“No, no, not again!” I moaned as I opened another package of books I hadn’t ordered. But that’s what happens when you forget to check off the “Do not send” box and mail this instruction back to your book club. As punishment for being such a ditz, I forced myself to read “Standup Guy,” the latest in Stuart Woods’ long string of novels featuring Stone Barrington.
The books in this series might be classified as crime fiction, but they’re actually the male equivalent of romance novels, a genre I just can’t bring myself to like. Don’t get me wrong: I completely understand the lure of escapist literature. Who doesn’t want to hide from life’s grim realities for a few hours? But what turns me off about romance novels is that, at their worst – as is the case here – they rot our brains as surely as too much candy eats holes in our teeth. I guess what it comes down to is that I want a book that, no matter how different its world is from mine, makes me believe in its characters and the situations in which they find themselves.
I’m not sure who the intended audience for Woods’ guymance novels is, but male or female, the folks who repeatedly propel his books to the best sellers lists must love reading about a fantasy world where the hero is impossibly wealthy, smugly superior, and blessed with a silicone soul that allows his misadventures and troubles to slide off, leaving him curiously untouched or changed by them. For those of you who haven’t had the misfortune of reading the Stone Barrington series, let me introduce you to the man. Stone is an ex-cop turned wildly successful lawyer. He’s very, very wealthy, due to the untimely death of his rich wife, Arrington. Yes, that’s right: Arrington Barrington. Burdened with a name like that, Woods probably did the poor woman a kindness by quickly putting her out of her misery.
Anyway, thanks to inheriting a Manhattan townhouse from a relative, as well as Arrington’s gobs of money, Stone can afford to stock a first-class wine cellar, pilot his own jet, and drive a limited-edition French sports car. To cater to his every whim, he employs a live-in cook, butler, and marvelously efficient secretary, Joan Robertson, who handles all the mundane chores the rest of us mortals have to take care of ourselves. Stone spices up his breakfast-in-bed life with a string of women eager to warm said bed, and in “Standup Guy,” juggles three of them. Emma Tweed, a British fashion designer, is the woman he describes as his “current squeeze.” Gag me with a spoon! Conveniently, she’s in London at the moment, leaving Stone plenty of time to accommodate his friend-with-benefits, Holly Barker, the C.I.A.’s New York Station Chief, as well as a woman who picks him up at P.J. Clarke.
When he’s not chowing down at P.J’s with his best buddy and former partner, Dino Bacchetti, we often find Stone in the Carlyle Hotel’s penthouse suite, where Katherine Rule Lee is gathering support for her as yet unannounced presidential campaign. Katherine married Will Lee, President of the United States. The presidential couple count Stone as a close friend and confidant, and his involvement with Katherine’s plans forms a sub-plot in “Standup Guy” that goes nowhere, and seems to have no other purpose than to underscore Stone’s apparently bottomless bank account, since he writes a million-dollar check to help fund Katherine’s campaign without turning a hair.
Despite his insistence on creating this totally improbable lifestyle for his hero, I have to admit that Woods is a master at creating and managing complicated plots. In “Standup Guy,” the story revolves around the missing loot from the actual 1966 robbery at the J.F.K. Airport’s freight terminal. Now, nearly 50 years later, John Fratelli, who has just been released from Sing Sing after serving his full 25-year sentence for an unrelated armed robbery, shows up at Stone’s office toting a suitcase that contains $2 million in cash.
Fratelli, who is the standup guy of the book’s title, and its only likeable character, has inherited the money from the late Eduardo Buono, a former cellmate, who apparently masterminded the J.F.K. heist and walked away with $7 million, which he hid before his capture. Buono leaves the $2 million to Fratelli because the latter befriended and protected him in jail for many years. Fratelli comes to Stone for advice about what to do with his money. Stone not only gives him tips on how to safeguard (and later launder) the money, but also on how to dress and how to establish a new life for himself.
Naturally, all sorts of people, including some amazingly stupid Treasury agents, a disgruntled cop and an entitled nephew are interested in getting their hands on Fratelli’s money and the rest of Buono’s ill-got gains.
If you enjoy this sort of mental pablum, by all means, read Woods. If not, remember to check off that “Do not send” box.