Along with Carl Hiassen, Timothy Hallinan is among Donald E. Westlake’s closest successors in the narrow genre of comic crime novels. To date, Hallinan has written six books in the Junior Bender series that feature a brilliant thief who doubles as a private investigator — for criminals.

Like Westlake, Hallinan built his career writing “serious” mysteries and thrillers, a total of a dozen to date. It’s unlikely he will ever come close to matching Westlake’s prodigious output. However, some of the half-dozen Junior Bender titles match the best of the Dortmunder series for the brilliance of their dialogue and the complexity of their plots. The Fame Thief, the third in that series, measures up in most respects, though the humor is forced at times.

The Fame Thief (Junior Bender #3) by Timothy Hallinan ★★★★☆

A cockamamie story about fame, fortune, and the mob

In The Fame Thief, Junior is pressed into service by L.A.’s 92-year-old mob boss, Irwin Dressler. For some unstated reason, Dressler insists that Junior investigate a half-century-old crime. Junior is reluctant and explains why. Dressler responds, “‘So. People try to kill you.”

“‘Occupational hazard,’ Junior says. I’m working for crooks, but I’m also catching crooks. If I solve the crime, the perp wants to kill me. If I don’t solve it, my client wants to kill me.”

But no one says no to Irwin Dressler. Fatalistically, Junior sets out to discover who orchestrated the public humiliation of Dolores La Marr, “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Though a friend of Dressler’s, she was literally in bed with a number of other gangsters in the 1940s. As a result, she was called to testify before the U.S. Senate rackets committee and her predilection for murderous lovers was revealed. La Marr’s star-power never recovered. Now in her 80s, she lives in anonymity in a luxurious Hollywood apartment.

Naturally, Junior’s investigation brings him into contact with a full cast of sleazy characters, at least one of them fully capable of dismembering him with his bare hands. The novel’s plot is deliciously complicated. It’s suspenseful and full of surprises.

Historical models?

Hallinan notes in the closing pages of his novel that “there was a real-life model for Irwin Dressler, the legendary Sidney Korshak. Korshak ran most of Hollywood on behalf of the Chicago mob for decades — studio moguls actually did talk to him daily — and also oversaw the creation of much of modern Los Angeles, including several now-respectable banks that were originally set up to launder money.”

However, the Dolores La Marr of The Fame Thief bears no resemblance whatsoever to Hedy Lamarr beside her surname. Lamarr, an Austrian-American film star from the 1930s to the 1950s, was in fact publicized as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Many agreed with the title. She was also a brilliant inventor who, with her husband, devised a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes. The principles in her invention were incorporated into many present-day technologies, including GPS and Wifi. (I reviewed Richard Rhodes’ biography of Lamarr, Hedy’s Folly, here.)

The legendary Donald E. Westlake

From 1959 until his death in 2008 at the age of 75, Donald E. Westlake wrote scores of crime novels under his own name as well as at least 17 pseudonyms. His work encompassed a half-dozen long-running series. Though he was most widely recognized for the numerous Hollywood films made of some of his books, the comic series featuring the brilliant crook John Dortmunder was probably best known to readers. Titles in that long-running series included some of the funniest books ever written about criminals and crime.

For further reading

This book is just one example of Timothy Hallinan’s Junior Bender series of very funny comic crime novels.

You might also be interested in My 17 favorite funny novels or Top 7 great popular novels reviewed on this site.

Also, you’ll find this and dozens of other excellent novels at 5 top Los Angeles mysteries and thrillers (plus lots of runners-up).

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