Guilty Money, by David Crosby (A Will Harper Thriller/Mystery) [Review]

“A comfortable attempt to address a real-world issue, but without much thrill or mystery.”

Author David Crosby’s Will Harper series is very successful and includes eight novels. I picked up a box set of the first three books in the series to see what the fuss is about. I ended up reading book #2, Guilty Money. The series is branded as “A Will Harper Florida Thriller (Will Harper Mystery Series)” — so it’s a thriller and a mystery, supposedly. The problem is that there is no mystery at all, and as a thriller it’s more of a mild tingle. There’s also a substantial love story/romance subplot that is so PG-13 and lacking in angst that it feels like filler. While the main plot addresses a serious social issue, and the writing is clean and comfortable, the read seems like a network TV after-school special. It’s fine, but it leaves you asking “Is that all?”

The author bludgeons the reader with multiple orations on the evils of the “debtor’s prison” concept — that poor people are locked up for minor criminal offenses, or even traffic violations, because they can’t pay the fines. Being in jail, of course, doesn’t help them pay their fines, or take care of their families. It’s a serious problem. Mr. Crosby tries to make this into a novel by conjuring up a fully corrupt county sheriff’s office where the head of the county jail has cooked up a scheme where these poor victims are charged with drug possession (a bogus claim) and a large bail is set. They are then given a court date, but never actually notified of it. This results in a forfeiture of their bail bond money, which the county keeps and the evil mastermind divvies up among his cronies and himself. Along the way, the villains abuse the prisoners. The story begins with a man named Jimmy being hauled into the jail after getting into a bar fight with one of the deputies. Jimmy is kept in solitary for thirty days, starved nearly to death, then released without ever being allowed to make a phone call. Jimmy is pissed, and seeks revenge, but that’s not the main plot.

Our hero, Will Harper, gets drawn into the issue because a relative of a friend is caught in the corrupt web. Will, a former journalist and now full-time boat owner, starts poking around into what’s happening in the jail. A journalist investigating corruption in the local government is certainly good fodder for a novel, but here there is no mystery to uncover, since the author tells us from the start exactly what’s going on, who the (very) bad guys are, and who the victims are. There is an intrepid female ACLU lawyer and a sympathetic county judge (from a different county) already working on the case and they link up easily with Will. When Will gets too close, the corrupt (and also now drug-using Chief Deputy) predictably hauls Will into the jail and targets him — as if killing the journalist will solve the problem. While the author tries to create some thrills and suspense by putting Will in peril, there is very little in the story that is thrilling and there is never any mystery. The investigation moves very linearly and there are no unexpected twists or surprises.

Throughout the book, there is a major subplot involving Will and woman named Bonnie, who have an affair filled with casual sex (that occurs off-camera). Will wonders who Bonnie really is, since she won’t tell him her last name, or anything else about herself. This little “mystery” in the subplot doesn’t save the story from being very predictable, and Bonnie ties heavily back into the events of book #1, forcing the author to include many references to those earlier events. The romance never sizzles and there are no great revelations about Will or anything else. If you’re expecting character development, it’s not present here.

All that said, the story moves along fairly nicely, aside from the too-long interludes of the Bonnie subplot, as Will and his allies try to reveal the evil bad guys. The villains are one-dimensional, but they serve their purpose. The author strings the reader along to the neat and tidy conclusion without much suspense. There is another subplot involving Jimmy and his attempt at revenge against the cruel deputy, but it also fails to provide much in the way of thrills or mystery. The book is a comfortable read, and addresses a serious social issue, but it lacks a punch and leaves you wishing the story had been more interesting.

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