The Bootlegger is the 7th book in Cussler's Isaac Bell series. It's the first Isaac Bell story I've read, and I was worried I'd be lost since I was entering pretty late into the series. The beginning was a bit slow for me since I didn't have the background on the Van Dorne Detective Agency, but overall it wasn't a problem. The book did a pretty good job bringing newcomers along for the ride.
Premise of the Story
Isaac Bell is a hero investigator for the Van Dorn Detective Agency. The Van Dorn Detective Agency is like a weird hybrid between the Pinkerton's and the CIA. The CIA didn't exist at the book was set, but I mention the CIA similarity because the Van Dorn Detective agency has intelligence gathering across the globe and far more financial resources than the Pinkerton's.
The story is set in the 1920’s in the United States. Prohibition is in full swing so is the black market of bootlegging. Isaac Bell's boss and friend at the Van Dorn detective agency (Joseph Van Dorn) is shot and severely wounded while busting who they thought were run of the mill bootlegger gangs. Bell and the rest of the Van Dorn team take it very personally that Joseph Van Dorn was shot. Isaac Bell swears to hunt down the perpetrators and bring them to justice, but it turns out that's not as easy as it seems. A potential witness to the shooting is executed in the hospital under police guard in the manner of the Russian secret police. After digging a bit more, Bell realizes the rum-running team are far from run of the mill bootleggers. They are a network of Bolsheviks who are running rum as a way to finance their plan to upturn the U.S. government. Vast in scope and network, Isaac Bell and the rest of the Van Dorn detectives uncover gang alliances and secret connections from New York to Detroit, to Florida and the Caribbean.
Reasons to Read It
- Do you have a long drive? Pick up the audiobook! I really liked the reading. My only wish is that they'd had a full recording cast or had a female read the female voice parts.
- Does reading about speedboat chases, gun fights and conniving Bolshevik assassins sound like it's up your alley? Yes? Then this book is up your alley,
- I liked that Cussler gave close third person point of view chapters to a wide array of characters. Marat Zolner was a great villain, and I especially enjoyed the chapter where he deals with the new overseer sent from Moscow to replace Yuri. I also enjoyed the Asa Summers chapter where we to see Pauline from Asa's perspective. These changes in point of view made the whole world seem more fleshed out.
- I also appreciated the complexity of the antagonists. I liked the struggle with communist ideals vs the allure of wealth and power that came with being a top bootlegger. I also liked the internal struggle that was shown with the heiress's character. She was weak, but she was interesting, and she showed courage at the end. I'm still a little confused if her story line ending was relatively innocent or a bit more insidious.
- An overall good job with solid female characters, too. I thought Bell's wife was a pushover until the very end when she arranged for Asa Summers to be Pauline's apprentice in Berlin. Then I realized that she was actually quite sharp and not to be underestimated. Pauline was a badass.
- I also felt like I truly met a whole slew of seedy New York gang members by the end of the story. I thought Cussler's written dialogue for the gang members was particularly well done, especially the tough, calculated answers they provided when under duress.
Reasons to Skip It
- This book is LONG, and if you're only looking for an action packed book then The Bootlegger might actually disappoint you. There's quite a bit of buildup and plot to uncover. I'll be honest, there were times when my attention faded in and out, mostly during the first third of the book.
- There are elements of the story that are a bit cliche, and there were a few times I rolled my eyes.
- For example, every woman in the story who meets Isaac Bell, falls in love with Isaac Bell (eye-roll).
- I also never felt like Isaac Bell was in any real danger no matter how dire the situation. He was built up to seem too infallible, too much like a wonder boy. For example, Bell catches a detonated grenade out of the air, instantaneously recognizes the make and model of the grenade and perfectly calculates how long he needs to hold the grenade before successfully throwing it back to his nemesis and blowing them up (another eye-roll).
- Even at the end, Bell winds up sustaining fairly significant injuries and just seems to walks them off which was a bit puzzling.
- Cussler overuses cliched phrases like "The real McCoy".
- Where does all the Van Dorn money come from?? I know Bell is supposed to be independently wealthy and the Van Dorne Agency makes money through all sorts of security gigs and a coveted Coast Guard contract, but Bell seemed to have an utterly unlimited budget when it came to avenging Joseph Van Dorne. It all seemed a bit silly.
Some final thoughts
I found myself wishing that Cussler would have gone full-fantasy with Isaac Bell and Marat Zolner. When I say fantasy, I don't mean he should have had orcs show up with a wizard or something. I liked the largely realistic setting and plot within 1920's North America. But I found myself getting a little too annoyed at Isaac Bell and Marat Zolner's seemingly superhuman abilities (especially in the final boat chase sequence in the hurricane). Don't get me wrong, I found the ending really enjoyable. But I think the ending and the entire book could have been even better if I could more readily suspend disbelief in the hero and lead villain's super abilities. If the reader was operating under the assumption that Bell and Zolner were both augmented somehow- think more like Captain America's super serum and less like Magneto- I would have more easily embraced the action.
Overall, a fun read with enjoyable characters.