Review: Second Story Man by Charles Salzberg

Second Story Man by Charles Salzberg is a thrilling novel that develops into a cat-and-mouse contest between the two lawmen and a master burglar (available March 26, 2018).

I love a good no-good thief.

Now, I am also inordinately fond of Bernie Rhodenbarr, Lawrence Block’s Burglar who will rob you blind but may also solve your murder if he stumbles on your still-warm corpse during a job. But even Bernie usually does so because he’s been blamed for it, not out of the goodness of his larcenous little heart. If you’ve ever been robbed or burgled, you know that the violation is a lasting wound. Even if you can afford to lose what was taken, knowing that a stranger was in your home pawing over your things is hard to forget. So I’m not a fan of making fictional thieves honorable—or worse, angels with sticky fingers.

They don’t have to be murderous, though the basis for one of my favorite movies, Thief, was home invader Frank Hohimer (pseudonym of thief John Seybold), author of The Home Invaders. In the movie, he cut through safes with thermal lances; in reality, they broke into rich people’s homes and stuck a gun in their faces—and in one case, allegedly raped their daughter. Not quite as romantic. I don’t want to read a sympathetic story about thieves like that. Parker, who wouldn’t work with a rape-o like that, is much more palatable.

Charles Salzberg paints his heroes and villains in shades of gray but doesn’t give us that typical thief who’s not a bad guy. Francis Hoyt is definitely a bad guy—a narcissist and borderline psychopath who just happens to excel at burgling rich homes and specializing in American silver. I would have welcomed some more detail on his targets and the market for antique silver, but this thriller is all about the bizarre triangle between Hoyt, retired cop Charlie Floyd, and Miami cop Manny Perez, who was shamed by Hoyt and wants to take him down.

Floyd is a friend of Perez's and lost in his new retirement. Most retired police in the northeast take a new job in security consulting while collecting their pension, but Floyd is bored, so he takes the job. He was a homicide detective and thought robbery would be too pedestrian for him, but he finds his match in Hoyt. And as Sherlock would say, the game’s afoot.

You want to know our dirty little secret? Cops lie. They lie to perps. They lie to their superiors. They lie to their wives. They lie to their kids. They lie to other cops. They lie to themselves.

In other words, they’re no different from anyone else.

You work in law enforcement long enough you become cynical. That’s not a maybe that’s a certainty. You believe nothing. You trust no one. Everyone is guilty till proven innocent, not the other way around. You have to think that way. Otherwise you could never do your job. I know it’s not the way it’s supposed to be, but when you get down to it, our job is to prove you innocent. If we can’t, then chances are you’re the one we’re looking for.

Francis Hoyt is a compelling character despite his flaws. He’s short-tempered and has a huge chip on his shoulder from growing up with a big, abusive drunken father. I found this a little cliché—do writers think that only working-class parents hit their kids?—but I let it go. Hoyt is the driver of the plot, leaving Miami to follow the snowbirds home to loot their silver. He keeps a couple of girlfriends and safe houses, and he usually operates very smart. But Perez nearly nabbed him, and neither can let it go. Like any narcissist, Hoyt loves talking about himself, and his chapters read true—like you would hear if you had the misfortune of interviewing one of these psychopaths in a prison cell. Me, me, me. All day long. Salzberg is skilled enough to keep it entertaining:

Rich people think they’re invulnerable. They’re so fucking arrogant and full of their damn selves. It’s like they never heard of the word privacy: Some of them even go out and hire fucking publicists to make sure they get into the media. They invite the press into their homes and let them take photographs of every fucking room. When I’ve finished researching, I know their lifestyles, their habits, and the layout of their houses. Thanks, assholes. Why not mail me a fucking blueprint while you’re at it? Maybe I ought to send them a fucking thank you note.

Some of them brag about their alarm systems, about how state-of-the-fucking-art and impenetrable they are. The more impenetrable they claim they are the more of a challenge they are to me. I haven’t found one yet I can’t beat. I don’t think I ever will.

Manny Perez is a Cuban-American, and at first, his habits of speaking in stilted English and always saying a subject’s full name are a little grating. But the character fleshes out fully and is the most enjoyable of the bunch. He’s effective and straight-laced, unlike Charlie Floyd, the Connecticut Cowboy, who is more than willing to bend the rules and use threats to get what he wants. Like Hoyt, he is very realistic, a driven hunter of men who will bully people to get what he wants.

As in Heat—to which the book has been compared—we see the similarities of those working on opposite sides of the law. The stakes aren’t as high as in a high-octane thriller, and Salzberg doesn’t inject contrived twists to make this “high concept.” It is a compelling story of a professional burglar and two realistic police officers in a less-glamorous division of law enforcement than homicide that often gets overlooked.

There’s no CSI: Burglary, but if you’ve come home to a ransacked house, you’ll get plenty of cathartic enjoyment out of reading this crime yarn about a retired cop, a master burglar, and an obsessed detective. Each character could command their own novel, but we get a gripping cat-and-mouse game as seasoned police and a narcissistic criminal face off.

*Disclaimer: Charles Salzberg and I share a publisher, Down & Out Books.

 

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Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. He is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, his first Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which BookPeople called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.”

Joyce Carol Oates calls him “a lovely kitty man.”

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