Relying on his wits, his hard-learned understanding of the darker elements of human nature, and his impressive pickpocketing skills, Flick has been living on the streets of New York City for the last seven months. He's a runaway, but he's a runaway with a purpose: to gain the strength necessary to avenge his younger brother's death by taking down their complete bastard of a father.
Enter Lucian Mandel, the headmaster of the storied Mandel Academy: a charitable organization that caters to the best and brightest of the world's most disadvantaged youth, a place of learning that has educated the world's most successful tycoons, politicians, CEOs, and investment bankers. He wants Flick to enroll... but not because he wants to help him turn his life around.
See, secretly, the Mandel Academy is, as Flick so succinctly puts it, "Hogwarts for hustlers". It trains the best and the brightest, all right: the best and the brightest young criminals. Larceny, murder, blackmail, gambling, trafficking (human and drug), hacking... the possibilities for profit are endless.
And while none of this sounds particularly attractive to Flick—despite his current occupation, he's definitely more of a white knight than a shifty rogue—Lucian Mandel offers him the one thing he can't say no to: the key to his father's downfall on a silver platter.
There is nothing not to love about How to Lead a Life of Crime. Flick is immediately likable, and has the world-weary voice of a noir hero. The world of Mandel Academy is cleverly thought-out and witty, the storyline moves along quickly, Miller doesn't take any lazy shortcuts in terms of plot or personality, and the interplay between the Mandel students—especially their utter lack of trust in each other and constant jockeying for position—is hugely entertaining. It's pretty spot-on in terms of current events, too, in that it plays on our (or at least my) suspicions about big business, the finance industry, and politicians.
There's also a strong emotional component: especially because of Flick's ongoing conversations with his dead brother, Jude—who is dressed as Peter Pan and acts as his conscience and spirit guide—but also because of Flick's relationship with Joi, a girl who has willingly claimed the responsibility of being Wendy to a small group of NYC's Lost Boys.
The best thing about this book, though? The thing that bumps it up from good to GREAT? That takes an idea that's been done—a school for the criminally-inclined—and gives it a whole different spin? Well, I'll tell you: it's the fact that while Flick is our narrator and protagonist, he's not the hero.
I can't get into the details, as it would get too spoiler-y, but trust me: it works, and it works well. It's smart, darkly funny, and ultimately inspiring. Two thumbs way up.
Book source: Review copy from the publisher.