By Christopher Reich
Mulholland Books, 2019
Christopher Reich’s readers will scarcely have had a chance to catch their breaths since the barrel-over-the-waterfall climax of his previous Simon Riske novel, The Take, and that’s their tough luck, because a new Simon Riske book is upon is: Crown Jewel drops readers almost immediately into the glittering world of high-end Monte Carlo casinos. In scarcely ten paragraphs, our stalwart hero is chasing down a card-sharp cheat and hurling himself into the kind of nonchalant derring-do that’s won him an international reputation as one of the best at whatever the hell it is he does.
In Crown Jewel, those glittering Monte Carlo casinos are having a bit of trouble: one of them reaches out to Simon Riske because recently the house has been losing hundreds of millions of dollars, and their own in-house security experts are baffled. Customers just seem to be winning more often, and naturally, such a travesty cannot be allowed to continue.
When Simon Riske isn’t leaping over tables or flinging his steely glance in all directions, he spends his free time fine-tuning expensive automobiles (you were expecting stamp collecting?), and yet despite this, the owner of the afflicted casino, who just happens to be the Duke of Suffolk (when Reich casts about for a currently-unused peerage title, he doesn’t footsy around with lesser rungs on the ladder), asks Riske to go to investigate. To his credit, Riske himself points out how ludicrously unqualified he is for such a job, but this doesn’t slow matters down for even a single paragraph. Can’t have a Simon Riske thriller without Simon Riske, now can we?
What follows is exactly the same Premier cru foamy nonsense that made The Heist so immensely enjoyable. At some point during the gestation of this Simon Riske series, Reich made the all-important decision to set the whole business in Cloud-Cuckoo Land rather than in the real world. This same decision has worked extremely well in the past for authors such as Ted Bell, Clive Cussler, and Jack Higgins, and it works extremely well here. The point in Crown Jewel isn’t the absurdity of the Duke of Suffolk asking an unqualified stranger to fly to Monaco (all expenses paid, of course) and stop a multimillion-dollar casino theft, no; the point is that the stranger is Simon Riske, hero extraordinaire:
Nothing revved his juices more than a little physical violence, even if he had been on the losing end of it. All measure of good sense had gone out the window the moment he’d given chase to the cheat. At that instant, his world had boiled down to him versus the bad guy, good versus evil, though it was a question of his ego run riot, not anything so grandiose as maintaining the universe’s order. Mess with me and you’re going to pay. It was as simple as that.
Crown Jewel takes its readers on many hairpin turn at breakneck speed, but in the end, things really are as simple as that. Readers of this kind of book expect nothing less, but the honest truth is that a great many of the current crop of such books don’t always manage to deliver even on their own very simplified terms. These first two Simon Riske novels deliver. Here’s to many more.
--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.