Written by Christopher Bartley — Ross Duncan is not a good man. His CV is full of death and destruction. Banks robbed, lives cut short, violence meted out – all have their paragraphs. Look under the blankets in the trunk of his supercharged Dodge, and you will find an arsenal of guns and explosives sufficient to start a war. His car tyres, however, are no respecters of reputation, and when they give out, he is forced to spend a night in the California town of Gentryville. He soon discovers that the blink-and-you-missed-it township is more than it seems to be. It is ruled by an extravagant politician called Tony Vargas, who has a loose-limbed and seductive wife, and a host of local ne’er-do-wells who are happy to be on his payroll. It is 1934.
Duncan is already being chased by the FBI for a series of bank jobs, and his mugshot is on badly printed posters across the state. Duncan more than once refers to FBI chief J Edgar Hoover and sees him as a personal enemy. After an encounter in a bar, Duncan is driven to meet the aforementioned Mr Vargas, and after casually shooting dead one of Mr V’s employees, he finds himself taken on as head of security. Vargas is planning a series of daring bank and jewel heists, and welcomes Duncan’s invaluable career experience. Duncan has other things on his mind, though. He has become involved with a young boxer who Duncan feels is being set up to lose his next fight, as part of a betting scam involving big money from San Francisco and LA.
Even before the big shake-down can take place, there’s a fight involving Tommy guns with some out-of-town gangsters. Away from the gunfire and fight fixing there is a human back-story of almost Chandleresque complexity. It involves the boxer’s prostitute mother, a former lover of Mayor Vargas who was killed in a road crash years earlier, a pair of gay men, and the present Mrs Vargas. Needless to say, hardly anyone is who they claim to be, and Duncan has his work cut out to unravel the tangle of lives.
This is the latest in a series, but new readers will have met Duncan somewhere before if they have read hardboiled novels set in America. There is more than a slice of Richard Stark’s Parker about him, in that he is unequivocally a villain, and pretty much amoral. That being said, he is not without honour, and he resists several blatant sexual invitations as the story unfolds. There is a bit of Philip Marlowe there, but Duncan doesn’t do the one-liners, and we are never sure which side of the moral divide he chooses. He is physically able to better any opponent, and goes about his business untroubled by either fear or conscience.
There is little wrong with this novel other than that it revisits a time and place where we have been many times before, without adding much to the experience. Duncan’s philosophising can be a little tedious on occasions but the author handles his relationship with Carmelita, the boxer’s young girlfriend, very well. Some of the descriptive writing is very powerful, such as when Duncan first sets foot in Hooverville, the ironically named shanty town. Bartley may not be Steinbeck, but he deftly evokes a time and place where human misery was set in stark contrast against the lavish lifestyle and hedonism of the better-off.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars