This isn’t your typical hitman story. I had only read one previous crime novel by Ed Lynskey –LAKE CHARLES (see my review here) – but like that first novel, I enjoyed ASK THE DICE immensely. Much like Elmore Leonard, and I mean this comparison very favorably, ASK THE DICE relies on a small cast of interesting, off-beat characters who engage in a healthy mix of witty repartee and furious action.

Please note: some plot spoilers follow, though I promise not to wreck every twist and turn in the novel.

Tommy Mack Zane is a professional hitman who has been loyally working for Watson Ogg, a Washington, DC crime lord for the past couple decades. Tommy Mack is now late middle-aged and more than a little tired of cleaning up Ogg’s dirty work, to the point that he has begun contemplating retirement. Before he can fade off into the sunset, Tommy Mack is inexplicably framed for the murder of one of Ogg’s two nieces. The word quickly goes out on the street that Tommy Mack is a marked man and he must flee for his life. He’s also got to figure out why he was framed and, perhaps, exact a measure of revenge. Through the course of the story, we also see Tommy Mack’s past slowly unfold as we learn how a pretty likeable guy ended up spending his adult life as a contract killer. There’s plenty of furious action and chases throughout, as well as a final confrontation with Ogg and his “dark suits” (goons), resulting in a very nice resolution to the plot.

There was one very minor pet peeve in the story, and it’s one I freely admit would not bother most readers: I lived in the Washington, DC and Northern Virginia area for twelve years and love it. The unique geography of the city and its environs, especially as used by other local authors like crime novelist George Pelecanos, allows for some fascinating use of setting. To be sure, Lynskey generally does a good job with DC, mentioning real places like Adams Morgan, Annandale, and Baltimore. But he has chosen to insert some fictitious locations too – Old and New Yvor Cities, in particular — and much of the action takes place there. For me, that creates a jarring effect that breaks my suspension of disbelief. Where are these places? Somewhere down Route 1? What are they like? I assume they are kind of decaying and sketchy, but I don’t really know. To be fair to Lynskey, he explains why he did this in his blog, and I respect that decision, I just wish that he’d used a few more real locations.

I should also add that Tommy Mack is a poet, and in several places in the novel we are treated to some of his poems. I wouldn’t ordinarily describe myself as a lover of poetry (sorry, folks), but I actually really enjoyed these pieces, so I wanted to mention that specifically here. (The poems are apparently previously published pieces by Lynskey, but fit in very neatly here as, I think, exactly the kind of poems Tommy Mack would write.)

I recommend ASK THE DICE highly. Lynskey’s use of setting is one of the strongest aspects of the book (it doesn’t hurt that the book is set in my old stomping grounds) and I salute him for delving into a real sense of place that too many other novelists only gloss over. If you are looking for a tight crime novel with spare but engaging prose, look no further than ASK THE DICE.

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Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers