Criminal Paradise

Criminal Paradise

4.8 10
by Steven M. Thomas

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The literature of larceny welcomes a newcomer with some serious chops, as Steven M. Thomas muscles his way to a place at the table–elbow-to-elbow with Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen–courtesy of a harrowing, hilarious, two-fisted, hard-boiled thriller that’s pure heaven for anyone who loves a hell of a crime novel.

Robert Rivers is a crook. No


The literature of larceny welcomes a newcomer with some serious chops, as Steven M. Thomas muscles his way to a place at the table–elbow-to-elbow with Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen–courtesy of a harrowing, hilarious, two-fisted, hard-boiled thriller that’s pure heaven for anyone who loves a hell of a crime novel.

Robert Rivers is a crook. No excuses, no apologies. Breaking the law is his calling, crime is his rush, capers his reason for getting up in the morning and staying up late at night. But he’s a thief with honor, plotting and pulling off carefully choreographed heists where no shots are fired, no blood is spilled, and nobody gets hurt . . . except in the wallet. After a brief stint behind bars back in the day, he’s managed to carve out a comfortable existence, cheerfully plundering the sunny Southern California community whose streets he tools in the tweaked-out Cadillac DeVille that’s his pride and joy.

But now Rob (whose name has become ironic) is pushing forty, and–like his trusty partner, Switch, who’s got a pregnant girlfriend and a hefty stash of loot–he’s thinking about quitting the game. But then he and Switch, pulling their latest Butch and Sundance, score a payday that could end up costing them plenty. Inside a strongbox packed with greenbacks rests a disturbing black-and-white photo of a beautiful young girl, eyes full of fear as naked as she is. It’s an image that Rob can’t shake, and a wake-up call: There are rules even he won’t break. It’s also his one-way ticket into the underbelly of the underworld–a lethal landscape of sex slaves, sadistic psychopaths, and sawed-off shotguns, where honor is for fools, and trust is for suckers, where very bad people do even worse things and nice guys don’t finish at all. They just get finished off.

With its alluring setting, quirky characters, and restrained and subtle prose, Criminal Paradise has something for every thriller fan. And with sharp natural instincts and writing skills as serious as his humor is sly, Steven M. Thomas shows as much promise as any author on the suspense scene.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Patrick Lawlor's youthful, upbeat delivery is a fine fit for wiseguy mysteries (like Robert Crais's The Monkey's Raincoat), but it's something of a mismatch for a lean, gritty tale like Thomas's debut thriller. Tough but humane professional thief Rob Rivers knocks over a Southern California steak house and uncovers photographic evidence of what appears to be a sex slave operation that his conscience won't let him ignore. Through his first-person narration, Rivers says he has been at the game long enough to be thinking about retiring. Lawlor makes him sound as if he's still a novice, a particularly inappropriate interpretation considering that the thief has to do battle with several hardcore baddies. Add to that rapes, torture and lots of violence, and it becomes pretty clear this is no country for young (sounding) men. Simultaneous release with the Ballantine hardcover (Reviews, Dec. 3). (Apr.)

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Kirkus Reviews
An honorable thief in glossy Orange County strays from his business plan when a restaurant heist leads to the discovery of a sex-slave business. First-time novelist Thomas digs under the gleaming surface of that golden land between San Diego and Los Angeles and finds a fair amount of rot. The hero and narrator is career criminal Robert Rivers, a reformed alcoholic haunted by the memory of the daughter he lost in his drinking days. Now middle-aged and level-headed, he's settled into a nice life knocking off various businesses with his friend and partner Switch. Switch, however, may be getting ready to go legit. His girlfriend Melanie is with child, and he's saved enough from their heists to start thinking about an honest job. Then a routine restaurant robbery throws everything off kilter for the partners. The Cow Town steak house they stick up has way too much cash on the premises: $20,000, in a box containing a haunting photograph of an abused Vietnamese girl. Rivers, whose careful MO normally has him miles away from the scene of the crime immediately and permanently, can't resist snooping around to find out who the girl is and why she was so battered. His inquiries quickly lead to the discovery of a sex-slave business operated by Lewis McFadden, the hulking, sadistic, half-Korean owner of Cow Town and a number of other local eateries. Switch is not happy about the investigation and tries to stay out, but Reggie, the outlaw who taught Rivers the basics of the crime business, shows up in town, eager to get into the action. The old chums break into McFadden's house looking for loot and for Song, the girl in the photo, and find both. Repulsed by McFadden's evil business, Rivers sets out toruin him, falling in love with Song and putting all his associates in mortal danger. The criminal-as-detective gimmick works. This is a good start.
From the Publisher
Criminal Paradise is one hell of a story. Robert Rivers is a superb character: the wry voice, so full of compassion and weary knowledge; women would kill for this guy. The style is truly like Elmore Leonard. Send me anything Steven M. Thomas writes; he’s the rare and real deal.”
–Ken Bruen, author of The Guards

“Dark, violent, twisted, yet with a heartwarming understanding of an intelligent criminal mind–Thomas snags you from the robbery on page 1, convincing you that felony is a regular day job, and defining greed as a man’s deserved dreams.”—Vicki Hendricks, author of Cruel Poetry

“Both Steven M. Thomas and his case-hardened but humane thief Rob Rivers make striking debuts in this suspenseful slice of Southern California noir. The plot is the kind of gritty tale James M. Cain would have admired. And the hard-boiled yet poetic descriptions of Orange County flora, fauna, and criminal depravity read as if Raymond Chandler had somehow reemerged and moved his action a little to the south.”—Dick Lochte, author of Sleeping Dog

“A powerful 4.5 liter, fuel-injected V8 Cadillac Sedan DeVille of a novel. And with Steven Thomas behind the wheel, it’s an absolute joyride.”—Martin J. Smith, author of Time Release

“Thomas combines moments of genuine writerly grace with an attractively seedy locale and a number of memorably creepy characters. . . . Many crime fans will enjoy this one; here’s hoping Rivers returns to the scene of another crime.”—Booklist

“Stylish . . . with its witty narrator . . . and vividly described Southern California setting.”—Chicago Tribune

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Criminal Paradise
A Novel

By Steven M. Thomas
Ballantine Books
Copyright © 2008 Steven M. Thomas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780345497819

Chapter 1

We were robbing the Cow Town on Harbor Boulevard. It’s a big, barn-shaped steak house with a split-rail fence in front that does a land-office business on Father’s Day, the third-richest day of the year for most restaurants. All evening, circus acts of like-faced families had crowded in the entrance making the silly jokes that have no meaning to outsiders, young and middle-aged adults taking their fathers and grandfathers out for a meal that showed appreciation, but proved independence. The restaurant had closed at midnight and the last back-slapping, toothpick-chewing customers were gone by twelve-thirty. Most of the employees were gone, too. There were five people inside: the manager, the cashier, two dishwashers and a busboy.

The restaurant had an L-shaped parking lot that lay in front and along the left side of the building. Two junkers and two modest sedans were parked in the side lot. The dishwashers rode together. A chain-link fence overgrown with flowering honeysuckle vines ran along the back of the parking lot and building, continuing across the rear of an overgrown field on the far side. The blacktop alley between the fence and the back of the restaurant was just wide enough for a garbage or deliverytruck to squeeze in. Beyond the fence were the backyards of little stucco houses where lower-middle-class citizens were sleeping in their sagging, lower-middle-class beds, oblivious to life’s infinite possibilities.

Crouched against the back wall of the restaurant in the shadow of a wooden partition that screened the Dumpster, I took a deep breath, inhaling the vomit smell of restaurant garbage along with the perfume of the white and yellow flowers cascading down the fence. It was ten after one, very early in the morning on Monday, June 21, 1995. One of the Mexican dishwashers would be wheeling the last load of half-eaten baked potatoes and gnawed bones out into the dark alley any minute now. The locked back door he would come out of was on the other side of the partition, which extended at a right angle from the building.

The alley was dark because Switch had swung by two nights before, on his way back from selling a guitar in Laguna Beach, and clipped an inconspicuous wire, deactivating the light above the service door. The first night a back light is out, it makes them nervous. They are a little bit careful, slightly on guard. By the third night they are used to it—people fall into ruts that quickly. At the same time, there is no way they’ll get an electrician out to find the problem in just two days. Even if the day manager sees the night manager’s note and feels like reporting the problem to the maintenance contractor, the electrician will be busy or lazy or drunk and won’t be able to get there until the following week.

Reaching under the Dumpster, I pulled out a paper bag containing a polyester ski mask, a pair of brown jersey gloves and a heavy .38-caliber revolver. When I pulled the mask over my head, the adrenaline meter dilated, sending a flush of exhilaration through my branching nerves and blood, filling me with the happiness of the crime. Exhilaration solidified into confidence as I weighed the gun in my hand. It was a Smith & Wesson model 10, blued carbon steel with the four-inch barrel, the same basic double-action six-shooter used by thousands of highway patrolmen and beat cops around the country in the years before they were seduced by the glamour and superior firepower of semiautomatics. At nine and a half inches and thirty-two ounces, it wasn’t the easiest gun to conceal, but it was reliable, accurate and big enough to scare the shit out of people—which is what you want. If they are scared, you don’t have to hurt them. And it could be concealed. I’d carried it in and out of many interesting places, tucked in my belt beneath an aloha shirt or sport coat, walked past security guards and cops with a nod and a smile.

It wasn’t a fancy pistol, but it had become a talisman for me. I had carried it on every job we’d done in California and gotten away clean every time—no shots fired, no harm done. I was sure this job would go smooth, too. We’d be in and out in ten minutes with seven or eight thousand dollars for our trouble.

The bolt on the inside of the door snapped back and I moved forward to the end of the partition. The alley glowed. The big trash can clunked across the threshold and squeaked over the asphalt. As the dishwasher came around the end of the six-foot-high barrier, I pointed the gun at him and held my finger to my lips. He froze, that look of wonder they get illuminating his face. They wonder if it is really happening to them. They wonder why they ever left the place they came from. I think they wonder, briefly, if they are on TV. I motioned with my hand and the dishwasher moved out of the light from the propped open door, into the darkness of the enclosure.

“Habla inglés?”

He shook his head.

“That’s okay,” I said. “No hay problema. No hay peligro si hace que yo digo. Comprende?”

“Sí,” he said softly.

You have to know some Spanish to do stickups in Southern California. I couldn’t think of the word for trash can so I motioned with the gun and he pulled the gray rubber container into the Dumpster enclosure.

“Adalante, por favor,” I said, motioning with the gun again. “Silencio.”

Across the alley, my partner came out of a niche where the flower-covered fence jogged around a telephone pole. He’d covered me from the shadows on the off chance of a cop checking the back of the restaurant at closing time. The cop was rated an off chance because I knew from a few minutes research in a newspaper database at a nearby library that the restaurant had not been robbed in several years, and cops get lazy like everyone else.

Beneath his ski mask, Switch had a mobile Irish face that could change from tough to sly to jolly and back again in the time it took him to shake hands with a potential customer. At six feet and 240 pounds, he was two inches shorter than me and about fifty pounds heavier. Half the extra weight was fat, but he was solid underneath the padding. I wouldn’t have entered him in a long-distance race, but he could pivot in a flash and slam an opponent with a punch like a mule’s kick. He grew up in a city neighborhood around the corner from a gym with a boxing ring. While most of the would-be fighters I knew were practicing strip-mall karate, Switch was wearing out heavy bags, developing his body shots. He still sparred at a gym in Long Beach. Boxing was one of the few things other than guitar playing and Mexican women that I’d seen him stick with for more than a year or two at a time.

His first father-in-law called him the “notorious job-jumper” and didn’t mean it in a nice way. He’d had something like a hundred jobs in his twenties and early thirties, everything from Fuller Brush salesman to cable sports announcer. His long economic adolescence had been hard on his marriages and credit report, but it came in handy for us now. He’d moved west fourteen years before, in the early 1980s, and his knowledge of the cash flows and operational details of Southland businesses was a valuable resource.

Switch glanced back and forth as he transported his bulk across the alley on the balls of his feet, a sawed-off shotgun held inconspicuously along his right thigh. There was no traffic on the side street, no activity on the lot, and the three of us entered the back door of the restaurant in conga line formation. Switch closed and locked the door behind us.


Excerpted from Criminal Paradise by Steven M. Thomas Copyright © 2008 by Steven M. Thomas. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Steven M. Thomas is the award-winning author of many short stories, essays, and poems that have been published in more than fifty literary and small-press magazines in the United States and England. Until recently, he served as editor of OC Metro, a high-circulation magazine based in Orange County, California, where he lives. Criminal Paradise is his first novel.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Criminal Paradise 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
oldwoodsman More than 1 year ago
I read this in two sittings. It is a powerful page-turner. The story drew me in and wouldn't let me go. The "good guy" in this book is actually a criminal who gets mixed up in some dirty business in Orange County, California and ends up rescuing a kidnapped girl from a businessman/gangster/murderer who is in the process of going insane! The book doesn't need the afterward, which is a bit of an anticlimax, but other than that it is a first-rate read.
SuperSaul More than 1 year ago
Great characters, killer plot, and a wonderful evocation of the beautiful, mysterious Southern California setting. If you have ever lived in or visited Orange County or Long Beach, California, you will enjoy this debut novel which was nominated as best first novel by the International thriller Writers.
DonDonSays More than 1 year ago
I was blown away by this book. Exciting, entertaining and beautifully written, it is one of the best crime fiction books I have ever read -- and I've read a lot of them. It is hard to believe that it is Steven M. Thomas's first book. The action starts when Robert "Rob" Rivers and his partner Switch rob a restaurant in Orange County that gets them tangled up with a psychopathic criminal and puts them on the trail of a kidnapped girl who they try to rescue. The villain is one of the scariest -- and most original -- I've come across. The action scenes are great, the jokes funny, the conclusion powerful and bittersweet. A great first novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Criminal Paradise is the Cadillac of crime fiction, the debut novel by Steven Thomas and lets hope there are more to come. This is serious, hard-hitting suspense at its best. The story is set in sunny southern California, primarily Orange County. It revolves around the life of Robert Rivers, a lonely, professional criminal with a good soul and enough discipline to keep from getting caught. A discovery Rivers makes during the opening heist triggers a series of disturbing encounters and events that stir up inner demons which gnaw at him until he finds himself over his head in a brutal world of underground, organized crime. The only way out for Rivers is to get what he came for¿. There are a handful of classic characters in this book that I would love to see return for a sequel. Switch and Reggie are a perfect balance to the Rivers character. What I love most about this book is Thomas¿s knack for detail. There are several very intense moments in this book that are so realistic, they are truly scary and his use of words at several points (when Rivers is reminiscing) is quite poetic. Much more than entertaining crime fiction, I found this to be a touching artistic achievement of a novel¿..sure to become one of the most claimed of 2008. I¿ll be looking forward to a follow up.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For once a great crime novel that doesn't sterotype all of the characters as dastardly and full of hate. Robby Rivers is one of the most likeable criminals I have ever met. He and his friends are a joy to get to know. This story takes many intersting and unexpected twists. I especially liked the way the author used the beautiful Sourthern California landscape to draw you into a sense of peace, even when your character was speeding away from the sceen of a crime. Thomas' attention to detail is perfect, as he seems to know exactly what will keep your interest at what point in the novel. It's hard to believe this is his first full length novel. I look forward to taking many more great rides with him.
Guest More than 1 year ago
¿Criminal Paradise¿ is possibly the best mystery/crime novel I have ever read, and I read a lot of them. By the end of the first chapter, I was in love with the main character Robert Rivers and I liked him even more as the story progressed. Rob is a high-class thief who operates carefully along the Southern California Coast, doing burglaries and stickups. While robbing a restaurant on Harbor Boulevard in Orange County, he and his partner Switch find a photograph of a young Vietnamese girl that turns their lives upside down. It leads to them battling with some bad guys that make them look like angels by comparison as they try to save the girl and put her captors out of business. I love the coastal setting of the novel. Every place that Rob and Switch go, I felt like I was with them. There are a number of other great characters besides Rob and Switch, including Reggie, an old criminal buddy from St. Louis who shows up in time to help battle the bad guys, Mrs. Pilly Rob¿s funny landlady, and Song, the beautiful Vietnamese girl. Each character has so much personality you will feel like you know them personally. Song will touch something in every woman, and because of Rob she comes out victorious and strong in the end. I hope there are many more Rob Rivers novels to come. Do yourself a favor and read this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A small-time Orange County crook sticks up a restaurant and walks away with tens of thousands of dollars in cash. But a picture of a young Vietnamese girl mixed in with the money gnaws at his mind. Something about the girl in the photograph disturbs Rob Rivers, to a point of no return. Then Reggie, an old mysterious friend from out of the past suddenly resurfaces in Rivers¿ life. And his long-time partner in crime, Switch, is having thoughts of going straight. Can Rivers find the girl in the photo, reconcile with Reggie and face the possibility of going it alone in the dangerous world of armed robbery? The photograph of the young girl and Rivers¿ burning desire to set things right in his own life take him on a journey through Orange County¿s garish underworld, where he finds love, redemption and a deformed, grotesque monster villain, who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Criminal Paradise is a novel that possesses great literary and artistic quality, while at the same time truly captivating its readers with page-turning prose and dialog. An engaging story from beginning to end, Criminal Paradise announces the arrival of a strong new voice in literature, the next James M. Cain, Steven M. Thomas.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
In ¿Criminal Paradise¿ first-time novelist Steven M. Thomas take us behind the glamorous façade of Newport Beach, California to discover a sordid underworld of violent gangsters involved in human trafficking and murder. Protagonist Robert Rivers is a criminal himself, but a good guy otherwise. He looks out for his friends and tries to plan jobs so that people don't lose anything but their money. Robbing a restaurant with his partner Switch, Rivers stumbles on the slave trading operation when he finds a picture of a young Asian girl along with an envelope full of cash in the restaurant safe. Concerned about the girl and curious about the money, he investigates and clashes with the gangsters. When he rescues the girl, all hell breaks loose as he and his associates battle the bad guys in Newport, Long Beach and San Pedro. Thomas¿ characters are vivid and original and his dialogue is superb. The story is fast paced and fun. There are moments of heart-pounding danger and excitement and other moments of lyrical beauty as Thomas brings Southern California¿s exotic environment to cinematic life. The character of Reggie is hilarious and Rivers¿ landlady, Mrs. Pilly, is very funny, too. Even though the action is intense in places and some of the characters are grotesque, the story stays grounded in realism. There are a lot of fascinating details about criminal activity and a gritty naturalism to the hardcore scenes. Some people probably won't like the epilogue where Thomas explains one aspect of the plot that would probably have been better left unexplained, but, over all, this is one of the best thrillers I've read in years. I hope Thomas brings Robert Rivers and his crew back for an encore.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book reminds of Elmore Leonard¿s best stuff. It is a gripping, action-packed adventure set in an exotic locale told from the point of view of an easy-going armed robber and burglar. Robert Rivers lives in Orange County, California. His partner Switch is just up the 405 in Long Beach. They make a good living robbing restaurants and rich people¿s mansions, trying to avoid hurting anyone in the process and enjoying life in between jobs. But then they discover a picture of a naked young Vietnamese girl in a safe they rob that haunts Rivers, who lost touch with his daughter during his drinking days. Trying to find out who the girl is, he tangles with a slave-trading psychopath and his henchmen, and gun battles erupt along the idyllic Southern California coast as Rivers tries to rescue the young woman. Thomas¿ writing is literary quality, capturing the beauty of the coast and the lure of life in sunny Newport Beach where Rivers lives. His characters are distinct and original and sometimes frightening. The book is exciting and funny and full of surprises. If you like crime fiction, don¿t miss this one.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In California Robert Rivers and Switch rob the Cow Town restaurant. However when the two thieves open the safe to take the cash from inside of it, they find a fascinating photograph of a naked underage Vietnamese female they assume that the restaurant owner Orange County business mogul Lewis McFadden is using and perhaps selling teenage girls. Rivers enlists his biker friend Reggie England to help him break into McFadden's house. However they find a shocker tied to the bedposts is a Vietnamese girl who says her name is Song. They liberate Song taking her to Switch's home while he is out of town. Rivers and nineteen year old Song share a sexual encounter. McFadden recaptures her with plans to sell her at a slave auction, but also owes Rivers for his stealing of his merchandise and as an example for other such petty thieves. --- This is an interesting crime caper that loses some of its charm with the transformation of River from a likable heroic thief to a disappointing user-predator when he has sex with Song even if she is a consenting adult he becomes the serpent in CRIMINAL PARADISE turning off many readers. Still this is a deep look at the sex slave market alive and thriving, just ask River¿s Orange County landlady. --- Harriet Klausner