Written by Art Taylor — Is it OK to say a book by a male author is charming? Regardless of possible gender-bias, this book is. Del and Louise are a couple brought together by crime. They met when Del was robbing the 7-11 in Eagle Nest, New Mexico, where Louise worked. They stay together during a relentless succession of American-style fresh starts – self-reinventions that invariably turn into one shady enterprise or another, and they ultimately . . . well, read the book and find out.
Taylor is an award-winning short story writer, and the individual chapters of this picaresque could stand alone. In fact, the first two chapters have done so, in past issues of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine: Rearview Mirror, March/April 2010, which won a 2011 Derringer Award for best novelette; and Commission, May 2015. Taylor’s stories have won numerous Derringer, Agatha and Macavity awards, as well as reaching the finals in Anthony and Spinetingler awards. They often appear in anthologies.
What’s especially fun about On the Road is how well Taylor has developed the two principal characters. Del wants to do right, to get straight, but it just isn’t happening, and Louise isn’t above a little larceny herself, if it promotes the couple’s welfare. Del’s intelligence is complemented by Louise’s cleverness in a pinch, and Del’s planning skills by Louise’s gut instincts. Together, they do the best they can and their story is filled with theft, fraud, kidnapping, shoplifting, humour and insight into human failings. The people they meet along the way have plenty of those, as they do themselves.
Their adventures are recounted by Louise in a straightforward and wry narrative voice that reveals her own shortcomings, too. Although the text is relatively unembellished, Taylor allows himself some spot-on literary flourishes. When he describes an early morning near Taos when writes, “…the sun creeping up, the boil not yet on the day.” There are comic bits too: “If that first winery we went to was upper crust, the bar in Napa was sure the bottom of the pie.”
Their travels take them from New Mexico to Victorville, California, where Del works for his sister’s realty agency until the cops come calling, which launches a painful period of suspicion and miscommunication between him and Louise. From there, feeling they are living life on the lam, they travel to Napa Valley wine country to repair their relationship, then to a comically disastrous scene in a Las Vegas wedding chapel. A stint in the North Dakota oil fields proves financially rewarding and emotionally bankrupting. There, Louise learns anew that, “The reasons you do things don’t always make up for the doing of them.”
Finally they reach North Carolina, Louise’s home state, and her mother Cora. Of Taylor’s many stand-out secondary characters, I especially admired the portrayal of Louise’s acerbic mother, who is convinced that men always let women down, and that Del will disappoint Louise too. Her relentless belittling and undermining are priceless, as if all the wicked thrusts and jabs of a lifetime must be desperately concentrated into one short visit. While Cora and Del bicker, external and internal pressures on the couple mount, and all three of them must rise to the occasion or be ripped apart.
Taylor has created an enjoyable tale and some nerve-wracking adventures without the need for a gruesome body count or far-fetched end of the world scenarios. Because the story is so grounded in imperfect humanity and told so convincingly, we share Del and Louise’s bumpy ride, rooting for them every mile of the way. While their lives will never be trouble-free, they will always be good.
Comedy in crime fiction takes many forms, as this article describes. A great many authors leaven their novels’ dark doings with humour – from Elmore Leonard to John Sandford to Adrian McKinty – and some write superb comic capers, like Donald Westlake. In an era of increasing genre cross-fertilisation, On the Road with Del and Louise is yet another hybrid – a relationship novel with hefty doses of both comedy and crime. As I pictured their travels, my mind’s eye kept returning to the movie American Hustle, where the crimes were quite different, but the appeal of the flawed protagonists was the same.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars