Love isn’t much without trust, but sex goes fine with lying. Femme fatales have exploited that truth since the first apple dropped: The possibility of betrayal gives an entanglement enough spice to stop a sap from thinking too long about consequences. Problem is, the longer a connection between two individuals holds, the more difficult it is to maintain the allure of risk. Which means a choice between taking the game to its logical conclusion, with a broken heart and an empty wallet, or trying to find some new way to keep the romance alive. Good crime novelists know how to use this to make plots work; great ones realize that the attraction of something that can never be held for long is the reason those plots exist at all.
Lou Berney’s Gutshot Straight isn’t quite great, but it’s very close. Charles “Shake” Bouchon, an ex-con just out of prison, gets an offer too odd to pass up: drive a car to Las Vegas, swap it for a briefcase, and then bring that briefcase back to L.A. The money is good, and as much as Shake would like to think otherwise, the bad road is the one he knows best. Things get complicated when Shake finds a young woman named Gina tied up in the car’s trunk. Faced with certain death for Gina vs. eventual death for himself, Shake opts for the latter, putting him at odds with the biggest bad man in Nevada: Dick Moby, a.k.a. The Whale. But Shake didn’t really have a choice. Gina was kind, innocent, and above all, stunning. And maybe, just maybe, worth the risk.
Straight zigs and zags more than enough to hold readers’ attention, and Berney is an able hand at the sort of cons that drive solid caper fiction, and interested in examining why those cons work so well. Shake and Gina are familiar faces, but they develop in believable, occasionally surprising ways, and their growing commitment to each other is sweet without ever compromising either character. The rest of the cast fares nearly as well, the dialog is clever without being glib, and the ending ties it all together just perfectly enough to be a little messy. Whether Shake and Gina manage to find love amid the chaos always comes across as a question worth asking; it’s just too bad that finding the answer means reaching the last page.