Repeat Offender, by Bradley Nickell

I came across this book almost entirely by accident: I realized I’d picked up a follower on Twitter who wrote first-person, true-crime stories. That was sort of “say no more” territory for me for a variety of reasons. What can I say? I am an inveterate reader and Amazon one-click purchasing is dangerous.

There might be spoilers ahead. I really don’t care about spoilers too much–it’s just not something that bothers me–but it really bothers some folks. So, warning issued.

Executive summary

A veteran Las Vegas detective attempts to take down a career criminal who operated more like a minor industrial enterprise than a simple burglar. The characters are dynamic and dangerous; the storylines are quietly gripping and are told in a fashion that is meticulous to a fault.

If you’re looking to be impressed with someone’s literary bona fides, i.e., how many times they can cite “DeLillo” or “Pynchon,” if you’re looking for postmodern “flourishes,” if you’re looking for Wes Anderson-twee-magical-realism, you’ll be miserable. This book is Earthy and genuine–it’s the real deal. Recommend.

Order versus chaos

On the surface, this is a simple story and a staple of the crime genre. We have Daimon Monroe, a career criminal who essentially ran a contraband Best Buy out of his home. We have the author, Brad Nickell, a veteran Las Vegas detective pursuing Monroe as part of an elite “repeat offenders” unit. These two men are set on a collision course and collide they do, over, and over, and over. The surveillance and counter-surveillance games are fascinating. Observing Nickell piece together Monroe’s modus operandi though reading and listening–particularly with the “Matthew” riddle–is the kind of obsessive work that fans of the genre will stay up well past bedtime reading.

The narrator-detective has the microscopic meticulousness and relentlessness that  we crime-readers and crime-writers crave in our investigators (Sherlock Holmes, George Smiley, Harry Bosch–take your pick!) He reveals himself to be both principled and pragmatic.

  • Principled: the desire to protect society from its predatory members.
  • Pragmatic: protecting society is great in the abstract and in the concrete, you need informants, and they are often fellow predators.
  • Pragmatic: you need to sit and listen to hours of phone calls made from jail.
  • Pragmatic: you need to figure out what or who “Matthew” is–the Matthew episode is a terrific detour.

One of the big breaks in the case doesn’t come through a car chase or a raging firefight– but rather the careful discovery and intuitive, emotionally sensitive handling of Monroe’s romantic partner (for lack of a better phrase), a young woman named Tammy.

By night, Tammy helped Monroe hide his ill-gotten gains. By day, she was a school teacher, raising their two children. She is never gawked at or treated sordidly, nor is she given carte blanche to erase her past mistakes, which are quite serious. She’s neither pure saint nor pure sinner–she’s just a person living a turbulent life. She’s given room to have her own set of circumstances that led her into a toxic, brutal relationship with Monroe, and then she encounters a way to, possibly, change things. The detective doesn’t “gift” her anything or “save” her; Tammy has options and sets her own course.

She’s a terrific character, and, in the end, she is central to helping our detective crack page after page of Monroe’s coded, indecipherable phone calls, confirming or re-defining certain details and elements. Her insight into how Monroe operated his stolen goods shopping mall from their house was eye-popping. I would argue that as much as the detective-narrator showcases fearlessness and professional capability in the field, what sealed the case was his ability to connect with Tammy as a caring, interested, authentic human being. The portrayal of her own trajectory, along with the arc of the relationship with the narrator, are major artistic triumphs in this work.

Any good story has a boogeyman, the more intense and dangerous the better, and Repeat Offender does not lack in this regard.

Daimon Monroe was a wild, extreme character. He looked liked he played in a Poison or White Snake cover band, not like he was a industrial-grade robber with an enormous rap sheet–but, indeed, stealing is what he did for a living. He lifted jacuzzis; he emptied out spas; he picked off commercial refrigerators and lined them with stolen food; he took practically entire art galleries; sports memorabilia, gemstones–if it could be had, he went after it.

I used the word wild to describe him and that should be taken literally. Monroe was animal-like, totally untamed, and is most likely untamable. He simply refused to sign on to the compromises and negotiations that people must make, no matter how unhappily, to exist in civil society. And as attempts to rein him in grew in strength, the more civil society refused to accept his flaunting of the basic legal customs of day-to-day life, things that keep order, ordered–the angrier and more unhinged he became.

He attempted to alert fellow criminals to the “Repeat Offenders” unit that had found him. He plastered signs all over Las Vegas to this effect. In retrospect, attempting to “out” officers in this type of unit strikes me as a remarkable, daring idea–as well as an extremely dark and dangerous one. Monroe’s most extreme act came while in prison; he attempted to carry out a series of hits against the law-folk assigned to his case. Mercifully, this action never came off.

A key reason why: a fellow prisoner.

This prisoner, no angel himself, found the idea of assassinating three law-folk to be morally unacceptable, so he agreed to inform on Monroe. People surprise you in ways good and bad. People have codes and principles. This, I believe, is even true of Monroe, though his code (anti-code, perhaps) would be best summarized as: whatever works for me, now, everyone else be damned.

You’ll notice by now that I’ve glossed over large parcels of plot. That’s because I do not think we read for plot; we read for characters, and we read to follow characters to their logical conclusions. This book goes to extreme places, quickly. The patient stalking, the paranoia, the “sleeping with an AR-15 at your bedside and wondering if you’re going to use it”–this book takes the reader right up to the razor’s edge of sanity.

