The longer we live in what is proving to be the worst recession since the Big One of the 1930s, it gets easier and easier to feel this might just be the new normal – that this is as good as it is ever going to get. Especially hard hit, are the young people coming out of universities with no prospect of making a decent living for themselves. Their study choices have not prepared them for today’s feeble job market, and now they face the prospect of moving back in with their usually less-than-thrilled parents. Might a short-term career as a professional criminal be the answer? Can they bank enough quick cash to last them far into the future, if not for the rest of their lives? This is the premise of Owen Laukkanen’s debut novel, a fast paced crime thriller entitled The Professionals.
Pender (the group’s de facto leader), Marie, Sawyer, and Mouse have been best friends for a long time. University graduation, for them, is as scary as it is exciting because only one of the four has any idea what to do next, and he is not thrilled about doing it. When, during a post graduation celebration, Marie jokingly mentions that they should turn to kidnapping for a living, she is surprised that the others are so willing to take her idea and run with it – and run with it they do.
By keeping their ransom demands at the $60,000 level, carefully choosing their targets, and confining their crimes completely to the borders of their victims’ home states the four manage to stay well below the radar of the FBI and any other big-time crime investigators. For two years, things go so well for the four that they hope to retire on their savings within another three years. Then they make their fatal mistake by kidnapping a Detroit businessman whose wife has personal ties to the mob - and now it seems that everyone is after them: state cops, the FBI, and even more terrifying, the mob. They learn within hours that they will not be allowed to walk away from this one because, even if they evade the law, professional hit men are already closing in on them.
Laukkanen creates quite a dilemma for his readers. On the one hand, one recognizes that the good guys (who will, in fact, team up in subsequent books) are the female FBI agent and the state cop working with her. On the other, the young kidnappers are all highly sympathetic characters who do not see themselves as real “criminals,” and it is easy to root for them. Right up to the end of this wild ride, it is difficult not to hope for an ending that will somehow satisfy both sides.
The Professionals is not a perfect crime thriller, but it is first rate. Perhaps readers will have to suspend their disbelief a little more than they like to (especially when the mobsters and kidnappers clash directly), but it is worth it. Laukkanen has shown a whole lot of promise with this first novel, and it will be interesting to see what the rest of the series offers.
Rated at: 4.0