Book Review: The Con Job, by Matt Forbeck
One could imagine, then, my enthusiasm upon discovering Leverage, a TV show that’s basically five seasons of heist stories. Snappy dialogue, fun characters, a new crime every episode– plus, Gina Bellman. Seriously. Rowr.
But, all good things come to an end– I paced myself as best I could, but eventually I ran out of new Leverage episodes on Netflix. It probably doesn’t help that Ion TV does a Leverage marathon like every Sunday, either. I’m not saying that I’ve watched every episode multiple times … just, y’know, the good ones.
But! Courtesy of Amazon’s recommendations, I just learned that there are Leverage novels. And, y’know, I needed something to pad out my order of Christmas presents so I could get free shipping, and, well, here we are.
Tie-in fiction is a tricky beast. For one, it’s pretty much ‘official fanfic.’ Which isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it’s an odd one. What makes a particular TV show (or movie, or video game, or whatever) work may not translate well into prose. Plus, there’s the simple matter that a lot of tie-in fiction is really, really shitty, and just hammered out to make a quick buck. Not that there’s anything wrong with that– writers gotta pay rent too. Still, with all these reservations in mind, I went ahead and gave The Con Job a read.
This … may have been a mistake.
For those who aren’t as obsessive about a basic-cable TV series that ended five years ago, lemme give you a quick rundown. Leverage centers around a quirky quintet of criminals who play Robin Hood, stealing from rich jerks in order to stand up for the little guy. Each one in the gang has their own specialty– working from left to right, we’ve got Sophie (the Grifter), Eliot (the Hitter), Nate (the Mastermind), Hardison (the Hacker) and Parker (the Thief). Each episode, they take on a new ‘client,’ helping them get money and justice off of whatever rich & powerful asshole that’s done them wrong.
In The Con Job, the gang’s client is a fictional comic book artist who’s been scammed by a crooked pop-art dealer. And, as it would happen, the best shot they have at the crooked art dealer is at San Diego Comic Con. I wish I could say ‘hijinks ensue’ at this point, but the book never quite gets to that level.
If nothing else, I can tell Matt Forbeck is a super nerd. With the way he describes the controlled chaos of SDCC, I can definitely tell he’s been there before. Hell, I kind of hope that he got his publisher to bankroll a SDCC visit as ‘research,’ or that he at least wrote it off on his taxes. That’s the kind of loophole the Leverage gang would be proud of.
The Con Job kind of reminded me of Annie Bellet’s Twenty Sided Sorceress series. Both of them come from a place of genuine nerd-love … but at the same time, they tend to get a little self-satisfied in their nerdery. Forbeck name-drops everybody from Jim Lee to Stan Lee in The Con Job, to an almost grating effect. The problem is, Forbeck wastes so many words on talking about the 501st Imperial Legion or Wootstock that the whole crime caper gets set on the backburner. More often than not, it feels like Forbeck keeps dropping names just to prove his nerd cred, without realizing that all the references in and of themselves aren’t all that clever. I mean, any nerd can say ‘STAR WARS!’ but it takes at least some degree of effort to weave that into a narrative. Unfortunately, The Con Job gets bogged down in numerous digressions explaining various comic books or writers or whatever. It’s a classic case of telling and not showing. But hey, maybe Forbeck was on a deadline and had a word count to pad out.
The most glaring example of The Con Job‘s obsession with nerdery (at expense of the plot) comes with one segment where the gang disguises Eliot … as Warren Ellis.
WHAT AN UNCANNY RESEMBLANCE.
Occasionally, The Con Job comes close to the sort of smooth cons and crackling dialogue that made me love the Leverage TV show, but it never quite ‘clicks.’ It probably doesn’t help that the characters never come off as particularly clever or cunning over the course of the novel. In the most damning example, Hardison is lured into a trap by his literal archenemy saying “hey, wanna play D&D with Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day?”
What makes things even more frustrating is that Hardison’s archenemy is actually played by Wil Wheaton, which a more ambitious writer could do all kinds of things with. (Star Trek alumni Brett Spiner and Jeri Ryan also showed up on the Leverage TV show as well, which Forbeck ignores).
So yeah, inbetween the near-constant stream of nerd references, The Con Job has an evil (possibly Yakuza-influenced? I forget) manga publisher trying to destroy San Diego Comic Con, and then some other stuff happens (including Parker disguising herself in a Princess Leia Metal Bikini Cosplay Outfit for slightly contrived reasons) but then the Leverage gang saves the day. Yay?
Honestly, the biggest thing that galls me about The Con Job is wasted potential. I mean, heck, enormous multimedia franchises scamming ‘for hire’ artists and creators out of royalties for their work is an actual thing that happens in the comic industry. Plus, “let’s go steal a superhero” is a great line … that Forbeck doesn’t use. Instead, he’s more concerned with having characters inexplicably talk about the comics-bubble bursting with Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 instead of the actual witty banter and twisty plots that made Leverage a show worth watching to begin with. At best, The Con Job comes off as a bad episode of a good TV show.
Maybe I’m being a little over-critical, as I honestly had the vaguest urge to write Leverage fanfic along the same lines before I even learned The Con Job even existed. (I would’ve called my cheesy fanfic “The Comic Con,” by the way). From poking around on google, it looks like Forbeck’s actually written a couple of murder thrillers set at Gen Con, along with a whole mess of other tie-in works. It makes me wonder how much of the word count’s devoted to plot, and how much is just having people argue over which edition of D&D is better than the others.
Ah well. Maybe I’ll just go write some terrible Leverage/Batman crossover fanfic instead. Imma call it “The Gotham Job.” It just about writes itself, I tell you.