"Citizen Vince" by Jess Walter Regan Books, 293 pp., $24.95 Coming up Jess Walter The author of "Citizen Vince" will appear this week at...

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“Citizen Vince”

by Jess Walter

Regan Books, 293 pp., $24.95

Jess Walter has written investigative journalism (“Ruby Ridge: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family”) and crime fiction (“Land of the Blind,” “Over Tumbled Graves”). Both have been well above average, but Walter’s third fictional step, “Citizen Vince,” is a major leap forward for the Spokane author.

It’s a book that speaks of intangibles like hope and redemption as authoritatively as it depicts gangsters, hookers and high-stakes poker games. It’s rich in robust characters and wry dialogue, with agile prose, a big heart and a finely tuned plot. Plus, it’s probably the only novel ever to feature cameos by both former congressman Tom Foley and John Gotti, the Teflon Don.

It centers on a low-level criminal with a new life. After he testified against other New York villains, the witness-protection program dropped him in sleepy Spokane with a new name (Vince Camden), a new job (managing a bakery) and a new girlfriend (a single mom and sometime hooker who yearns to be a real-estate agent).

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In some ways, Vince hasn’t changed much. He still operates a stolen-credit-card scam. He’s still most comfortable hanging with hustlers and gamblers in the wee hours before work. And he still plays a mean poker game.

Coming up

Jess Walter

The author of “Citizen Vince” will appear this week at these locations:

• At noon Tuesday at Seattle Mystery Bookshop (206-587-5737; www.seattlemystery.com).

• At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Village Books in Bellingham (360-671-2626; www.villagebooks.com).

• At 7 p.m. Thursday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com).

In other ways, though, Vince is changing. He likes going to a straight job every day (even at a place called Donut Make You Hungry). He enjoys spending time with just one woman. And — surprising the hell out of himself — he discovers a latent sense of civic duty buried beneath his smart-criminal exterior.

It’s the fall of 1980, in the final days of the Carter-Reagan presidential race. Vince, a felon all his adult life, has never been allowed to vote — not that he ever cared much. Now, though, Vince’s new identity lets him register, and he realizes what a rare privilege and responsibility democracy bestows.

So Vince tries to engage in political discussions. His hoodlum friends, sweet girlfriend and doofus bakery assistant all think he’s nuts, but Vince is genuinely inquisitive about how politics and democracy work. An encounter with an earnest young candidate for local office cements his curiosity.

Then Vince’s bad old life intrudes, when a scary guy makes a deadly play to take over the credit-card scam. Vince recognizes him as a professional killer from back East. Has someone put a contract out on Vince? And who would bother to track down a nobody like him?

The question sends Vince to New York. He confronts a mob guy to whom he owes money, hoping to straighten things out, and learns a startling fact. Then it’s back to Spokane for a showdown.

For me, the book’s one false step is a brief, unnecessary interlude that takes us from Vince’s world to that of the presidential candidates: a reflective, tortured Carter and a sunny, self-confident Reagan.

Otherwise, Walter maintains admirable control. One of the novel’s tensest moments takes place at a polling station in the basement of a Catholic church. Nothing really happens except that Vince votes, but it’s a dazzling — and perfectly believable — moment.