Criminal Enterprise by Owen Laukkanen is the second thriller in the Stevens and Windemere series (available March 21, 2013).
When first you meet Carter Tomlin, you assume he’s the protagonist of Owen Laukkanen’s new novel, Criminal Enterprise. You assume this because to think otherwise would be ludicrous. You sympathize with Carter. Empathize with him, even:
In Carter Tomlin’s world, a man provided for his family. He’d never considered himself a violent person. He wasn’t a drug addict or a gambler, didn’t cheat on his wife or his taxes. Until the layoff, he was a respectable man. A husband and a father and a decision-maker at the firm, a corner-office man on the executive track.
In Tomlin’s mind, real men dealt with adversity. They didn’t complain or talk about fairness. They didn’t take handouts; they solved their own problems. They provided.
Carter Tomlin? He’s a good man. An honest man. A man who’s trying his damnedest to take care of his family, but who just can’t seem to catch a break. He’s drowning, and he’s starting to pull his wife and children down with him, so you almost can’t blame him when he pulls his first heist:
He looked around the bank as he waited to talk to the loan officer. The tellers, the customers, all of them living their lives while he watched them from the margins, an invalid. An impotent man, a failure.
He could already predict the loan officer’s response. He glanced at the bank tellers again, at the customers cashing their paychecks. The robbery idea seemed to worm its way into his brain. You could do it, he thought, searching almost reflexively for the security cameras. Four of them, no, five. The bank didn’t even have a security guard.
You could rob this bank, he thought. Easy.
Tomlin thought about Carver and Lawson, both of them buying up Xboxes and diamond earrings for Christmas. He saw Becca’s face on Christmas morning. Heather’s and Madeline’s. He saw the house up for sale, the cars repossessed. He thought about walking into that loan officer’s little room and begging for more money he couldn’t afford.
Forget that, he thought.
He looked in once more at the loan officer in his office—a skinny, balding man with thin glasses and an ill-fitting shirt. Then he turned and walked out to the parking lot. Twenty-five minutes later, he walked back through the bank doors, wearing a clumsy Walmart disguise and clutching his note.
This time, he walked out with cash.
In fact, you find yourself thinking that maybe—just maybe—if you were unlucky enough to wind up in Carter’s position yourself, you’d do the same thing. An act of desperation. Of altruism, even.
Unfortunately for Carter, though, that first desperate, altruistic act? It’s not enough. The amount with which he absconds is a mere pittance. He still doesn’t have a job, and the bills just keep on coming. So you really can’t blame him for pulling that second job, either. Or that third:
Two scores, he’d pulled. Scared the shit out of himself and hadn’t even made five grand. The risks just weren’t worth the rewards, not at these stakes. He kept looking for work. Called old friends, shared his story. Whatever you have, he told them. Pay me what you can. I need something right now, anything.
His friends shook their heads. Couldn’t meet his eyes. Picked up the lunch tab and disappeared into their offices. Finally, someone took him aide. Dan Rydin, at North Star Investors. They’d played hockey together in college. “Carter,” Rydin said. “You’re just—you look desperate, man.”
“I am desperate,” Tomlin told him. “I have a family to feed.”
Rydin looked him up and down. “I mean your suit, your shoes. Your whole personality. You look like you’re a bounced check away from giving hand jobs for cab fare.”
“Fuck you,” said Tomlin. “You think this is funny?”
Rydin held up his hands. “No offense, man. I really wish I could help.”
Rydin promised to try and send some freelance work Tomlin’s way. No guarantees, though. In the meantime, Becca’s teaching gig was about to expire. The kids wanted Santa Claus to bring them a Wii.
Short of packing up his balls and declaring bankruptcy, Tomlin only had one real choice if he wanted his family to survive.
Bank robbery, and no more petty shit this time. It was time to get his hands on a gun.
You actually discover you’re rooting for him to succeed; the man’s just trying to survive, after all.
But then it becomes evident that maybe survival’s not the only reason Carter Tomlin likes robbing banks:
Tomlin settled into a rhythm. A few days a week doing taxes for senior citizens, a couple contract jobs for friends at big firms. A robbery every few weeks, when the money got low.
Or, more and more, whenever the mood struck him. It wasn’t just about the money anymore. Not even close. It was about the excitement, the power, the quick jolt of electricity he felt when the pretty tellers wilted at the sight of his gun. It was the same thrill he’d once felt when he walked through the office, watching the worker drones stiffen at their cubicles, knowing how the room’s collective sphincter had tightened the moment he walked through the door. It was power. Control. Robbing banks filled the void while it paid off his mortgage. And nobody had figured him out.
And just like that, Carter makes the transition from protagonist to villain. He finds he gets off on the thrill, and starts acting recklessly:
“You can get us in there?” he asked Tricia.
“The boys know me.” She winked at him. “They all want in my pants.”
Tomlin looked at her again, those big eyes, that ingénue smile. She can get us in there, he thought. She can get in anywhere. He turned to Dragan. “Keep the engine running.”
Tricia frowned. “You want to do it tonight, boss? I thought we were just scoping it out. Getting a feel for the game.”
“This is your game,” Tomlin said. “You’re not ready to take it?”
“I’m ready,” she told him. “I’m worried about you, is all. We’ve been here twenty minutes and you’re ready to run in there like a cowboy.”
He looked at her. “So you’re scared.”
“Fuck you,” she said. “You want to do this, let’s do it. If we’re smart we sit on it a week, though. That’s all I’m saying. The money’s not going anywhere.”
Tomlin looked out at the warehouse again. Next week, he thought. I’ll be some working stiff next week. He leaned into the backseat and reached for the guns. “I have a fucking machine gun,” he said. “What do I care about smart?”
You go from liking the guy, rooting for the guy, empathizing with the guy, to being downright horrified that you ever felt that way—to feeling dirty and wrong for having identified with this lawless psychopath:
Tomlin watched the city approach in the distance. Then he glanced back at Tricia again. All fun and games until someone loses a life.
He’d imagined he would feel horrified, the first time he killed. He’d imagined he would feel sick with remorse. Instead of remorse, though, he felt numb. Detached. Hell, if anything, he felt good.
Tomlin turned away from Tricia and stared out the window again. Felt an electric rush course through his body. He watched the night blur past and listened to Tricia hyperventilate in the backseat, and he thought about the survivors and wished he’d killed them all.
If you ask me, that’s the true genius of this book. Criminal Enterprise is a page-turner, to be sure; Owen Laukkanen never stop raising the stakes, and his protagonist-turned-villain, Carter Tomlin, never stops pushing the envelope. But the thing that makes this story great is just how at home Laukkanen makes the reader feel inside Carter’s head—and then just how guilty and twisted he makes you feel for ever having gotten comfortable in such a thoroughly disturbing place.
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Katrina Niidas Holm loves mysteries. She lives in Maine with her husband, fabulously talented pulp writer Chris F. Holm, and a noisy, noisy cat. She writes reviews for Crimespree Magazine and The Maine Suspect, and you can find her on Twitter.