Swierczynski, Duane. The Blonde.

NY: St. Martin, 2006.

Jack Eisley, Chicago newspaperman, is drinking boilermakers at the airport bar in Philadelphia, trying to find the energy to go find his hotel and the backbone to face his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s high-powered divorce lawyer in the morning. And then the attractive blonde with whom he’s passing the time says, “I poisoned your drink.”

He figures she’s a nutjob, but after he’s blown her off and is taking a cab downtown (flat-rate, of course), he begins experiencing the violent symptoms she predicted. In a panic, he knows he’ll have to locate the blonde again, and fast, and hope she has the antidote.

And then we switch to the alternating thread in the story, focusing on Michael Kowalski, who is systematically hunting down and killing the mafia in Philadelphia, one goombah at a time, and he’s up to thirteen so far. But that’s just his personal vendetta, not his day job. Actually, we’ve met Kowalski before, if only for a few minutes, in the last chapter of Swierczynski’s previous novel, The Wheelman. This isn’t a sequel, though, and the two books have nothing in common, really, except that both are set in Philadelphia. But Kowalski is not a nice person. In fact, he kills people for a living, as a professional assassin in the employ of a very secret section of the Department of Homeland Security. And his occupation is easier than it used to be, if you have the right credentials. As he thinks to himself while rummaging around freely in various private datafiles and giving orders to cops and private security people who don’t dare question them, “What did we ever do before the Patriot Act?”

Kowalski has a commission from his handler to collect certain heads (literally) from men who are dying very mysteriously and messily, a quest which keeps him on the move around the city. And gradually his share of the plot and Jack’s converge. Jack isn’t a hard case but he is a survivor — a talent he will definitely need, considering the fixes he finds himself in as the girl with the poison tries to avoid dying in the conspiracy that gradually comes to light.

This isn’t really a “crime novel,” more of a bloody-minded “what-if” thriller. There’s also a lot more humor (in a Tarrentino-ish way) than there was in the previous book, the pace is dead-run, and the characterization is solid. I’m definitely going to be watching this author in the future.

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