Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Professionals by Owen Laukkenen

At one time or another we've all thought about committing the perfect crime. (And by that I mean hopefully you've had similar anti-social thoughts otherwise I'll have to reexamine my decision to quit therapy.) If watching TV crime dramas is a sufficient schooling in such matters I've probably got a Ph.D in Whodunnit. My stunted upbringing aside, thus begins Owen Laukkenen's The Professionals.

As Laukkenen's 20-something protagonist proclaims late in the story, "Have you seen the job market lately?"   When three friends graduate with liberal arts degrees and find their job prospects to be virtually non-existent one of them sparks an idea with the throw-away line "We should rob banks." One thing leads to another and before you know it they've teamed with a fourth friend (a talented computer programmer who, oddly, cannot find a job in Seattle) and gone into the kidnapping business.

Once you accept that remarkable leap of faith as a starting point for the story the only question that remains is "What could possibly go wrong?" For a while, nothing. The kids implement a low-risk, low-reward form of kidnapping which, like any low margin business, relies on volume for success. Moving weekly from city to city they kidnap one semi-wealthy individual, hold him (no women, no kids) for 24-48 hours, and demand a easily attainable $50,000 - $100,000 ransom and no involvement by the cops. This allows them to make regular scores without leaving a trail (due in part to the fake identities and documentation the hacker is able to produce with little effort and amazing regularity).

Every business hits a few bumps along the way and after a couple of years of performing jobs without a hitch - boom, there's a teensy problem. Researching targets is usually a straight-forward deal but made-men in the mob don't usually don't advertise that information online or anywhere else. Like a deep sea fisher hooking a marlin that's too big for the boat the kids decide to cut the mafioso loose when one of them with poor impulse control and overconfidence grown through easy early success pulls out a gun and...

The kids getaway anything but cleanly and now have the cops, the FBI and the mob on their trail while they desperately seek a way to make early retirement.

As per its title, the story tries to focus on the idea of what a professional is and how being a professional defines your commitment to a job. The four protagonists, despite their early success and their ability to plan, imagines themselves pros but the stakes change when the real professionals start chasing them. The law enforcement types, an FBI agent and her temporary state-policeman partner, also share some of the professional spotlight. But the character whom I wish got a lot deeper treatment was the mob enforcer, D'Antonio. Laukkenen provided tantalizing hints and teasers of what was going on inside his head. He was both professional and unprofessional, chasing the criminals while being one himself. I really wanted more of him.

The Professionals was a solid story despite a couple of leaps of faith on my part to keep from being derailed by the plot. And in my opinion the ending lacked what I thought was an obvious element that I couldn't believe was left out. I can't reveal what I thought was missing without turning this into a spoiler but it really could've enhanced the novel's resolution. (That won't make any sense unless you've also read the book.) Character development was a little light (the computer guy was there to do his bit but added nothing else), sometimes predictable (all females characters were super attractive), and left something on the table (D'Antonio). All things being equal, I'd listen to Laukkenen's second book (this review is based on the audiobook version).

You can find out more about the author at his website,

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