More than Just a Mystery: Celebrating Timothy Hallinan’s Junior Bender Series
Laughter and larceny are on the loose in Los Angeles in Timothy Hallinan’s acclaimed Junior Bender mysteries. Fans of Donald Westlake’s John Archibald Dortmunder books, Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr series, or any of Elmore Leonard’s hardboiled hijinks will feel right at home in Hallinan’s comedic capers about a professional burglar whose jobs are never as simple as they seem. Hallinan deftly balances zany plots and eccentric characters with sufficient gravity to make the suspense gripping and the action tense, all while maintaining Bender’s humanity and professionalism. It’s a task as complex and tricky as any of Bender’s cases, but Hallinan pulls it off gracefully like the perfect score—getting away clean and leaving no trace.
What makes Junior Bender so in-demand as a criminal—and such a unique character in the world of mystery fiction—is that he goes above and beyond stealing and often plays the role of private detective. “I’m a burglar. That’s where my heart is,” Bender describes himself in Little Elvises. “But once in a while, I help out other crooks who have a problem, who got ripped off or something and for obvious reasons can’t go to the cops.” Avoiding the cops is something else that Bender is great at: after twenty years in his profession, he has yet to be arrested or even pulled in for questioning (officially, that is).
From low lives to high lives, Bender finds himself intertwined with some of Los Angeles’ kookiest inhabitants, including Hollywood has-beens, art-porn auteurs, mob mall magnates, and even a Jewish Santa Claus. But no amount of experience can prevent him from being roped into crazy schemes that threaten to tarnish his perfect record—or worse. Because Bender has more than just a reputation to protect, he also has a family, one that is growing increasingly distant since his wife, Kathy, divorced him and won custody of their daughter, Rina. Moving from motel to motel, seeing Rina when he can, building a relationship with his new girlfriend Ronnie Bigelow, and staying one step ahead of both the law and his increasingly long list of enemies, Bender has his hands full juggling his real life with his “steal” life.
Junior Bender is back on the job in Nighttown, the seventh book in the series. The story begins in an abandoned century-old mansion slated for demolition. An empty house, a key to the front door, and instructions as to where the coveted object—an antique doll—will be, this should be a piece of cake for an experienced yegg like Bender. Nothing goes according to plan, however, and soon Bender finds that he is not the only one interested in the doll. Did his employer double cross him? Are there competing interests? And why was he paid more for the doll than it is actually worth? Why was the original owner so interested in spiritualism? And why does the whole house smell like baby powder when there are no babies there?
Along for the ride in Nighttown are Junior Bender’s usual partners-in-crime, some of whom are going through their own crises. Ronnie and Junior’s relationship is growing stronger—however, her past is still shrouded in some mystery. The pair are also in desperate need for cash to pay someone from the underworld who might be able to assist with liberating—aka stealing—her two-year-old child from her mob-ex in New Jersey. Meanwhile, Bender’s teenage tech wizards—Anime Wong and Lilli—are dealing with bulimia and its effects on the body and their relationship. Assisting, as always, are some of Hallinan’s treasured sidekicks, including Louie the Lost (an ex-getaway driver nicknamed for his bad direction who now peddles valuable information), Jake Whalen (a Hollywood producer and fine art lover who is Bender’s connection to tinseltown), Stinky Tetwiler (Bender’s fence), and Eaglet (a young assassin). Bender’s network of connections is more than just a LinkedIn for the nefarious, it is his unconventional family, the people he can rely on, and the people he can relate to and open up to unabashedly and without secrets. They’re also one of the reasons readers return to Hallinan’s series time and again, the human element that makes a mystery more than just a mystery but an experience.
Junior Bender’s career in crime commenced with Crashed (2012), in which a simple Paul Klee snatch leads Junior Bender into running security for a mob-boss-daughter who wants to dismantle the family empire and do one last blockbuster arthouse porno before calling it quits. The star of the film is a former child star who may or may not be too inebriated to understand what kind of movie she is making. It is Bender’s job to make sure that the star shows up to the set and that nothing gets in the way of the production. Day one begins with a paparazzi fight followed by a disastrous press conference. And it only gets tougher for Bender from there.
