Certainly, debut novelist David McCallum benefits from major name recognition. Of course, he’s the same guy who plays “Duckie” Mallard on NCIS and is fondly remembered for playing the original Illya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. back in the ‘60s.
Now, McCallum tries his hand at writing a thriller and, for the most part, succeeds quite admirably. I admit much of my delight came from listening to the audiobook version of Once a Crooked Man where McCallum reads his own book which adds a warm, flavorful dimension to the experience.
Once a Crooked Man also benefits from a very observant eye as McCallum is richly descriptive with all his settings and characters. When the book opens, it looks like we’re going to get several alternating stories centered on a handful of seemingly unrelated characters. But soon, it’s clear the main plot is about the plans of the three Bruschetti brothers who are modern gangsters hoping to retire from their criminal operations.
But things don’t go well for the brothers, especially when seemingly naïve New York actor Harry Murphy accidentally overhears their murderous plans to clean up some loose ends. Murphy decides to fly from New York to London to warn one of the brothers’ targets which sends everything out of control.
Clearly, McCallum draws from his own acting experience to flesh out Murphy’s background, as Harry becomes more and more clever in his battles with the Bruschetti’s. Not only does Harry draw on his acting skills, but is inventive in his tricks to draw out his adversaries to rescue a British policewoman the gangsters have kidnapped to get back a million dollars Harry was inadvertently given by the target he went to England to save.
Female reviewers have complained McCallum was less than successful with his female characters, especially his portrayal of policewoman, Elizabeth “Lizzy” Carswell, And often bitterly denounce a rape scene near the end of the book. I must respect such sensibilities, but suspect such complaints are more about the subject of rape itself, not what happens in the novel. Blood-thirsty villains are going to do dastardly things. Yes, the aftermath of the attack is astonishing and rather disappointing. True, Lizzy would never top a list of possible agents for Leroy Jethro Gibbs’ investigative unit, but there are several strong-willed, dominant wives in the cast of characters.
In my view, Once a Crooked Man is a very worthwhile read for those who like such adventures. It may start slowly, but quickly becomes a page-turner as surprise after surprise pile up in the schemes and plots of the story. I wouldn’t mind seeing Harry Murphy again in future offerings. Lizzy, I admit, I can live without.
This review was first published at BookPleasures.com on Sept. 29, 2016: