“I remember thinking I wish my dad had pushed me to learn a trade,” he says, sitting in a Toronto restaurant over lunch the other week.
Eventually, Laukkanen stumbled across an online ad: Spend six weeks in Las Vegas reporting on the World Series of Poker.
“It was Craiglist — [it] hardly looked legitimate,” he recalls. “In fact, when I told my dad about it he wanted me to make sure I didn’t give them my credit card number.
Despite knowing next to nothing about the game, Laukkanen was hired by a website called PokerListings.com and spent the next three years jet-setting from Monaco to Macau, covering poker tournaments in some of the glitziest casinos in the world.
“They basically gave us a blank cheque and told us go where you want to go,” he says. “It was a dream job. I was 23 when I took the job. I didn’t have a passport. I had never seen any other parts of the world. And suddenly I was being flown to Monaco, Barcelona, getting put up in swanky hotels, and just living the life.”
The world of publishing is decidedly less glamorous, especially for a first-time novelist, but if the substantial buzz around Laukkanen’s debut thriller, The Professionals, is any indication — he’s garnered blurbs from the likes of Lee Child and Jonathan Kellerman, and shares the same editor as Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler — the now 29-year-old author might be resuming that first-class lifestyle very soon.
“For me, as a debut author, it’s insane,” he says of the novel’s reception. “I’m pretty much a lottery winner, in a lot of ways.”
In a lot of ways, the characters who inhabit The Professionals are the exact opposite. The book could be considered recession lit; it’s a thriller about a group of four twentysomething college friends who, armed with useless degrees and student loans, decide a life of crime is preferable to a life working at Starbucks.
“I didn’t set out to write the post-recession thriller, or to be overtly political or anything,” Laukkanen insists. “But I had followed the economic meltdown in the States pretty closely — I remember, in 2008, around the time I was quitting [PokerListings] a friend of mine banked with Washington Mutual and the bank went under.”
When he began writing the novel, in October 2009, unemployment in the United States was hovering around 10%. Around the same time, he watched a television program about career kidnappers in developing nations. “I thought, ‘How would it work in the States?’"
The kidnappers in The Professionals — Pender, the leader; Marie, his girlfriend; Mouse, the brains; and Sawyer, the brawn — decide the problem with criminals is that they’re too greedy. Instead of targeting celebrities and politicians, Pender and his gang target mid-level executives instead, and ask for a moderate ransom instead of holding-out for millions of dollars. Of course, things go terribly wrong after they kidnap a “made” man.
“You can get away with crime, until you get greedy,” says Laukkanen, who was raised in Windsor, Ont., but now calls Vancouver home. “If you do it little by little, you can get away with it for a long time. It’s when you start going for the big score, as in the book, or somebody suddenly decides he’s going to embezzle one million bucks — it’s hard to hide that.”
Still, for all their faults, and the crimes they commit, you find yourselves rooting for Pender and his friends to outwit the two cops on their tale, Stevens and Windermere, whom will star in Laukkanen’s next novel. “I didn’t want to write about singularly malevolent kidnappers,” he explains.
His second novel, tentatively titled Criminal Enterprise, will feature a similarly nuanced villain: a middle-aged accountant who turns to robbing banks to support his family after losing his job.
“I definitely do want to write about characters who are emphatic, and bad guys with whom one can relate,” he says. “I like the idea of people reaching the end of the book and not knowing who to cheer for.”
In her debut novel, Maxine, Wilkshire’s eponymous protagonist does her best to barricade herself from the outside world in general, and in particular the overt friendliness of her new neighbour Barb. It’s just been over a year since the 9/11 attacks, which coincided with the sudden death of one of Maxine’s closest friends. The conflation of these two events inspires Maxine to quit her job and escape her tidy life by spending a year writing a novel.
She’s done very little writing, though, and the little she’s doing is thwarted by her neighbour. Barb shows up at Maxine’s door unannounced, stages driveway ambushes whenever Maxine leaves the house, and coerces Maxine to babysit her nine-year-old son Kyle. Maxine is surprised to discover, however, that she likes Kyle’s company and that, as his parents struggle with their own problems, he actually needs her. Even more surprising is that she grows to need him too. Kyle helps Maxine with her writing, cheers her on as her word-count grows and urges her to enter writing contests.
Maxine is an unlikely novelist. Although we’re told she holds an English degree and has worked with words as a corporate communications officer, she doesn’t seem passionate about language or stories, and she hardly reads at all. Maxine regards novel-writing as an “acquirable skill,” like sewing or gardening; she just wants to learn something new. Yet she also uses writing to escape the tedium of her life and surroundings — to travel, even if it’s in her own imagination, to where her excessive caution prevents her from going in reality. We see glimpses of Maxine’s novel, and they’re not very promising. She’s invented an alter-ego named Frédérique, who is everything her creator isn’t, but Maxine is as aimless as a writer as she is in her real life, perpetually unable to think up a plot.
Wilkshire’s narrative is unabashedly self-aware.
One of Maxine’s friends tells her that the plot of her novel will probably end up involving “a politician, a death, a prize winner and a missing child,” a wink to the reader who will discover that Wilkshire’s novel does just that. Later, Maxine notes that her own novel is “all over the place, like a department store on Christmas morning,” and the reader understands, for Wilkshire’s novel seems just as disorganized. It is as though Maxine and Wilkshire were both faced with the same conundrum: here is this character, but now that I’ve brought her to life I’m not sure what to make her do.
Wilkshire’s solution is a madcap scheme involving a fraudulent literary prize and a whirlwind trip to Paris. There are vividly funny scenes that had me laughing out loud, and Wilkshire has an ear for dialogue — Maxine records overheard conversations in her notebook. Still, I longed for more. Wilkshire clearly possesses literary skill beyond Maxine’s middling talents, and I wish she could have shown more mastery of her material. The plot’s sudden tragic turn near the end is treated too lightly to be taken seriously, and seems incongruous with the rest of the book.
For a novel so self-aware, Maxine seems unsure of where it’s going. Just as Maxine would benefit from getting out more, so too might Claire Wilkshire benefit from ceasing to hide her obvious talents behind her less-skilled literary creation.