Although I have grumbled (often and loudly) about the poor organisation and publicity skills of the people behind the Ned Kelly Awards at least their nominations do provide me with the names of some new-to-me books to look out for. Among the haul in my Aussie crime fiction shopping spree earlier this year was Lenny Bartulin’s second Jack Susko book which, sadly, had not been on my radar before it was shortlisted for last year’s best fiction award.
Jack Susko is a second hand bookseller with major financial problems. When he is delivering an old art catalogue to a customer the gallery belonging to said customer is the subject of an armed robbery. In addition to stealing the contents of the safe the thieves take off with the contents of Jack’s bag which, of course, was one of the few valuable items he owned (a rare first edition of an Ian Fleming novel that he was on his way to a buyer with). This turns out to be only the beginning of Jack’s woes as he reluctantly finds himself the centre of attention for several competing groups of evil villains.
The book’s sub-genre is hard to pin-point but it’s somewhere in the vicinity of black comedy with hints of satire and old fashioned hard-boiled detective caper thrown in. I am loathe to make comparisons of the “if you liked ‘x’ then you’ll like this” variety but what it reminded me of most in tone, style and ‘enjoyability’ was a rather good film from several years ago called In Bruges.
I think one of the reasons I was so quickly and easily drawn into what might be seen as an implausible tale is that the character of Jack is entirely believable. Frankly I have never been able to imagine a second hand bookseller being able to make more than a pittance, and I’ve long assumed those shops which look successful at it are fronts for drug-money laundering or other nefarious activities. So a struggling second hand bookseller is not a stretch and the fact that he is funny and hiding a basically sweet nature makes him very likable indeed. Ultimately you want Jack to prevail even though you know it’s unlikely he’ll do so, or at least not with any extra cash in his pocket.
The rest of the characters are equally enjoyable. Even when they are stereotypes like the eponymous Victor Kablunak they are so cleverly drawn as to thoroughly engage the reader. Who wouldn’t like a villain who can create a life philosophy out of James Bond? A bevy of treacherous (but beautiful) women and a cadre of would-be actors moonlighting in the criminal underworld rounds out the cast nicely and the action plays out against a sweltering Sydney summer that I could almost smell and taste due to the skill of Bartulin’s writing.
I’ll admit I like dark comedy so was probably pre-disposed to enjoying this book but I can recommend it to anyone who wants a book that has a definite Australian feel to it: the setting, the people and the attitude are spot on. Of course if you just want smart wisecracks and a slightly absurd romp it’ll fit that bill nicely too.
The Black Russian has also been reviewed at Aust Crime Fiction
I see from Bartulin’s website that the third novel in this series, DE LUXE, is due for release in August and I will be awaiting it eagerly.
My rating: 3.5/5 stars
Author website: http://lennybartulin.blogspot.com/
Publisher: Scribe 
Length: 261 pages
Source: I bought it