Bender doesn’t get a break in Little Elvises (2013), in which he is extorted for a crime he didn’t commit and forced to exonerate music mogul Vinnie DiGuaudio for a murder that he planned to commit but didn’t. The victim is a tabloid reporter Derek Bigelow who was looking into the death and disappearance of two of DiGuadio’s “Little Elvises,” pint-sized Presley wannabes from Philadelphia that fell off the charts—and one of whom mysteriously died—decades ago. While dodging corrupt cops and a murderous Humvee driver, Bender must come to terms with the fact that his little Rina is growing up and has her first boyfriend, Tyrone. Meanwhile, he discovers that love blossoms in the most unexpected places, times, and persons—such as the wife of a murder victim.
The Fame Thief (2013), named a best book of the year by Crimespree Magazine, begins with five words that no one wants to hear from a mobster: “Junior, I’m disappointed in you.” Nonagenarian Irwin Dressler wants Bender to look into a six decade-old tabloid scandal that ended the career of Dolores La Marr, a one-time rising starlet declared by Life magazine to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Dressler is insistent that Bender take the case: ”If you don’t, you’re going to have to find a new place to hide, and wait there until I'm dead.” And when Dressler reveals that he knows the location of Bender’s secret Koreatown apartment, the Burglar knows the threat is real.
Murder hits close to home in Herbie’s Game (2014) when Bender is asked to help retrieve a laundry list that contains the names of contract killers and others paid off in the chain of personnel. The thief is none other than Bender’s own mentor, Herbie Mott. But when Bender tracks down Herbie, he discovers he wasn’t the only one looking for Herbie, and whoever got their first made sure Herbie wouldn’t do any talking. With an unexpectedly personal connection to the job, Bender sets out to find who wanted the list and who murdered his mentor.
In King Maybe (2016), a small stamp causes big trouble for Bender when he is interrupted mid-heist by the stamp’s owner and a vicious thug, both of whom seemed to know in advance that the burglary was happening. When he approaches his fence to find out who might have tipped them off, Bender discovers this is a crime someone would kill over. Meanwhile, Bender’s personal life is hitting the rocks, as Ronnie’s mysterious past is pushing the two of them apart, and Rina’s first relationship is shattered when her boyfriend is seen with another girl.
We all know that holidays can be murder . . . and they literally are in Fields Where They Lay (2016). Bender is asked to investigate a rise in burglaries at a mall owned by Russian gangsters. But when even a master thief like Bender can’t figure out how coveted goods are being stolen, and when one of the shop owners is found dead, he suspects this is more than just regular shoplifting. But the biggest mystery of all for Bender is what to get his friends and family for Christmas, a holiday that Bender dislikes for deeply personal reasons.
If Nighttown is your first Junior Bender mystery, welcome to the family! After you double-check that your wall safe is securely locked and that your security system is up and running, you can rest assured that you have plenty of hilarious heists to catch up on (as well as Hallinan’s other books, including the Edgar– and Macavity–nominated Poke Rafferty series, set in Bangkok, also available from Soho Crime).
NIGHTTOWN, the seventh book in the Junior Bender series, is available in hardcover and ebook. PURCHASE HERE
Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of the Poke Rafferty thriller series and the Junior Bender mystery series. After years of working in Hollywood, television, and the music industry, he now writes full time. He divides his time between California and Thailand
By way of a prelude, a few words about the dark.
In the entire, staggering length of the Bible—Old and New Testaments combined, a total of 783,137 words—darkness is mentioned only about one hundred times, and it gets slagged almost every time. It’s identified with ignorance, hell, evil, exile, the absence of God, and other conditions to which few of us aspire. The only positive mention of darkness in the whole Book is when the Lord speaks to Moses after dimming the day to protect the Israelites from the sight of Him, and that good darkness, the one and only good darkness, is called by a completely different word, araphel, which will never be used again. Just that once. For God’s personal and merciful darkness…CONTINUE READING