November Road is the fourth novel from Lou Berney, and if that name means nothing to you and you're not in the market for a new favorite crime writer, don't take this one off the shelf. Don't even read this review.
The story begins in November 1963, just a few days before JFK's fateful trip to Dallas. We're in New Orleans with an underworld character named Frank Guidry. Berney does a bit of teasing here. You may ask yourself: Is this the hero or the villain? We like Guidry, but, well, it's hard not to be queasy about a moral choice he makes in the early pages. He's well-dressed, a lover of women (many women). He enjoys his work and he loves his life, and he's got killer repartee for every occasion. True, he is at the beck and call of crime boss Carlos Marcello (based, of course, on the real person), and that can have its downside, as we soon learn.
If you know anything about Marcello, you know the Kennedys hated him because they kept trying to send him to jail for life, or at least to Guatemala, of all places. And Marcello hated the Kennedys back. Enough to, well, you've probably heard the conspiracy theories. After Kennedy is assassinated, Guidry is dispatched to Texas to dispose of a getaway car and the sniper (the real one, not that patsy, Lee Harvey Oswald) who drove it.
Carlos is a guy you don't say no to, even if you suspect that once you flush that bit of trouble down the toilet, someone may come along to send you down the same hole. Killing a president, you can't be too careful.
Guidry goes through with the job, but he manages to sidestep Barone, the inevitable second hit man (or third, however you want to parse it). Predictably, a cross-country chase to Las Vegas ensues, but unpredictably, Guidry hooks up with what would seem to be a perfect beard: an Oklahoma housewife with two young girls, fleeing her drunken husband for a new life in California. The path to mayhem hits delicious stops along the way, such as a dinky jail in Goodnight, Texas, where the gruff, mustachioed sheriff whittles away the idle hours with paint-by-numbers kits, including more than one odd-colored Last Supper. Sam Elliott, please pick up, your agent has a great cameo role for you.
Berney is the kind of writer who knows how to tickle a reader's expectations with the familiar, then raise the bar with superb character development, humor, and gritty fun. November Road is such a natural film noir story that it feels like a movie where the screen is in your brain. It's got the kind of fleshed out, note-perfect evocations of character we loved in James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, where there are no throwaway lines, no unnecessary gestures. From now on, when I meet another aspiring crime writer, I'll show them Berney's work and say, "Sure you want to do this? Because to write this well, it ain't easy."
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