnipeg (in Van Rooy’s version of it) proves to be full of nasty nosy neighbors and corrupt cops. Monty has to turn bad again just to survive on these Canadian mean streets.
Overall, this book is a lot of fun, and I’d recommend it with four (out of five) stars. The narrative voice works. You care about Monty and want to hear him tell his story, even when you’re not sure if you should entirely believe him. In the first half of the book, the pacing can be uneven – it drifts into too much detail about the Haaviko home and Monty’s attempt at domestic bliss – but things pick up in the second half and the climax of the tale delivers the goods (with just a couple minor false moves in the storytelling). I was very pleasantly surprised that ODC turned out to be one of those debut novels capable of getting you very excited not only about the book you’ve just read but also quite eager to see more from the novelist. Luckily, although this first novel just came out in the US, Van Rooy turns out to be a Canadian author with three books under his belt so there are already two more books waiting to be published in this country. Of course if you have more money than patience, like one reader I know, you can track down the next two novels down and pony up for shipping to get them sent to your door from their Canadian publisher. There are worse ways to spend your hard-earned money, and you can bet Monty’s continuing adventures will keep us well entertained.
If you like your crime novels hard-boiled with plenty of wry, dark humor and unpredictable twists, you should read Van Rooy. You won’t be disappointed.