Book Review : Owen Laukkanen - The Professionals (2012)
Long before the advent of Breaking Bad's Walter White on television, outlaws had captured our collective imaginary. It dates back to solitary cowboys in Westerns, living according to their own rule and post-World War II mobsters who followed their own code to cheat the system. Every year, there are thousands of what I call outlaw romances that are being written, published and produced. But very little fiction has been written about people who's imaginary was forged by outlaw romances. This is why I took interest in Owen Laukkanen's debut novel The Professionals.
So, The Professionals is the story of a small group of friends suffering in a poor job market and turning to kidnapping to "survive". That's why I mean by people who's imaginary was forged by outlaw romances. They could've went back to their parents', look for work in other cities, but these guys went straight to kidnapping. They played it smart, asked for low ransoms and moved from city to city and everything was going according to plan until they kidnapped a two-bits mobster with a powerful wife who vows revenge about 5 minutes after being made hostage.
The interesting aspect to The Professionals is that it blurs the line of morality in a way that wasn't... well, that I hadn't seen before. In any morally ambiguous novel I've read before, everyone was somewhat evil. But everyone is somewhat good in The Professionals. The kidnappers turned to crime because of a poor job market, Beneteau's widow seeks revenge for the death of her husband (which is justified within the economy of the story) and Stevens and Windermere are... well, the official good guys. The distinction between what your intent is and what you do is important in The Professionals and I thought that was a fun and original way to tackle morality.
While The Professionals had an interesting premise and an original angle on moral ambiguity, I can't say it had the strongest identity. It's so heavily plot driven that characters are lead by their function in the narrative. For example, there is no feel for the economic downturn that pushed Pender, Sawyer and friends to turn to kidnapping. They're already kidnappers at the beginning of the novel, so you have to take their word for it. For all I know, they could be psychopaths trying to justify their actions to themselves and The Professionals would leave you no way to know.
The mobsters are also quite cliché, despite the interesting premise. They're straight-to-video quality mobsters. The only characters benefiting from a wider exposition are Stevens and Windermere, but Owen Laukkanen doesn't draw much outside the lines of their investigation either. They had no surprise and felt a tad rigid, especially Windermere who had the potential of being a strong, complex female lead but that doesn't do much in that direction. I mean, if you don't count seducing Stevens, which I thought was as far fetched as it got.
I've enjoyed The Professionals, but only slightly. It was the same kind of enjoyment I get when I catch episodic network television like CSI or Bones on the tube. The formula is comforting and easy to follow in some regards, but it's also predictable and alienating. Especially when the premise teases you with originality. Anyway, The Professionals is Owen Laukkanen's first novel. It is rarely an author's best and no one should pass final judgement before reading at least two. While I had enjoyed the hell out of his young adult novel How to Win at High School a couple years ago, but the Stevens and Windermere series did just too little for me to go back to it. While it was not fundamentally uninteresting, it was a slog to finish.