[I’ve noticed that my book reviews differ depending on genre. With novels, I’ll give a synopsis or pitch before reviewing–something I don’t do with non-fiction. I don’t know why that is, truth be told. If you like it, or don’t, let me know below. Now, for the review…]
The Pitch: Fletcher Doyle is trying to stay on the straight and narrow. After serving six years in prison, this career con-man is working hard to restore his relationship with his family, though things aren’t going too smoothly. While in prison, Fletcher became a follower of Jesus, but even he is now starting to have doubts about whether or not he really is a changed man. During a church mission trip back into his old stomping ground of downtown Detroit, Fletcher is suddenly pulled back into the game, as an old associate and a mystery involving the treasures of an ancient, mysterious sect tempt Fletcher once more to become the man he’s trying so hard to leave behind.
The Review: The Last Con by Zach Bartels is like a great heist movie. The characters are interesting and likeable. The background of the “Macguffin” is interesting. The action is fast-paced and thrilling. As the reader, you’re happily munching popcorn as you follow the adventure. This book has all the necessary elements for this kind of story: the set-up, the small heist, the complication, the big heist, the plan breaking down, the shocking reveal. That’s not to say the book is formulaic–at least, not in a negative way. If the book follows tropes, it does so only to suddenly shift your expectations. You realize at a few key points that you’ve been duped as well. While the ending of the book wasn’t a complete surprise, that’s only because I had about 5 different theories in my head about who the “big bad” was. Still, I was not disappointed at all with how the book resolved.
Bartels has created a caper that could easily work on-screen, though such an adaptation would probably lose the fascinating historical elements of the story. There are actually two main narratives at work: Fletcher’s story and the history of Count Cagliostro, a legendary (and infamous) master thief and con-man from the era of the French Revolution. (I’ll leave you to find out how the two stories intersect.) I don’t want to say anything else about the plot because I’d hate to spoil anything else.
Another satisfying element to this novel is how the themes of redemption and identity are woven throughout the story. It’s almost as if you as the reader fall for the misdirection of the “heist” narrative, until you suddenly recognize the spiritual themes unfolding before you. Just as with Mike Dellosso’s Centralia, the book avoids the preachiness that sometimes plagues Christian fiction, while still presenting Biblical truth in a moving way. So it’s not an evangelistic book, as such, though it could provoke some Gospel conversations for those with ears to hear.
A quick note on “content”: Unlike mainstream crime/caper novels, this one avoids lewd sexual content and profane language. The violence is clear but understated, aside from a few brief descriptions of fatal head-shots. The only notes I’d make on coarse language are one use of a coarse slang term and one instance of innuendo–but nothing overt or gratuitous. Just wanted to mention it for those who would share this book with kids/teens.
Final Verdict: The Last Con by Zachary Bartels is great fun. Definitely worth a read if you’re looking for the literary equivalent of Oceans Eleven or The Sting or another film of that type. It’s available now at Amazon and other retailers, and would be a perfect “end of summer” read.
Please Note: I was provided a physical copy of the book by the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. The preceding thoughts are wholly my own.