Great crime fiction takes you to that dark place where humanity is lost and then smacks you in the face and shows you how wrong you were for thinking that we can stop being human. Tom Pitt’s Hustle is packed with violence, drugs, sex, and bad intentions, but humanity beats at its core with a strength that makes the reader care about the individuals they’re reading about even if they’re involved in awful things and wallow at the lowest rung of society.
In Hustle, Donny and Big Rich are a couple of young hustlers who seem to be trapped in the vicious cycle of drugs and prostitution. Both of them want to get off the streets and get straights, but the pull of their addiction keeps them on the corner, doing, seeing, and being the victims of horrible things each night. However, Big Rich has a regular john who drives a Bentley, pays for posh hotels, and lives in a mansion. The man’s name is Gabriel Thaxton, and he’s a high-profile San Francisco defense attorney, just the kind of man who would pay a lot of money to keep his nights in the company of young male prostitutes a secret. With the idea of blackmail helping the look forward to a better future and armed with a cell phone camera, the two hustlers set out to record Thaxton in a very compromising position and easily accomplish their task. Unfortunately, someone else is already planning to blackmail the lawyer for things he did years ago, and that someone is better prepared and has more help than Big Rich and Donny.
Pitts does many things well in Hustle, and the result is a novel that is never stagnant despite coming in at a hefty 320 pages. For starters, he juggles a plethora of characters without letting any of them become one-dimensional or boring. Everyone here has a story, and the reader learns about it sooner or later. Also, the pacing is superb. Pitts kicks things off at a nice speed and slowly builds momentum to a finale that delivers plenty of revelations, blood, death, and tension. While that is impressive, what makes Hustle a must for crime fiction lovers is that said finale rolls around and stays there, going to new places and getting progressively bloodier and more intricate, for a good chunk of the last third of the book.
Big Rich and Donny are down and out; they give johns sex for money, live in rundown motel rooms, and focus mainly on scoring their next fix by any means necessary. However, their dreams of a better life, the deeply rooted resentment they have toward themselves, and their good intentions, wrapped as they might be in a thick coat of illegality and inaction, make them likeable characters, the kind of guys you can’t help but root for. Besides making the narrative more engaging, Pitts talent for believable, amiable characters gives Hustle an emotional heft that was both surprising and very interesting. Reading about a guy getting a gun shoved up his rectum and bleeding all over it while fearing for his life is something that can affect people differently depending on their reading tastes and background, but when those readers care about the character that’s going through that, it becomes truly horrific.
Hustle is a great story about addiction and trying to get ahead. It’s also a gloomy-yet-funny narrative about those who talk about upward social mobility but lack the tools to do so. Also, like many great crime novels that show us tropes can be used in exciting ways, this is a novel full of brutality, booze, guns, crooked lawyers, eager petty criminals, ass kickings outside a bar, fat bikers, and witchy junkies needing to get well. Oh, and it’s also proof that Tom Pitts is one of the top voices in gritty crime fiction today.