Dirty Money – Ashley Bartlett (Bold Strokes Books)

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I usually hate the second books of trilogies. They lack the excitement and wonder of the first, maintaining a holding pattern and, more often than not, fracturing the narrative with little reward. And just when they get their own head of steam going, they’re done. They’re bridges.  Transitions. But even though Ashley Bartlett’s Dirty Money is the transitional book between Dirty Sex and Dirty Power, due out next month, it breaks all of the above rules. And then some.

Vivian Cooper (or just Cooper, thanks very much) is best friends with Ryan DiGiovanni; however she’s in love with his sister, Reese. When she’s not hating her. And they do indeed hate each other like only two women meant to be together can. To complicate matters, the DiGiovanni’s are mobsters. Cooper and Ryan and Reese steal some gold bars from the Syndicate and run away to Mexico. But that locale proves to be even less of a refuge than it usually does. When the gold and the twins disappear, Cooper goes underground to work for the mob boss for information. And she gets it.

Bartlett’s prose kills. It’s a lethal, whipcrack weapon, studded with barbs and steeped in acid-etched sarcasm. Cooper (who, I suspect, is only millimeters removed from Bartlett herself) has a wonderful voice and is a perfect narrator, at once stupid and wise, innocent and world-weary, and totally in love with Reese.

Equally at home setting a scene in a Mexican cantina, a mob boss’s apartment, or a warehouse torture segment, Bartlett has exquisite taste when it comes to selecting the right detail. And no matter how much plot she has to get through, she never rushes the game. Her writing is so well-paced and so self-assured, she should be twice as old as she really is. That self-assuredness also mirrors through to her characters, who are fully realized and totally believable.

But this is Cooper’s story, and Bartlett never drops the stitch once. No author intrusion, no false moves, no poorly-motivated decisions—and as a result, by the time you’re half way through the book, you absolutely know how Cooper will react to any given situation. That’s how to draw a character. To watch Cooper head up a marijuana harvesting operation in Mexico, to torture the family’s enemies with her mentor Esau (then go out for Thai food afterward), or to have her heart broken by Reese is to understand the amazing human condition we’re all part of. And the contradictions we’re all capable of.

Does Dirty Money stand alone, then? Well, yes and no. In terms of plot, there’s nothing in the first book that can’t be extrapolated from the information given here, so what I said in the introduction here still stands. However, my advice is to go back and read Dirty Sex anyway, just to bask in the glow of a wonderful character written with intelligence, verve, and absolute surety.

Don’t stop at three, Ash. Please?

©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler

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