Review: A World of Thieves by James Carlos Blake

To get into the spirit of Pulp Guns, a game product I'm testing, I went looking for current crime novels that could've been pulps -- hard-boiled stories of murder and mayhem set in the '30s and '40s. I came pretty close in A World of Thieves, a 2002 novel by James Carlos Blake that follows a family of armed robbers across Louisiana and Texas in 1928.

A World of Thieves by James Carlos BlakeBlake's novel tells the tale of Sonny LaSalle, an 18-year-old amateur boxer from New Orleans who graduates with top grades and should know better than to join uncles Buck and Russell robbing banks. He doesn't, though, and quickly ends up in Angola Prison Farm, a notorious penitentiary bordered by the Mississippi River that's guarded almost entirely by inmates. Sonny accidentally killed a cop in a Baton Rouge jail brawl -- the son of "John Bones," the state's most feared and hard-assed lawman. Bones does not take the news well.

The 296-page novel details LaSalle's extrication from prison and a subsequent crime spree across the two states as Bones relentlessly hunts him down. Blake's criminals are unapolegetic about their livelihood, making the jump from card sharps to con men to armed robbers to bank robbers. Sonny's uncles believe he's foolish for not using his education to better himself.

"We figured you'd end up doing your thieving with law books or account ledgers. Like that."

I wasn't sure if they were joking. They looked serious as preachers.

"World's full of thieves," Buck said, "but the ones to make the most money is the legal kind."

That's about as introspective as the book gets. Blake emphasizes carnage over character, leaving me dubious at one point about an act the LaSalles commit without hesitation or remorse. I didn't think they had it in them. They're in crime for money and thrills, killing only in the act of escaping jobs gone bad (another reviewer charitably describes this as "unintentional murder"). The whole novel's bloody and oversexed, with one particularly cringe-inducing crime of passion that leaves Buck nicknaming a part of his anatomy "Mr. Stump."

I loved the period details in the book: grimy hellish Texas boomtowns, Pierce-Arrow roadsters and Gladstone bags, revolvers, guns and pistols of wide make and utility. As a Texas native, I've been to several of the places in the book back when they still had a little frontier left in them. Blake covers the territory well.

A World of Thieves is crisply told, perhaps too spare in detail when it comes to the heads of its protagonists. I didn't see the ending coming -- a single-paragraph chapter that hits at the speed of a bullet.

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