Given that the author is a detective, it will come as no surprise that the book is staunchly pro-law. Yet the author takes great pains, in my view, not to reduce his views–religious, social or otherwise–to cartoonish stereotypes. Nor does he overly simplify Monroe himself. I was amazed at the author’s candor that he saw elements of his own life in the guy he was trying to put away. This just reinforced my belief that the narrator was being fundamentally authentic and genuine with me, the reader. The narrator’s voice was a rich, complex one that was easy to follow through the pages of a book.

The last third-ish of the work takes place in the courtroom, and it’s a mixed bag.

On one hand, it was like having two books in one; the pursuit, and the courtroom drama. On the other, the drama seemed to stall for me because I was “ahead” of the jury information-wise. There was an enormous amount of legwork done into compiling how the lawyers operated in court-battle and I found that interesting. I just didn’t find myself sitting on pins and needles anticipating the back-and-forth as much as I wished.

On the third hand, I had to remind myself, this is how trials work for the detectives. Their jobs were done long before–now they have to wait and hear everything again and see what the jury makes of it. The verbal combat, the slow process of building up and breaking down an argument, are captured at length. They were most capitvating when laced with the detective’s personal, running commentary about the work taking place before him.

Final thoughts

The narrator is neither an only-action, invincible Jack Reacher, nor a navel-gazing, whining, “don’t know what I want to do with my life” mumblecore-whatever. The detective is action-oriented and thoughtful. When the contract is offered on the narrator’s life, the story doesn’t veer into bombast. If anything, it gets quieter, offering up simple details of the narrator’s new reality–that seriously bad bad guys have the motive and means to kill him, while he’s also trying to pin down his case. The character delivers a Sam Peckinpah-like unspoken resolve, a refusal to back down to base, corrupt, criminal anarchy. This is a type of specifically male character, and it’s desperately needed today.


On reviewing stuff

I am an avid reader of art criticism. This sounds incredibly haughty and pretentious but it is not. Everyone should read book, film, food music and visual arts criticism. Really nasty reviews (oof) are often hilarious, but I won’t do that kind of thing here, and it’s not really why I read reviews or criticism (although, okay, sometimes it is.)

I use criticism and reviewing basically interchangeably. I saw (somewhere! can’t recall where!) that reviewing was more tilted toward plot summation than criticism, which was more conceptual. An interesting distinction but one that I think is ultimately splitting hairs.

Art criticism teaches thinking.

It requires the reader-listener-observer to be present in the receiving of the work, to be a concentrated, focused, active reader, watcher or hearer. And then it ask two separate but linked questions.

First: does the work, work? If so, why, and if not, why not?

Yes or no is not sufficient. There must be reasoning and the reasoning must have basis in evidence. I say evidence, not facts and I think there is a distinction here. In any given work of any art, two people can easily construe the same sentence, film shot, musical technique, etc. in different–possibly diametrically opposed–ways. This is a classic idea, expressed best in William Empson’s excruciatingly difficult-to-read tome on ambiguity. But, yeah, evidence: I must have concrete statements, drawn from the work in question, that are used to build an argument.

Second, what is the work supposed to do?

It’s impossible to answer whether something is effective until you know what it’s supposed to do in the first place. Put it this way: a finesse pitcher doesn’t care about hitting 100 mph on the radar gun (see: Ginny Baker! or Greg Maddux) and evaluating the pitcher that way is nonsensical. You’d evaluate that pitcher in terms of movement, location and command. A guy who steals 60 bases with little home-run power would never be evaluated in terms of the greatest slugger of all time. In sum, you can’t answer whether a novel works until you’ve thought about why any novel works.What is the nature of the novel versus the short story? You can’t address the strengths and weaknesses of a crime novel until you’ve thought about the crime genre itself. Painting, photography, rock music–this idea applies regardless of the subject being thought-about.

And finally, a statement:

No conclusions before inquiry.

I swore that I hated musicals until my wife, who is in love with musical theater, started making me go with her. I went along out of respect for her interests and passion, but then I found, hey, musicals can be incredible. Dear Evan Hansen and Waitress blew my mind–they were wonderful shows. Now: there are many things I loathe and I will say so. Creed, Nickleback, most poetry and frankly most MFA-programmatic fiction all come to mind. I’m not now, and will never ever, argue for “liking everything.” I’m saying: be open to being surprised.

Reviewing requires a lot of thinking. I guess I’m just a thinky-type.

I also believe that the word “criticism” is not used properly most of the time. Too many, I think, have misconstrued criticism for negativity. Negativity closes doors and creates defensive postures. This is precisely the opposite of where I’m trying to go. I’m into opening doors and creating connections between ideas and emotions and work. Criticism is a means of parsing, analysis and understanding. It is not a vehicle for nastiness or putting-down. That is antithetical to good criticism.

Rather than having a 5 or 10 point scale, I have come up with a simpler system to “rate” work that I write about.

  • Strong recommend: Stop everything and read (see, hear, play, observe) this now. I expect these to be rare.
  • Recommend: Whatever flaws might exist, the strengths outweigh them.
  • Pass: Read (see, hear, play, observe) if you want, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
  • Hard pass: Stay away. Stay far, far away. I expect these to be rare.

I aim to use this space to shed light on work–music, writing, visual arts, even guitars and amps and guitar effects–anything that moves me, I will explore why. That, to me, is reviewing.