Owen Laukkanen (owenlaukkanen.com)
In the beginning, the whole thing had been Marie’s idea. It had started as a joke, some throwaway line spouted off one rainy night in Seattle, the gang holed up at Sawyer’s place bitching about the job market over cheap beer and pizza, scholarships almost gone and graduation upon them, nobody but Mouse with a future to speak of.
Arthur Pender and his friends have finished college, graduating with degrees that are practically useless in a dead job market. When one of them suggests, as a joke, that they turn to robbing banks or kidnapping, Pender sees a plan that could work: kidnap someone rich, ask for a paltry ransom, say $60,000 – almost guaranteeing that he won’t go to the police on his release – and move to another city immediately after the job. It’s a plan that has worked well for almost two years, until they pick the wrong man. Now, with the FBI and the Mafia on their tail, Pender and his friends need to find a way out of the country without getting themselves caught or killed.
From the first page, where we watch Pender’s crew perform a well-oiled kidnap routine, Owen Laukkanen’s debut novel, The Professionals, has the reader by the throat. The plan that Pender has put in place is surprising because of its originality, a concept that shines throughout this beautiful little thriller. What is, perhaps, most surprising of all, is the fact that we identify so readily with Pender and his group of friends. There’s something about them that puts us firmly in their camp, that makes us want them to succeed, despite the multiple crimes they have committed over the course of two years; The Professionals is, in some ways, a modern day reworking of Robin Hood, without the "give to the poor" part, and the Robin Hood character (in this case, Pender) is the man around whom the whole story revolves.
Laukkanen’s debut is, ostensibly, the first in the Stevens and Windermere series (the second book due later this year, and the third and fourth instalments currently works in progress) but, because of the focus on the "bad guys’, it feels more like a standalone thriller that has the occasional appearance from a pair of quirky cops. Kirk Stevens is a member of Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and is the first person to put together a string of separate incidents and identify them as the work of a serial kidnapper. When he realises that the crimes cross state lines, he is only too happy to hand the case off to the FBI, in the form of young agent Carla Windermere, who, in turn, is only too happy to keep Stevens involved. The pair work well together, and are a joy to watch in action, despite the slightly heavy-handed attempt at sexual tension which, thankfully, doesn’t get too much airtime.
Pender and gang have more to worry about than the FBI, in the blocky form of D’Antonio, a man who, at first glance, appears to be a stereotypical piece of Mafia beef, but who turns out to be a man of some intelligence and heart. His backstory – that of a long-serving Mafia enforcer – isn’t touched on, but it’s a story we’re all familiar with from watching the Godfather films, or The Sopranos, and Laukkanen does an excellent job of endowing him with a sense of barely-restrained violence that makes him at least as interesting as the other characters in the book.
I have no idea why, but there are portions of the book that remind me of Steven Spielberg’s early directorial effort, The Sugarland Express, though there are barely any points of similarity between the two. There’s something very laid-back about this novel, despite the frantic pace at which the action moves, and it serves to set The Professionals apart from other novels in the genre, raising it above the category of just another buddy-cop story or chase novel, to that rare category of "something you’ve never seen before". Make no mistake, regardless of how this book is marketed, or how the series progresses, this is the story of Arthur Pender and his friends; they are the people we’re rooting for, the antiheroes of this piece. Which is not to say that Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere don’t have what it takes to carry a series, but to me it feels more like a spin-off (think Sam & Twitch) than something that was planned that way.
With a plot that moves at a breakneck speed, and characters – good, bad and elsewhere along the spectrum of grey – that are engaging, likeable and, best of all, human, Owen Laukkanen has burst onto the scene with one of the finest thrillers you’re likely to encounter this year. I do have a couple of minor niggles with some of the directions the plot takes, but I’m putting it down to the pressure under which the characters are operating, and dismissing them as not overly important to the overall direction in which the story goes. It’s a smart and violent story that grabs the reader from the first page to the last, and it makes this reader, at the very least, excited for what is still to come. For now, I can only recommend that you get in on the ground floor, and enjoy.