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Review: 'Little Elvises' compelling, suspenseful

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This book cover image released by Soho Press shows "Little Elvises," by Timothy Hallinan.

"Little Elvises" (Soho Press), by Timothy Hallinan

Ever since Dashiell Hammett introduced us to Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon" 83 years ago, hundreds of writers have adopted his formula, flooding the bookshelves with wisecracking private eyes who work both sides of the law, disrespect authority, icily stare down gun barrels and conceal an immutable code of honor beneath a cynical outer shell.

This can get awfully tiresome, but every now and then a writer comes along with the imagination and skill to make the whole thing feel fresh and new again. That's what veteran crime novelist Timothy Hallinan has accomplished with his latest series of novels featuring Junior Bender, full-time Los Angeles burglar and part-time private eye-style fixer for the city's criminal element.

The first book in the series, "Crashed" (2012), was great fun. The new one, "Little Elvises," is even better, with an intricate high-stakes plot, a compelling subplot and heart-pounding suspense.

As the story opens, Junior is in a fix, or rather, a bunch of them. The ex-wife he still yearns for has a new man in her life. His precocious daughter, who just turned 13, has acquired her first boyfriend, and Junior doesn't approve. The daughter of Junior's eccentric landlady has run off with a cad, and she needs Junior's help to bring her home. And an L.A.P.D. detective is going to frame Junior for invading a judge's house, pistol-whipping his honor's wife and stealing their jade collection unless Junior finds a way to get the cop's elderly uncle out of a murder rap.

The uncle, a record producer in Philadelphia back in the 1950s, got rich by recruiting a bunch of no-talent pretty boys, fixing their hair and teaching them to curl their lips to make them look like Elvis Presley, and foisting their abysmal howls on teenage record buyers. (Those with the misfortune of remembering the likes of Len Barry, Johnny Caswell and Johnny Madara know this really happened.) Hence, the book's title.

Along the way, Hallinan introduces us to a drugged-out, pain-impervious hit man, a nonagenarian puppet master who rules the L.A. underworld, a tabloid reporter who uses his job as a cover to blackmail the rich and the famous, and a host of other characters as dangerously outrageous as the murderous crew obsessed with obtaining the black bird in Hammett's 1930 masterpiece.

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