Lou Berney- November Road

Frank Guidry’s luck has finally run out. A loyal street lieutenant to New Orleans’ mob boss Carlos Marcello, Guidry has learned that everybody is expendable. But now it’s his turn–he knows too much about the crime of the century: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Within hours of JFK’s murder, everyone with ties to Marcello is turning up dead, and Guidry suspecting he’s next, hits the road to Las Vegas. When he spots a beautiful housewife, Charlotte, and her two young daughters stranded on the side of the road, he sees the perfect disguise to cover his tracks from the hit man on his trail. The two strangers share the open road west- and find each other on the way. But Guidry’s relentless hunters are closing in on him, and now he doesn’t just want to survive, he wants to really live, maybe for the first time. 

Everyone’s expendable, or they should be, but now Guidry just can’t throw away the woman he’s come to love. And it might get them both killed…

Parachuting straight into my top three reads of the year is this little beauty from Lou Berney, one of the most engaging and sensitively written books it’s been my pleasure to read of late. Championed by the mighty Don Winslow among others, and with an irresistible premise, this was more than reason enough for me to seek out November Road

As the book is so bound up with the Kennedy assassination, and the violent ramifications for the small group of individuals who enabled it to happen, Berney’s evocation of the period is absolutely perfect. Paying close attention to the social and political fallout of this event, and firmly placing the reader in the heart of 60s America, Berney also traverses the country from New Orleans, to Dallas to the west coast with vivid detail, as Frank Guidry attempts to escape the retribution of his gangster associates seeking to tie up the ‘loose ends’ of those involved in the assassination plot. The sense of the period is always front and centre, from the smallest detail to passing references to civil rights, the filling of the political vacuum, and Berney’s interesting new reworking of the assassination itself, although this is ground that has been trod by many writers and social commentators before. In tackling the Kennedy assassination myth, Berney not only shows belief in himself as a writer, but also succeeds in constructing an incredibly plausible narrative of this most examined and documented event in American political history.

Although the sense of peril looms large with Guidry, and by extension Charlotte and her daughters, being pursued by a particularly pernicious and ice-cold hitman, Berney balances this beautifully with the development of Guidry and Charlotte’s characters, with Guidry in the guise of a travelling salesman, and Charlotte rapidly trying to come to terms with the impulsive decision to leave her alcoholic husband with no plausible plan of what would follow her instantaneous decision. The growing tension in the book, as the sinister hitman Barone unmercifully (for those in his way) pursues them across states, ratchets up the pace of the narrative, and as we focus on the growing relationship between Guidry and Charlotte, the reader has this nagging feeling that danger is just around the corner, as does Guidry himself, and that the clock is ticking down to some kind of showdown. It’s beautifully done, keeping our attention pinned in two strands of the book, inwardly dreading the consequences of these two strands meeting.

Although, theirs is a relationship built on smoke and mirrors, certainly in the case of Guidry, Berney weaves a heartfelt and, at times, incredibly sensitive portrayal of two strangers in flight, drawing closer together, despite the hug chasm between them of their lives up until this point. Suffice to say, we see a gradual change in both of them, and a growing appreciation of how life can sometimes so surprisingly chart a different course, and that these opportunities should be grasped and learnt from. As Guidry becomes more involved with Charlotte and her daughters, I loved the way that Berney handles the initially tentative nature of this, but how he develops and explores both their characters, and the shift in strength and self-determination, particularly in the case of Charlotte. In an effort to avoid spoilers, I can only say that Guidry’s actions both pre and post Charlotte reveal a very different man from the perception we have of him at the outset, and prepare yourself for an incredibly moving denouement…

Regular readers of my blog will know that I appreciate my crime reading is always influenced more by those books that span the genres of crime and contemporary fiction, as I find the more linear, and therefore utterly predictable crime books, less enriching as a reader. Along with two of my reads earlier in the year, Tim Baker’s City Without Stars, and Derek B. Miller’s American By Day, this book held me in it’s thrall from the outset, with its clarity of prose, and perfect characterisation, digging down deep into the nature of human relationships forged in troubled circumstances.

November Road is one of those books that will haunt me for some time. Highly recommended.

(I bought this copy of November Road published by Harper Collins USA)

 

 

#FeverCity Blog Tour-Tim Baker- Review

FEVER CITY _ BLOG TOUR GRAPHICIt’s the next stop on the blog tour to mark the release of Fever City from debut crime novelist Tim Baker. I will be brutally honest and say that I did embark on the book with a certain amount of suspicion, as having read widely on everything JFK conspiracy related, I did wonder if anything new could be brought to the wealth of  theories that Kennedy’s assassination spawned, and the bravery of an author who would tread this well-worn path. I am incredibly pleased to report that Baker has achieved something quite special with this one, firmly dispelling any pre-conceptions that I held about the book. You’re intrigued now aren’t you?

Opening in the 1960’s, Nick Alston, a Los Angeles private investigator, is hired to find the kidnapped son of America’s richest and most hated man, Rex Bannister. With allusions to the infamous case of the Lindbergh kidnapping Alston soon finds himself intimately and dangerously entangled in the grasp of Bannister and his nefarious activities in the higher echelons of American society. Hastings, a mob hitman in search of redemption, is also on the trail but finds himself equally ensnared by a sinister cabal that spreads from the White House all the way to Dealey Plaza, and his own personal involvement in Kennedy’s fate. The story then pivots back and forth to 2014 where Alston’s son stumbles across evidence from JFK conspiracy buffs that just might link his father to the shot heard round the world…

aaApart from inserting a breath of fresh air into the whole mythology surrounding not only JFK’s demise and the agencies behind it, Baker brings into sharp focus a fine array of cultural references from the 60’s period, and the personalities that shone so bright in this golden age of American popular history. I liked the way that Baker explored the power hungry Joe Kennedy, the fragility of Monroe, the poignancy of Sal Mineo’s secret life, and the clear sighted and cold hearted scheming of Mafia figure Sam Giancana with his connections to the Rat Pack and JFK. I particularly enjoyed the way that Baker perfectly controlled the inclusion of these figures in the plot too, heightening the realism and feel of the plot, with some interesting revelations along the way that did not feel contrived nor far fetched. With three narratives, four time-lines, and a mixture of first and third person narration to juggle, it’s hard to believe that this is a debut, such was the control of all these elements within the book. As a book of significant length (in relation to most crime novels) I was also delighted by how long Baker managed to hold off the unfurling of revelations between the 60’s, and the contemporary storyline, in terms of the implications of Alston’s and Hastings’ personal involvement in the investigation of the kidnapping and the JFK assassination and its ramifications. I found my reading sped up considerably as I devoured the last few chapters at a pace, with a nice sense of ‘well, I wasn’t expecting that’ included.

I thought this was a genuinely terrific thriller; clever, well-researched and beautifully executed, as the action ebbed and flowed, keeping me on tenterhooks throught. There’s scheming, corruption, violence, and a strong sense of the personal cost that power, political envy and money can bring in its wake. The writing is sharp, dispassionate but endlessly engaging, and equally unsettling. In fact, the greatest compliment I can pay to this book is that I did feel an echo of James Ellroy along the way, not only with the assured inclusion of instantly recognisable figures, but also in some passages a slight mirroring of Ellroy’s punctilious and spare style, when the main protagonists slipped into stream of consciousness, or when a relevant social/cultural observation was needed to be made. A kind of revisiting of LA Confidential with a Texan twist…. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Faber for the ARC)