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Review: Pull and Pray by Angel Colon

Today in The Gutter:

Chris McGinley reviews the latest from homeboy Angel Colon.

Book Review: Pull and Pray by Angel Colon

If you like crime fiction with sharp dialogue, clever technical detail, and characters who take  pains to see all the angles--and there are dozens of them--you will enjoy Angel Colon's newest novel, Pull and Play (Down and Out Books), a follow up to his No Happy Endings.

The title is a riff on a heist planned by some family members--and a few outsiders--who look to do a "retirement job" involving payoff codes hidden in slot machines. Oh, one other notable feature here: the main characters are women; seasoned con-artists and skilled thieves thoroughly accustomed to "the life."  Each has her own unique specialties and idiosyncratic methods that don't always jibe with the style of the other crew members. Not surprisingly, this often causes strife. But it's all part of a dysfunctional family tradition for the main operators, another source of much discord in the novel, and even some humor, too.

Expert lock picker Fantine Park reluctantly agrees to work on a heist engineered by her aunt, Matilda Rhee. In fact, she only agrees because the aunt informs Fan that she possesses information about the death of Fan's mother--an "accident" on a previous job. Fan desperately wants revenge on her mother's killers, and agrees to do the job. Yes, it's a bribe . . . . about the murder of Fan's mother . . . one presented by her own aunt!  This is the kind of dysfunction central to much of the action. The reader, and indeed Fan herself, is always suspicious of Matilda, called Matty, a fact that makes for some fine narrative tension throughout.

As for the crime itself, there's an important inside element. Neil works in the casino industry and has access to schedules for slot machine pick-ups and deliveries. The job involves finding access to the carefully guarded machines and then cracking some more codes to determine the random number generator behind jackpot payoffs in slots all over the region. With the creation of some outside software (once the codes are ascertained) the heist promises to be a goldmine. Of course, there are several players, and everything has to come together just right, or the whole thing's a bust and the prospect of jail time becomes very real for everyone.

Much of the novel centers on these technical aspects of the job: how to navigate x, y, and z, and how to plan for the inevitable contingencies. For those who enjoy the technical facets of contemporary heist stories, Pull and Pray will surely satisfy. Happily, the crew also employs some old-school cons and decoys in order to effect their plan. There's something here for fans of the traditional heist-job narrative as well.

One thing that's especially refreshing is that Pull and Play is a feminist narrative, whether or not you think the term belongs in a discussion of crime novels. Put simply, the women are in charge here. Fan impresses her crew with her savvy and ability to improvise on the fly. If they're reluctant subordinates early on, they soon come to realize that Fan has the skills and the vision few others possess. Matty, however, exercises a more insidious control over the crew. As the architect of the job, she says who does what and when, and she brooks no contest--much to the chagrin of others in several places.

One of Colon's strengths in creating these colorful characters is his use of dialogue. The novel brims with it. There are snappy rejoinders, wise-ass remarks, clever references to sources well outside the sphere of criminal enterprise, and even emotional outbursts that ring true because of Colon's facility at dialogue. The narration, too, impresses for its ability to add dimension to characters without heavy-handedness. Consider the following passage in which Fan confronts the fact that her skills aren't what they used to be, at least not yet.

While Fan hadn’t ignored picking she wasn’t working for time anymore. Now faced with real pressure, her fingers lost their sensitivity. There was a time she swore she could feel the tiniest nuance as she slipped picks into locks—the bumps, dips, dives—that whisper of a moment when the tumblers were aligned and all it took was a twist. It would only cost her a few breaths to get most locks opened but the locks Neil provided felt impenetrable.
Fan looked at her stopwatch. It was over seven minutes and the lock she was working on was still engaged. “This is such bullshit.” Her cheeks and ears were hot. She felt almost embarrassed yet nobody was in the room with her. All that build up over the past few hours, that positivity, was already melting away.
It's a reflection on professionalism, and a lament over the deterioration of one's abilities. 
Like an athlete no longer able to perform the same feats, Fan is unhinged over her inability to pick a lock. Colon never devolves into maudlin sentiment or contrived rage. Instead he simply adds the detail that she was embarrassed, despite the fact she was alone. Such clever passages abound in Pull and Pray.
If you like heist stories full of action, technical detail, double-dealing, and strong female characters, pick up Angel Colon's fine Pull and Pray. You won't be disappointed.

Review by: Chris McGinley

Angel Luis Colón is the Anthony and Derringer Award-nominated author of NO HAPPY ENDINGS, the BLACKY JAGUAR series of novellas, the collection MEAT CITY ON FIRE (AND OTHER ASSORTED DEBACLES), and the upcoming PULL & PRAY (July 2018). His fiction has appeared in multiple web and print publications including Thuglit, Literary Orphans, and Great Jones Street. Keep up with him on Twitter via @GoshDarnMyLife

Chris McGinley teaches middle school in Lexington, KY. His work has appeared in Switchblade, Tough, the ID Press crime anthology (forthcoming), and on a host of Internet forums.