Wolf by Kelly Oliver attracted my attention because of its cover. Following the title, the cover informed me that this was a Jessica James mystery. Jessica James? Jesse James? The Amazon page claimed that this was a witty suspense thriller. The elements were there that led me to believe this would be a fun read. I purchased the novel for USD 0.99 although it is listed on Amazon at USD 4.99. The novel might be far more interesting to fans of Russian art, Russian culture, Russian expat culture, the Russian mob, and Russian slang than it was to me. I felt it dragged along with occasional contrived interjections of forced humor. Most of the humor was of the double innuendo sexual type which I felt was added later in the novel’s development during the editorial or revision process. If a reviewer with interests in all things Russian gave the novel four Amazon stars, I could understand that. But several things kept me from giving such a high rating.
This is a story of art theft and art forgery. Dimity’s father, back in Russia, collected paintings. He bought many at auction and there is a probability that they were stolen. Dimity’s father, the Oxford Don is a Russian gangster. He abused Dimity’s mother and caused Dimitry to become much closer to his mother than his father. Anton was a cold father and respected loyalty above all things. When Dimity’s older brother, Sergei, betrayed his father, Anton demanded Dimitry kill his brother. Dimitry’s mother encouraged him to run away from the abusive family relationship. She gave Dimitry a substantial gift of cash and two of her husband’s paintings so Dimitry could relocate himself in a new location with a new identity.
Dimitry moved to New York where he got a job as a lowly janitor. He lived well and had established a family. He even had a grown daughter, Lolita, who, unknowingly to Dad, had a flourishing business running poker games. Lolita knew that Dimitry lived well because of his paintings, all copies of the two paintings he had stolen. He sold the copies as originals and supplemented his janitor’s salary well.
Original paintings disappear. There is a murder of a not-very-well-respected professor. There is a cabal to distribute date rape drugs to innocent sorority sisters. Photographers would memorialize the subsequent sex fun. There are characters who discover their real mothers and fathers were not the ones they grew up with. And there are surprises as characters seem to evolve into better forms than their former selves as a result of all this casual violence. One character stands out by not standing out. Jessica, despite her prominence in the title, doesn’t seem to be a part of many significant actions. Other characters use her as a hub for exchanging information about what is going on in the other subplots of the novel.
This novel reminds me of a bag full of plot ideas. The bag is shaken well and spilled. As each plot idea is selected and recounted, the search is on for a transition device to the next plot idea. One idea involved an underground gambling operation run by Jessica (yay, she gets mentioned) and Lolita, daughter of Dimitry. Descriptions of a poker game come right out of Molly’s Game by Molly Bloom. Several of the player “types” are mirror images.There is even a player who has brought a painting to the game for collateral. In Molly’s Game, the poker terms are explained. In this novel, they are not. Readers are left to do their own research. “…Jessica was dealt big slick, an ace and a king, and came out shooting. But on the river, she still had only an ace and a king, and the Pope raised by $1000. Jessica was pot-committed, and so far the flop looked innocent enough, …” (Kindle Location 3298)
The element that annoyed me most about the novel was the way characters many times did not speak with each other, they recited sayings and parables. The most annoying exchange occurred when Dimitry was going on an important trip to a destination he would not disclose to Lolita. She can see he is upset and asks. His reply is “A man must risk going too far,” he said, “to see how far he can go.” (Kindle location 2772). That answer might serve as an excuse for the domestic abuse slap that could follow. There are many, many instances of Russian wisdom employed as a substitute for dialogue. “Her mother was right when she said, “The city is full of big stack bullies either buying the blinds or giving air, who turn every decent hand into a bad beat.” (Kindle location 1153). “Daddy, as you always tell me, a wolf is not beaten for being grey, but for eating a sheep.” (Kindle location 1801). “And conveniently upon Wolf’s death, he sends off a book manuscript on the ear and the eye,” she said, opening one eye.” (Kindle location 1967). I was happy to find this last example because I could understand it. Although I believe it has been modified in the interest of humor. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger… Unless it is flesh-eating bacteria.” (Kindle location 2909).
As a reader without a personal interest in all things Russian, I could only give this novel three Amazon stars. There are lots of stories here and there is a generous sprinkling of humor. But the stories are not well connected, and the humor is forced.