Brian O’Sullivan Introduces the Flawed Con
Con artists have captured our collective attention since the days of the earliest scams, and I don’t think there is much mystery to this one; after all, who wouldn’t dream of a way to be handed riches with little effort? Tales about the infamous D.B. Coopers and Charles Ponzi’s of this world have driven countless people to try their own hands at becoming con artists… and as it happens, many of them fail because they realize just how much effort goes into the craft. In Brian O’Sullivan’s The Bartender, we make the acquaintance of a certain lady who might just have what it takes to find her place in the great pantheon of con artists.
The story begins by introducing us to our three main characters: Olivia Fairbanks, Jared Austin Jenkins, and Becca Poe. Olivia is a young and attractive barmaid, if a tad naive, with aspirations of finding love and a career as a writer. Austin is a charismatic, professionally-capable, and seemingly free-going man, one who just happened to have crossed Olive’s path. Finally, Becca is the evil mastermind about to paint all of their lives with the colour of suffering.
While Olivia might believe her encounter with Austin to be pure chance, there is a sinister plan at work. Becca has actually devised a play to rob Olivia’s very rich boss, Barry Gant, who as luck would have it, has a bit of a crush on his barmaid. Austin is just a cog in her great machine, a tool she is using to get closer to her goal. In her prognostications, Becca sees herself swimming in pools of money, and maybe a bit of blood, if necessary. However, people can be unpredictable little things, and the moving pieces in her plan are bound to start developing plays of their own… in the end, only chaos can reign supreme.
The Memorable Trio
At first, you might have the impression the book starts off a bit slowly as O’Sullivan takes his time to introduce the three main characters we will be following in equal measure for the rest of the book. We get to learn about where each of them comes from, how their childhoods shaped them, what struggles they went through, and essentially-speaking, how they grew into the people they are today. Once I got to the point where the story began to take off, I already felt a sort of closeness to the characters, the villains and heroine alike.
Along the way we naturally meet a few additional characters, and while the author understandably doesn’t want to dedicate as much to their development, they still end up being complex and nuanced enough for their role in the story. Rather than dedicating entire chapters their description, O’Sullivan quite skillfully paints their portraits through the eyes of our main characters. The private eye Hector who eventually makes his way into the story is a great example of this, being largely shown to us through Olive’s eyes and his own actions, giving us more than enough materials for a comprehensive assessment of his character.
While Olive and Austin definitely have some interesting nooks and crannies to explore in their minds, for me personally it was Becca who stole the show, which is not to say I actually liked her. On the contrary, I hated her guts, and I say this in the most positive way possible, as a testament to the author’s ability to create a character we can actually despise without ever bringing her over-the-top or into ridiculous territory; she is, all things considered, an excellently-written villain. Her general success in life, combined with her sociopath tendencies and all the con artist slime she oozes did a good job at making me desperately wish throughout the whole thing she would get what’s coming to her. I have to admit, I haven’t been this invested in seeing a character die for a long time.
The Plot Twists, Thickens, and Folds on Itself
One of the things I appreciated the most in this novel was the extremely simple structure O’Sullivan decided to go for. Each chapter is numbered and labelled with one of the three main characters to indicate whose perspective we are switching to now. Every chapter is a few pages long and focuses on developing the events in one way or another, with there nearly always being some character development thrown in as a side dish. This makes it quite easy to follow the plot while constantly switching points of view, not to mention it opens the door to diversifying things for the reader’s sake.
In the first few dozen pages, it is possible you will get the impression the structure is perhaps a bit too ambitious for the sort of plot we are presented, at least this was my line of thinking. However, I was quite pleased to have been proven wrong as I progressed further and further through the book and the plot threads started to diverge and tangle more than ever. The deeper we get into the story, the more people we have in play with their own ideas of how the whole thing ought to turn out. As a result, an enjoyable chaos of plot twists builds up as different characters try to outsmart each other and be the last ones left standing.
While the core of the plot itself may not be a completely original concept (let’s face it, those were already rare decades ago), Brian O’Sullivan does more than enough work on it to create something unique and specific to his style. This is especially true as we progress through the latter stages of the book where things start to get messy, although never to the point where we lose the thread, credit to the author’s simple and efficient writing style. Ultimately, when the journey was finished, I didn’t feel as if I had read yet another thriller novel… I instead felt I had read an original Brian O’Sullivan story.
The Final Verdict
The Bartender by Brian O’Sullivan is one of my favourite con artist thrillers of the year, if not of the decade. The characters are engaging and relatable, whether they be heroes, heroines or villains, and the action just keeps on going, seldom coming to a full stop. If you enjoy thrillers where multiple characters attempt to plot against each other only to spiral into a darkness none of them knew existed, then I very strongly recommend you give this book a read. In a world where thrillers are a dime a dozen, I can wholeheartedly vouch for this one being a true standout.
Brian O’Sullivan is an American author from the San Francisco Bay Area who spent nearly a decade after graduation playing poker professionally against some of the best in the world. Following his exploits in the card game, he began writing screenplays and eventually turned to writing novels. Most notably, he has expedited the publication of his book The Puppeteer due to his hatred for the toxic political climate pervading the country, a novel which earned him numerous accolades.