takes a look at Mike Cooper’s engrossing heist novel “The Downside” and Colin Cotterill’s “The Rat Catchers’ Olympics,” starring Dr. Siri Paiboun.

Share story

It’s a pleasure to watch pros doing what they do best, and that includes the big-ticket heist artists in Mike Cooper’s engrossing “The Downside” (Mysterious Press, 300 pp., $14.99 paperback original).

Forget sissified cybercrime. Finn and his crew steal big, tangible items: entire factory lines, car trailers full of luxury automobiles, maybe a trainload of rare metal — that kind of stuff. It requires blue-collar skills that geeky computer criminals can only dream about. (A geek does join the crew; and she’s a smart and essential one at that.)

The latest job: breaking into a heavily fortified rail-yard vault, but, for complicated reasons, not taking anything — just switching tens of millions in rhodium ingots with those in another vault.

The guy who hires Finn is a proven rat, and there may be another one in the crew. The payout is too sweet to pass up, though. What follows is a brisk and meticulous lesson in executing a complex job with heavy equipment and precision timing — not to mention nimbly dealing with the unexpected (like a bunch of protesters barging in on the heist during a snowstorm).

Benignly overseeing “The Downside” is the spirit of Parker — the cool, amoral thief immortalized in novels by Donald E. Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). Finn is not as ruthless or antisocial as Parker, but they have a shared sense of pride in their craftsmanship — and a shared eye for the money. I hope Finn delivers the goods again soon.

“The Rat Catchers’ Olympics” (Soho, 288 pp., $26.95) is the latest in Colin Cotterill’s addictive series about Dr. Siri Paiboun, the ex-national coroner of communist Laos.

This time, crotchety old Siri has gone far afield. It’s 1980, and so many countries are boycotting the Moscow Olympics that the Soviets are bringing in teams from places like Laos that have never before competed. Siri scams his way into being the Laotian contingent’s doctor, bringing his wife and their eccentric extended family along. Not surprisingly, the amateur Laotian athletes prove to be a handful, and trouble — in the form of several murders — follows close behind.

Cotterill has a gift for tempering bad stuff — specifically, the baffling and chaotic political climate of communism circa 1980 — with gently ironic humor and frequent doses of slightly kooky occultism. His books are thus a welcome balm for our own current baffling and chaotic political climate.