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Spotlight on: Love is a Racket by John Ridley

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Love is a Racket by John Ridley John Ridley, Love is a Racket

"Truth: Whenever there are two people sharing space there's somebody trying to pull something on someone else. The plans aren't always big and grand, and the scam isn't always strictly illegal, but everybody's got a racket." -- Love is a Racket

It starts with the sound of broken fingers and lauches into a darkly funny attack on free health care, letting us know immediately that Love is a Racket by John Ridley (the author of Stray Dogs, which was turned into Oliver Stone's U-Turn) is no lighthearted romp.

Ridley quickly shows us that his protagonist Jeffty (the owner of those broken fingers) is a real loser. He can't even seem to sell drugs properly and he drives a GM Corvair. As he tells it, "In L.A., you are what you drive. Me? I'm unsafe at any speed" (citing the famous book by social activist Ralph Nader). When he attends a double feature of films starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews (Laura and Where the Sidewalk Ends), he paints himself instantly with a negative brush as he describes his co-patrons. "Losers all," he says, then adds, "I fit in quite cozily."

In the midst of trying to pay back a steadily-increasing debt to Haitian bookie Dumas, our loser -- er ... hero -- gets a visitor that looks like a n easy payday. His friend, Nellis, with whom he shared a life-changing event for both of them -- turns out to be a sure hand at zen poker: he can tell who at a poker table has (or will have) the winning hand; if it's not him, he folds. Jeffty sees in Nellis a way out of his predicament and they head on the road to Vegas.

Most of Love is a Racket consists of Jeffty looking for myriad ways out of this hole he has dug for himself, with Dumas continually getting angrier and using increasingly more violent methods of persuasion. Making him a failed screenwriter was a smart move, because it not only gives him a broken dream to lament, but also makes him instantly sympathetic and makes the articulate prose of this sad sack realistic. Mainstream readers can follow the plot and musings with getting distracted by slang or dialect. It also makes him seem smarter than the average person and his creative methods for getting out of trouble more entertaining.

And Love is a Racket is definitely entertaining. The autobiographical aspects of the book make it fascinating on another level, but it is on its own a satisfying and moving read, especially after the entry of what amounts to a loser's love interest in vagabond Mona. (I learned from Lawrence Block's Grifter's Game to steer clear of women named Mona.) They have a fascinating conversation about Frank Sinatra films, the kind that only happens in fiction (and usually that written by Elmore Leonard). Ridley also shows some of Leonard's skill in his ability to milk humor out of even the most shocking and disturbing events, the likes of which continually seem to happen to Jeffty.

The ending gets a little crazy as Ridley attempts to wrap up several plot points simultaneously within thirty pages, but the majority of Love is a Racket is a remarkable variation on modern noir that fans of the genre (and especially of the new paperback imprint Hard Case Crime) would enjoy.

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