Written by Eric Beetner — Beetner might just be noir’s James Brown. The hardest working man in crime fiction not only curates the LA chapter of the Noir at the Bar reading series, but produces a prodigious amount of short fiction for the likes of Crime Factory, Thuglit, and All Due Respect. He also appeared in the charity anthology edited by former site contributor and now successful author Luca Veste, Off the Record 2 – At the Movies. His own short fiction has been collected in Bouquet of Bullets and he co-edited Hoods, Hot-rods, and Hellcats. It is only May and Rumrunners is his second novel this year, following on from the serialised The Year I Died Seven Times.
The McGraw outlaw gene skipped a generation when Tucker was born. For as long as anyone can remember the McGraws have been driving for the Stanleys, moving prohibition-era booze, stolen goods, or more recently drugs across state lines, and taking pride in doing their job well. The McGraws never met a cop or a fed they couldn’t outwit or outdrive. But growing up, Tucker had heard just enough about his dad Webb and his granddad Calvin’s escapades and close shaves to know he wanted nothing to do with the business. What Tucker wants doesn’t figure in the Stanleys’ calculations and when Webb disappears with $10 million worth of meth, the debt passes to his son. Tucker can either pay up, which just isn’t possible for an office drone, or find his father and the missing drugs whilst paying off the debt by doing deliveries for the Stanleys. Option C, a long walk off a short plank, just doesn’t bear thinking about.
Much as he hates the idea, Tucker’s only chance is to get Calvin’s help. Tucker has tried as much as possible to keep the old reprobate from influencing his son Milo, but no-one knows the driving business better than Calvin, and if anyone can find Webb its him. Tucker and Calvin are put to work by the current head of the Stanley clan, Hugh, and it’s not long before they are racing through the backwoods of Iowa in a stolen muscle car. Calvin and Tucker can’t shake the suspicion that Hugh knows more than he is telling about Webb’s disappearance and the jobs they are given, such as collecting the spoils of a shakedown of some meth cooks, and driving one of the Stanley’s employees to his execution, seem designed to put them in an inordinate amount of danger. When Webb’s decapitated head is discovered, supposedly a Stanley trademark punishment, a final confrontation between the two families seems inevitable.
Set in present day Iowa, Rumrunners starts off as a mystery – what has happened to Webb? – before turning into a thriller. Beetner is equally comfortable writing both styles. There is plenty of action to keep the pages turning, Calvin as an old curmudgeon has some good lines, and Tucker’s transformation from mild-mannered working stiff to badass outlaw is nicely achieved.
What lets the novel down though is a gradual eroding of tension. Calvin McGraw is 86 years old, and whilst its possible he might come through an occasional scrape, to survive four days of gun battles, fist fights and car chases without sleep tests credulity. The description of violence elsewhere is quite realistic, but becomes a little cartoonish whenever Calvin is involved. Other than that, Rumrunners is another solid effort from 280 Steps, whom we featured in New Talent November 2014 (read the feature here).
Rumrunners is released 12 May. For more pulp crime click here.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars