Of course, for most people that other solution would be something like getting a second job to make ends meet or going back to school to pursue a more viable area of study. Not so for friends and recent college grads Pender, Marie, Sawyer, and Mouse.
Fueled by frustration and righteous indignation they instead turn to kidnapping wealthy businessmen, and what starts out as a lark – “Let’s try it. Just to see if we can.” – turns into a lucrative career.
The secret to their success is careful research to vet the targets, detailed planning, no violence, and not getting greedy; they never ask for more than $100k, an amount their targets can easily afford and are more than willing to pay.
Select a target, kidnap, collect a modest ransom, move to a different city, repeat. For two years things run like clockwork, until the day they unknowingly select a target whose wife has connections to the mob. The wife refuses to pay and calls in the hitters, the group’s attempt to return the target goes spectacularly off the rails, and all their efforts to stay low key are blown to hell as both state and federal authorities enter the fray.
And what a wonderful fray it is. Whereas in most crime stories you find yourself clearly pulling for one side over the other, Owen Laukkanen has crafted The Professionals with such attention to character that the reader will find a connection on some level with everyone involved. Pender, Marie, Sawyer, and Mouse are given a bit of time to establish themselves with the reader before things go sideways, and during that time they prove themselves to be an extremely likable, if misguided, group that is as surprised as anyone to find themselves having become professional criminals. Their frustration at having worked so hard for their educations only to find their degrees useless in the current economic climate, combined with their dedication to non-violence and only kidnapping people who can ‘afford it’ makes them easy to sympathize with and root for.
The police, on the other hand, are there to provide more than a foil for the kidnappers. Minnesota BCA Agent Kirk Stevens is the first to suss out that there’s a group of serial kidnappers at work and he’s forced to call in the FBI, in the form of Agent Carla Windermere, to help him track the group’s movements across state lines. Contrary to the stereotype that seems to mandate hostility and friction between state police and the FBI, Stevens and Windermere have instant chemistry as an investigative team and, under the skillful hand of Laukkanen, quickly settle into the type of comfortable groove you’d expect from partners of many years. (I’m not the only one who thinks so; Putnam has signed Laukkanen to develop the two into a series.)
Laukkanen’s prose flows smoothly throughout, with the dialog in particular having the easy ring of authenticity it’s hard for even a seasoned writer to capture, let alone a debut author. Similarly, Laukkanen’s natural feel for pacing belies that this is his first novel, with the action in The Professionals starting out low-key and in control, steadily gathering momentum as things become more unhinged, then turning into a runaway train once events hit a tipping point of no return. And though it’s clear there’s no way this story can have a happy ending for everyone, Laukkanen’s plot unfolds in such a way that right to the end the reader isn’t sure who’s going to come out on top, or how they’re going to get there.
Thankfully Owen Laukkanen found his degree to be more useful than his characters found theirs, as I’d hate to think of him turning professional in anything other than writing.
The Professionals will be released by Putnam on March 29, 2012 (ISBN: 978-0399157899).
And be sure to read Owen’s guest post, “Circumstance and Serendipity.”