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The Safe Game

by Wes Verde

Rating: ****

Honest, intelligent thieves are probably how ‘The Cons’ would describe themselves as they devise evermore clever ways to part the not-so-bright from their money.

However, the three of them, Roy, Victoria, and Urbane, live a fairly hand-to-mouth existence despite their successful career of duplicity. They need a big job and as luck would have it, one comes their way. But, with a murder to navigate, double-dealing, mistaken identity, corruption, and buried secrets, the Cons will need every ounce of their cunning and skill…

The Safe Game is a novel to lose yourself in, it’s long, involving, and incredibly rewarding. Every angle of the narrative is chock-full of detail, observation, intelligent consideration, and something a little bit personal. Verde’s prose is eloquent, sharp, and engaging. There are little, understated flourishes and a subtle surface to his writing that suits the nature of the story and the late 1920s setting.

Indeed, the period is used to good, complementary effect. It’s integral to the action, without overshadowing, and the whole book is shot through with a touch of wry amusement even in the bleakest moments.

Personally, the first half/two-thirds of the novel were the strongest. The beginning of the story, involving the Dollar Machine Game was so alive and immediate. I was instantly transported, not only to time and place but also among the people who are bought richly to life.

The narrative deftly switches by chapter from person to person, location to location, moving between the characters to tell their story and participate in various areas connected to the main plot before interests begin to converge, although not always in the way the reader expects.

However, the real stars of the book are the three Cons and I flickered between whom I liked the best, finally settling on Urb. There is gentle decency and quiet integrity to him that the other Cons do not possess.

Nonetheless, each of them is, from the very first chapters, very individual, supremely intriguing, and really convincing. Hints of backstory are threaded through their respective chapters, all of which is credible and never too exaggerated or cliched.

Victoria’s story was nicely handled and the reader is given a clear, interesting sense of the vulnerability that she carries so close and masks with varying success. I could have more of her and Urb, both separately and together.

Roy, as the story progresses, became quite unlikable in places. He is selfish, ruthless, and, also, a touch pathetic. Notwithstanding, large areas of the novel become Roy’s story, and there were moments, I did consider whether The Safe Game is two or even three books in one. The subplot with Emma, although fairly compelling, almost felt as if it deserved its own novel.

Consequently, The Safe Game does occasionally feel too protracted but the sheer infectious articulation of Verde’s writing and the scale of his imagination carries the reader along. And, as the action heats up, The Safe Game becomes really quite difficult to put down and is almost too uncomfortably nail-biting in parts.

The twists, turns, and cases of mistaken identity that Willie (“The Rookie) and Roy indulge themselves in are edge-of-the-seat stuff and Verde capably teases the reader with flashes of insight and revelation before snatching them away again and turning them on their head.

Although this is the Cons book, there are some wonderful character vignettes. Hershel, whom the reader meets in the last third of the novel, was a particular favorite.

The Safe Game is a clever, twisting, and highly entertaining novel littered with beguiling and believable characters. Highly recommended.

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