Author: R. J. McDonnell
Publisher:  Killeena Publishing
ISBN: 978-0-9814914-2-4

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I began reading Rock & Roll Rip-Off with some misgivings.  Too many authors, inspired by Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, or other famous series in popular fiction, start to write a series.  The tradition goes all the way back beyond Christie’s Miss Marple and Poirot to Conan Doyle’s Holmes.  The standard cliché that “you can’t argue with success” seems to mesmerize the writers’ world.

A series, successful or otherwise, is itself something of a rip-off.  A writer, comfortable with a character and perhaps stimulated by the character’s popularity, now has the freedom to pay more attention to developing other aspects of the story.  A better writer, on the other hand, takes the opportunity to also develop that main character a little more—returning to his childhood, lost loves, traumatic events, and so forth.

So I was worried about what McDonnell had served up on my reading platter this time.  Here we have the same cast of good guys as in Rock & Roll Homicide, which I also reviewed.  His main character, Jason Duffy, is a young and inexperienced PI, the son of an Irish cop in San Diego.  There is the Irish Mafia formed by Irish cops, active and retired, that are on the San Diego force along with a Polish cop who again begrudgingly helps our young PI in spite of not being a member (Jason’s father and Shamansky have come to respect each other since Homicide).  Duffy still employs the cameraman with Tourette’s syndrome and his obsessive-compulsive secretary.

The villains and the crimes have changed, however, at least initially.  So has the rock group.  It is no longer Doberman’s Stub but The Tactile Tattoo (I thought the first name was more original).  One of the villains is in the rock group and the only mystery is that for a bit you don’t know who he is—his girl friend just calls him Rock Star.  In fact, it’s hard to qualify this novel as a mystery.  It’s more in the thriller or suspense genre.  Generally I don’t consider that a negative, except for the fact that the author (or overly zealous copy writer?) calls it an “action whodunit.”  He shouldn’t try to force-fit this novel into the mystery genre.  It is what it is.

The plot revolves around a bad promoter, a drug deal, and a stolen memorabilia collection, a cascade of crimes that Duffy and friends have to solve.  That’s enough complexity to make me wonder what was really the rip-off alluded to in the title.  And there are homicides, both attempted and successful, just not up front as in the previous book.  These are mostly due to the bad guys trying to cover up their crimes.  Duffy himself is on a hit list, and not for his musical abilities.  He has to mull over the possibility that his occupation is too dangerous (fictional PIs always get into bad trouble—just think of Spencer, yet another popular character with a series).  He could just stick to insurance scams and divorce cases, but those cases wouldn’t make interesting novel material (unless a wife bumps off a husband to collect his life insurance, or vice versa). 

There is more tragedy here than in the previous book.  McDonnell is growing as an author.  Now his villains are generally ordinary but complex people who have fallen into temptation.  The bad guy in Rock & Roll Homicide was just a bad guy.  Here we can empathize with both the Rock Star and his desperate girl friend.  Their tragedy is not exactly Romeo and Juliet’s but it’s a modern one, believable and possibly ubiquitous.  Modern society is morally ambiguous:  lately my favorite bumper sticker is the one that says “I’m a Wall Street banker—trust me!”

Our PI hero Jason Duffy is also more carefully drawn.  We learn much more about him here as well as the rest of the cast of good guys.  The exception is the Polish cop.  I still consider him to be interesting enough to merit further development.  I would suggest to the author a plot where he and Duffy have to work even more as a team, maybe to save Shamansky’s butt from a persistent Internal Affairs cop.  Just a thought….

So here we have a series, if two books make one, a series that involves multiple characters.  Any book in a good series must stand alone (I entered the Reacher series in the middle).  Few writers can get away with a series where each book depends on the previous one (J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Dean Koontz’ Brother Odd series come to mind).  Rock & Roll Rip-Off stands alone and is probably the better of the two books.  You may approach it with some misgivings like I did—the title sounds too much like the first book, so you wonder.  Don’t.  McDonnell still tells an entertaining story, if not so funny this time.

Can he keep this up for a third volume?  We’ll see.  For now, savor the first two.  

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