For the first 95% of this book, I mistakenly thought that this was Hallinan’s first novel, and under that umbrella it reads like the promising early work of a writer who might be great someday. As it turns out, this is only the first novel of a new series. Hallinan has actually written dozens of mysteries, including two more in the Junior Bender series in the three months since this one came out.
That’s a whole different situation, and a more unfortunate one. Hallinan’s missteps are structural: his overblown premise and a couple of cartoonish characters stop the novel from reaching its potential, as does his reluctance to fully explore the darkness of what he imagines. If this were his debut, he might well learn and grow from here. But since it’s his 13th book, there’s little hope he’ll learn from his mistakes.
While writing that last paragraph, counting books in Hallinan’s bibliography, I realized that I’ve actually read one of his other mysteries, an Edgar-nominated throwaway mystery notable only because relatively few mysteries take place in Thailand. If I’d remembered that book, I would’ve skipped this one, and indeed, they suffer from the same problems.
Crashed centers around a beloved child actress, whose greedy parents let her get chewed up by Hollywood. She gets addicted to all kinds of drugs, and winds up agreeing to do a hardcore porn movie because she’s blown all of her millions of dollars. It’s based almost litigiously closely on the life of Lindsay Lohan, except that the girl in Crashed was in TV instead of movies as a child, and the real Lindsay Lohan didn’t quite make a porno, though she’s come close.
This could be rich material, but Hallinan overplays it. The Lohan character, who’s named Thistle Downing in the book, is so popular that her show—about a young witch—had a viewership of 80 million people, about four times what a real hit show rates. Likewise, Thistle is universally acknowledged as the world’s best actress, able to run rings around anyone she’s put next to and, in the real world, able to flawlessly imitate anyone at the drop of a hat.
Despite her unquestioned acting chops, a ruthless mafia queen decides that the only way to cash in on Thistle’s drug addiction is to have her do hardcore pornography. This doesn’t entirely make sense, but it gives Junior Bender a way to become morally outraged, because he equates it with child porn, even though Thistle’s 23 years old.
Perhaps the most frustrating part is that Hallinan’s prose is quite sharp for a mystery writer and his character work, especially with peripheral characters, impresses. But there’s a wide gulf between the convincing sounds of his characters’ voices and the absurd things they sometimes feel the need to do. Additionally, Hallinan stops short of really exploring the psyche of his most interesting character, Linds— I mean, Thistle, taking her out of the narrative completely for most of the second half, and dropping her back in clean and sober and right back on top of the world.
Hallinan’s plotting has improved over the last time I read him, and Junior Bender’s half-entertaining, half-grating voice smooths out after a little while. All in all, it’s a quick, entertaining read, better than most pulp mysteries out there these days, but I will forget it, just like I forgot Hallinan’s last book, and it doesn’t look like he’ll ever fulfill his sizable potential.