Review: Rock and Roll Rip-Off by RJ McDonnell

Posted: April 8, 2014 in Reviews
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This review was originally posted at West of Mars. It is being posted here, at its new permanent home.

I was a huge fan of RJ McDonnell’s first book, Rock and Roll Homicide. It’s a definite West of Mars recommended read; there’s so much great stuff happening in it.

So I was excited when I was told by friends that RJ’s second book, Rock and Roll Rip-Off was even better.

The plot certainly was. It’s clever: our friend Jason Duffy is hired to recover a stolen memorabilia collection. That’s not so clever, maybe, although it most certainly is unique (and I love unique). It’s the details — and in McDonnell’s world, it is ALL about the details — that set this story apart. The collector is a good guy who relied on his collections, culled from friends he’s made over the years, to make up for his paltry salary as a studio musician. He’s got college tuition to pay for; he’d been relying on being able to sell off certain items to make the payments. His friends who help supply his collection know what the score is. They support him, making this a refreshing turn in an age of celebrities who won’t sign autographs lest they show up on eBay.

The folk behind the heist aren’t your ordinary bad guys, either. In fact, the one main character, a woman, introduces one heck of a moral story: how far will you go for someone you love? To what end will you go to realize your dreams?

To McDonnell’s credit, he doesn’t dwell on these moral issues. Good thing; he’s too busy letting Jason, Jeannine, and Shamansky — along with Dad Jim (oy, the names that start with the same letter… including in this book, a John) — do their thing. When this team gets going (complete with Tourette’s sufferer Cory), there’s nothing that will stand in their way. Even assassins can’t get one over on Jason; he’s just too slick.

One of the strengths of this series is each character’s particular quirks. Jason’s the most sane of the lot; he’s our steady influence. Shamansky’s a foodie hiding behind a gruff cop exterior, Dad Jim is possibly the only likeable bigot on the planet, Jeannine is locked into a world defined by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Each of these characters lives and breathes.

In short, McDonnell is a master at creating characters. He’s got great plot ideas, and no one can doubt he knows his rock and roll world.

So why isn’t this guy a household name? He should be. He’s solid in all these areas, including plot tension and the need to know what comes next. Really. What’s the issue?

I mentioned some rough editing when I reviewed Rock and Roll Homicide. In Rip-Off, it got worse. Oh, the cymbals are still symbols, and the one character drives a Camero. Those are annoying, of course. But in this book, the major problem is a tendency to slip into present tense. It is almost as if McDonnell were leaving notes for himself — notes he forgot to incorporate into the prose.

This is where I go nuts. McDonnell’s got the story. He’s got the bad guys, some of whom are truly awful and some who are likeable. In Rip-Off, these characters prove my oft-repeated mantra that desperate people do dumb things. It’s fun to watch them mess up, even as we’re rooting for them to come clean and make right by the victim.

Best of all, because they are so real, Jason and company linger beyond the end of the story. I’m anxious to read a third book featuring them. I love the twists and turns, the way McDonnell escalates the action and the ante for his core characters. I love the well-placed harmonica and how real it is when Jason needles his father and makes his mother play peacemaker. I love the music world and how McDonnell incorporates it and brings us inside it.

If I could take an author along with me on my rock and roll journey, it would most likely be McDonnell. He’s got the right blend that I’m looking for — making the people who inhabit this often-seeming glamorous world into ordinary folk. He brings them down to a human level, and he avoids the usual cliches as he does so.

This, folks, is what rock and roll fiction ought to be about. Focus on that, ignore the typos that make this ex-copy editor wish she could take a pass through the next Jason Duffy book, and have yourself some rockin’ fun.

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