Gunshine State by Andrew Nette is a heist thriller set in Queensland, Melbourne and Thailand. Think Richard Stark’s Parker, Garry Disher’s Wyatt, and Wallace Stroby's Crissa Stone. Add a touch of Surfers Paradise sleaze and a very dangerous stopover in Asia.
I have a lot of respect for writers who do heist thrillers. For one thing, it seems to me that anyone who writes non-comical ones labors under the long shadow of Richard Stark and his Parker novels. In 24 pitiless books about his professional thief, Stark brought the hardboiled heist novel form pretty close to the peak of perfection, and any author who sets out to tell a tale even remotely like a Stark novel knows that savvy crime fiction readers will be making comparisons between their work and the series from the master.
Of course, in the world of crime fiction, this kind of comparison making is not unique to heist thrillers. A person who writes a certain kind of private eye novel likely will start hearing the words “Hammett” and “Chandler” bandied about. But private eye novels, despite the recurrence of basic patterns, leave space for much variation. The pleasure for the reader lies in discovering how the writer uses this space to tweak, revel in, and expand familiar tropes.
The heist novel is more limited. Is it, in its way, the sonnet of crime fiction? Certain requirements must be met for it to be an effective heist story. Every heist novel I’ve read holds the reader’s attention through one or both of two ways:
- A focus on process. We follow how the heist is planned and executed. The more dangerous the robbery and the more ingenious the plan to do it, the more engrossing the story for the reader.
- No matter how well planned the heist is, no matter how skillfully executed, something during its undertaking or after it is completed goes wrong. What follows—the fallout from a screw-up or the consequence of a betrayal—will be the rest of the book. This is an obvious point. If nothing goes wrong or nobody betrays anyone else, where does the story go after the actual heist is completed? The reader knows something will go wrong. The reader is waiting for that moment to happen. And yet, the writer has to provide it.
The heist novel, in other words, is more constricted than other crime fiction forms, so one judges these books less on freshness and originality than on—and this seems appropriate—execution. Did the novel, even if going through moves quite familiar to the reader, keep that reader zipping through the pages and in suspense? What about the characters? With the characters, and the idiosyncrasies they may have, the writer does have the freedom to cut loose. Were the characters compelling? If the answer is yes on all counts, the book worked.
Andrew Nette’s Gunshine State begins in a territory right out of a Michael Mann film, with a crouching man in a back office using a power drill “on a green metal safe, the size of a three-drawer filing cabinet.” We learn that we’re in South Australia and that one Gary Chance is involved in the heist, serving as lookout for the safecracker.
Action very much is character in these kinds of novels, and the concise introduction we get to Chance tells us we are dealing with a pro. He’s calm under pressure, not fazed by gunfire, and knows when to cut his losses. He is also an ex-military guy, having served a couple years in Afghanistan—though his main job there was as a truck driver, usually “behind rows of razor wire and sand bags.”
At loose ends after the office heist goes south, Chance signs up to be part of a team aiming to rob a rich Filipino—the son of a prominent Filipino gangster—who will be coming to the coastal area of Surfers Paradise in Queensland with loads of money. The Filipino comes to relax, party with women not his wife, and, most of all, play poker. He plays cards in casinos and in privately organized games.
The security he brings with him to Australia, where he feels safe, is minimal, so the group planning to rob him doesn’t foresee great difficulties. There are several people in the group, including two women who will play integral parts. Despite a reservation or two about the plan, Chance hears the others out as they explain it, and, in the end, he cannot resist an opportunity for a crack at a huge score.
It’s a basic set-up. Everyone on the team has a specific role to play. The mechanics of the heist are not that complicated, so the tension derives from whether Chance can trust the people he’s working with and whether everything about the robbery and the motivation behind it is exactly as it seems. Of course the answer to both these questions turns out to be “no,” and the expected double cross happens. A wounded Chance has to go on the run.
Gunshine State is well-constructed. Andrew Nette is a connoisseur of all manner of pulp and hardboiled fiction, and he knows exactly which beats to stress and which screws to turn to keep his tale moving. The pace is fast, the narrative momentum steady. He tells us just enough about the characters’ pasts to give them weight as people, and he interweaves this exposition with the forward action smoothly.
The action goes from Australia to Thailand, and as he showed in his first novel, Ghost Money, set in Cambodia, Nette is adept at evoking a sense of place. He knows Thailand, has clearly traveled there, and the smells, sights, and noises of urban Thailand are all made vivid. Like in a classic film noir, there are many scenes set in sweaty bars, and the descriptions of these places are wonderfully visual:
On a small stage to his right, an overweight man in a tight fitting T-shirt crooned a Thai pop song. Eyes closed, microphone clasped in both hands, the singer ignored the reverb and distortion from old speakers. “Happy New Year” in gold tinsel letters was strung on a piece of string across the wall behind him.
A revolving glitter ball in the middle of the ceiling sent shards of light marching languidly around the room. Chance looked at the way the shapes played on the soft brown skin of the woman next to him, the reflection on the sequins of her polyester halter-top. She had a lean, hard body, probably gained from a previous life working in a rice paddy or hauling nets on a trawler on the Gulf of Thailand. She gave him the occasional bored grin, her slightly crooked teeth a white slash across her dark features, otherwise stared into the space in front of her.
Many characters maneuver for position, Chance takes time to recover his health and plot revenge against the man who wronged him, and there are police on the hunt for those responsible for the bloodbath that the Queensland robbery ended up being. This is the heist aftermath part of the story, and it makes up the greater part of the book.
Perhaps as a nod to Richard Stark (and David Goodis of Dark Passage), Nette has Chance undergo plastic surgery so he can more easily evade capture from his enemies while he is searching for his quarry. Though Nette allows Chance a little romance, we know that no amorous entanglement is going to distract him from going after his target. He has to return to Melbourne, Australia to find the man, and the final section of the novel plays out briskly and colorfully, with a tour through a seamy side of the city.
If there’s never much doubt about how the book will end, well, that’s fine. As I say, it’s not so much for invention or the unexpected that one goes to a heist novel. Rather, it’s for the satisfaction of seeing certain tropes employed well, and in Gunshine State, Andrew Nette does just that.
He leaves no loose ends dangling, but he does leave you with an intriguing sense that you’ve only started to learn about what makes Gary Chance tick. There is, in what seems a purposeful way, a quality of withholding to the book. I knew enough about Gary Chance to be interested in him, but I suspect he has depths not explored yet. I’d definitely like to get to know him better.
Will the author oblige and give us more of him?
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Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His most recent book is the genre-blending noir\fantasy novella Jungle Horses, available from Broken River Books.
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