Five years ago, Dave Delano was right up close at a murder scene having dinner with the victim, actually. So he could hardly have failed to notice that the killer was Tony Nudelli Naked Tony, to his gangster friends one of the Miami's organized crime hotshots.

Wisely, perhaps, Dave decided to keep that detail to himself, which deeply disappointed the Miami cops. Before he knew it, Dave was behind bars, charged with complicity in the murder.

His silence cost him five full years in the slammer, but here's the funny part Dave used the time productively, transforming himself into a perfect specimen of male strength and wisdom. He lifted weights, read through the entire prison library, learned Russian and lifted more weights.

"Prison shouldn't make guys who are comin' out more of a threat . . . than when they went in," a prison guard mutters, showing Dave to the door on the day he is set free. "You ask me, when guys come in here, we should give Ôem all lots of fatty food. Cheeseburgers, ice cream, Coca-Cola, french fries, much as they want, whenever they want. No exercise and plenty of TV. . . . That way when these f-----s eventually hit the streets they're regular couch potatoes like the rest of us." But there was also something else keeping Dave busy in prison perfecting the scheme that, in a single stroke, would net him millions and put Naked Tony in an extremely awkward position. And that's all that Dave wants out of life now: to steal some significant drug money from the syndicate, and quietly retire.

Philip Kerr likes his bad guys to be, not good guys exactly, but not totally bad either maybe just a few important degrees away from evil. Evil with extenuating circumstances. In The Grid, for example, Kerr's thriller about a "smart building" on the fritz, the villain reveals itself to be the building's computer "brain," and the high-tech mayhem it causes isn't really its fault.

This time around, Kerr tries to win sympathy for Dave, who really did get a lousy deal and just wants payback for five wasted years. And, to an extent, Kerr succeeds aided immeasurably by his portrayal of most of the good guys in authority as stupid, insensitive, sexist louts. No wonder FBI agent Kate Fury falls in love with Dave who wouldn't, given the alternatives? He's cute, he's smart, and he's very romantic. He also, however, shoots people for money.

Dave falls head over heels for Kate, too, before he discovers she's FBI. It's the star-crossed-lover scenario from hell. Will Dave cancel the crime? Or will Kate switch sides in the battle for truth, justice, and the American way? Or neither? You're likely to be surprised by the ending; I was, though I was also unsatisfied. Still, Dave's a smart, interesting character I fell for him myself, and his devilish plan kept me turning the pages.

Reviewed by Nan Goldberg.

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