There’s an old adage about under-promising and over-delivering and it applies to many things including books. The back cover blurb calls Chasing the Ace “a fast and funny novel with an ending you won’t see coming”. The front cover endorsement from a semi-famous Australian comedian says, “It will fool you, and you will love it.” I’m sure you can anticipate the problem I’m about to outline and that is that the marketing makes promises that the novel doesn’t keep.
The two main characters are Richard Mordecai and Joel Fitch. Richard, in his seventies, is a con artist from way back and Joel, fresh out of high school, is determined to become one. They meet when Joel attempts to scam Richard and Richard turns the tables on him. Realising later what has happened, Joel tracks down the old man and begs him to teach him the tricks of the trade.
The book takes a long time to set up the premise – so not a fast novel after all (broken promise #1) – and while this may not be a problem in another story, neither of the characters are men you would choose to spend extended periods of time with. In fact, I can’t think of a single character in the book I would want to spend time with.
Joel is a self-confessed breast man who comes undone at the sight of an impressive rack (his words, not mine), which I would have thought a major impediment to anyone trying to run confidence scams. He has watched every con artist movie ever made and thinks he knows it all. Richard is just about ready to retire after a lifetime of ripping off basically everyone he meets but he has one last big scam on the horizon. He agrees to take Joel under his wing.
Together they scam casino patrons and people selling second-hand items on an ebay-like website before cleaning out their paypal-like accounts. But then they scam a man who turns out to be a corrupt police officer. He tracks them down and demands twice what they took, then four times, and reinforces the seriousness of his demands with threats and violence. Sound funny to you yet? No, me neither (broken promise #2).
They try to scam their way out of it and fail and fail and fail again. And the ending that we won’t see coming that will fool us and that we will love turns out to be this: the twist is that there is no twist (broken promise #3).
The author is himself a renowned expert on the perpetration of frauds with a side interesting in writing and has spent significant periods educating the public on how to avoid becoming a victim but I think I would have preferred if he were an expert in writing with a side interest in frauds. The book is layered with confusion which the writer has mistaken for complexity. It also suffers from poor copyediting that has failed to pick up a number of missing words and incorrect punctuation (something that always proves annoyingly distracting for me).
Perhaps most disappointingly, the setting for the story is Melbourne in Australia (where I live) and in the author’s hands, it has become boring and banal, certainly not the Melbourne I know.
This book is about 50% of the way towards where it could have been a terrific book. But the author was so determined not to write a traditional con artist’s story that he took out all the stereotypical elements that readers enjoy so much. There’s nothing wrong with attempting to turn a genre on its head but the resulting story still has to be good.
Despite the problems with the plot and characters, the writing itself is easy to read, uncomplicated and flows well. I’d be interested to read another of Nicholas J Johnson’s books to see if he can improve on his debut but that other book won’t be at the top of my to read list for quite some time.
*First published on Goodreads 12 August 2015