by Penny McCall, contemporary (2009)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22805-0
Absurd, manic, and totally ridiculous, Packing Heat makes me smile despite my reservations. Wait, don't run out of the house to grab this book yet. If you are a picky reader - like me - you may want to hear both my good and bad opinions before you make up your mind.
The heroine Harmony Swift is an FBI agent, but true to the style of a typical heroine in a romance novel, at least 70 points is deducted from her IQ solely because she has a vagina. Our heroine turns vigilante when her mentor is captured by the bad guys and the rest of the FBI aren't running around hysterically like her while trying to save him. So she decides to spring hacker Cole Hackett out of jail as she thinks his whiz kid skills can help her track down the villains behind her mentor's kidnapping. Cole is a hacker who once helped the FBI only to see them throw him in jail, so he doesn't trust those folks now. Can Harmony convince him to help her?
From the first page, I begin to jot down notes on how Harmony is a complete failure as an FBI agent. By the last page of the first chapter, I have jotted down eight points, all filled with exclamation marks and scrawls that look suspiciously like "Kill that idiot!" In the first chapter alone, Harmony has to be told by Cole in two different occasions that they are being followed. Cole also manages to use the chain of his handcuffs as a wire around her neck, and she stupidly tells him that the key to the handcuffs is in that compartment... the same one where she keeps her gun.
Now, I'm sure FBI agents aren't expected to be infallible, but Harmony here is horrifically outsmarted by a more capable man who spent the last eight years pumping iron and trying not to drop the soap in the showers as opposed to getting FBI training. That is so embarrassing. Is Harmony like that weird guy in Office Space, in which they failed her during training but she just kept showing up for work every day until the other FBI agents began to believe that she was supposed to be an FBI agent like them?
This is when I realize that I have to stop taking down these notes and just accept the fact that Packing Heat is using female stupidity as a contrivance for hilarity. I'd never be able to get past the first half of this book unless I begin to have the lowest expectation of the heroine, the kind of expectation reserved usually for kids with special needs during a sports tournament - the kind where I clap my hands enthusiastically and scream "Bravo! Bravo! You go, girl!" when the heroine manages to cross the street without getting mowed down by a clown car.
The moment I do that, it is very easy to enjoy Packing Heat. I get plenty of vicarious cackles when the hero calls the heroine "FBI Barbie" and mocks her ineptness. Ms McCall as always has a great banter system down pat between her hero and her heroine. These two can go back and forth like two firecrackers in a hot night. It helps that the author knows that Harmony is as dumb as a gerbil - in this story, I'm told that her superiors refuse to let her move beyond her desk because they deem her an emotional headcase unprepared for field assignments. And despite the fact that she's more suited to selling popcorn in a sideshow than holding a gun and trying to make the world a better place, Harmony is self-aware enough to experience some character growth later in the story. It is also quite amusing how the villains of this story are a throwback to those spy novels in the 1980s and 1990s - let's just say that Ms McCall hasn't caught up with other authors when it comes to using terrorists du jour of today as villains in her espionage story.
So there you have it. Packing Heat is actually a pretty fun madcap caper if I do not take it seriously at all and after I manage to overcome my initial revulsion to incompetent nitwit heroines. Expect the stupid, embrace the stupid, enjoy the stupid.
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