Last week, in the many tributes to Elmore Leonard that I saw floating around on what would’ve been his birthday, I came across this quotation: “I don’t judge in my books. I don’t have to have the antagonist get shot or the protagonist win. It’s just how it comes out. I’m just telling a story.” Which seemed awfully appropriate as I was in the closing chapters of Without Rules at the time. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything Leonard-esque to Field’s novel*, but they definitely were working from the same ethos.
This book starts off showing you that it’s about as far as you can get from a cozy — a hit man and his accomplice on the run after a disastrous (yet successful) job take shelter in something between a brothel and a porn studio while waiting for extraction. Their unwilling hostess supplies them with booze, a laundry machine, and some meaningless sex in the meantime. When the opportunity presents, she tries to convince the hitman to rescue both herself and her daughter from their situation — being forced by her father to live and work in this place since she was about her daughter’s age. Naturally, it’s this same father who hired the hitman to take out one of his clients before he could be flipped by the police.
Things get messier from there — no, really. Soon, we’re plunged into a mare’s nest of police cover-ups, police investigations, evidence tampering, evidence planting, blackmail, murder, pedophilia rings, international drug dealers, and real estate fraud.
This particular night ends in betrayals, deaths, lives and careers being ruined, missing people and near-death escapes. The book will then lurch ahead a couple of years to witness the chaos and destruction left by that night and how it’s altered, prospered and ruined lives — and attempts will be made by several to rectify that situation.
The novel will then jump ahead as the events of part two have left even more trouble and chaos in their wake for the survivors to try to deal with the aftermath.
There’s a fine line between complex and convoluted — this novel doesn’t tip-toe down that line, it dances on it. When it falters, it typically lands on the convoluted side before resuming its jig. There are arguably too many characters running around — and few of them are fully rounded-out. But, largely, I’m okay with that — because the more I get to know just about any of these characters the less I wanted to know them at all. These are ugly people in the midst of ugly businesses.
With one or two climactic exceptions, the action is believable, the evil is all too real — there’s no criminal mastermind stroking his cat while the world burns. Instead we have several depraved individuals scraping to make their fortunes greater — or just to survive. There’s one well-timed Diabolus ex Machina that was hard to swallow that was necessary to set up the book’s conclusion, but otherwise the action stayed within the bounds of credulity.
In a capricious world, it’s odd to find so many characters talking about justice — generally how it’s impossible to find — but just about every one of these characters has a lot to say about it. There is an irony there for the careful reader to appreciate.
Minor spoiler: There’s no happily ever afters here. No redemption arcs. No one wears a white hat. A couple of characters do ride off into the sunset, but not in any real sense of victory or joy. The cynical among us — many would prefer to be called realists — would say that this is an accurate reflection of life. No justice, no just desserts, bad things happen to bad people, those who intend to be heroes become villains, a villain or two will find themselves doing something heroic, and everyone’s out for themselves and a profit. In a very noir world, Andrew Field offers us a very noir novel.
* That’s not a ding on Field, there’s pretty much no one who can write something Leonard-esque. And it’s generally embarrassing when they try.
The Irresponsible Reader