November Road by Lou Berney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If someone offered me the choice between taking a long road trip with a couple of kids or being murdered by the mob, I’d have to really think it over.
It’s November 1963, and Frank Guidry is living well in New Orleans thanks to his top position with Carlos Marcello’s mob outfit. However, one of Frank’s recent chores was leaving a car in a parking garage in Dallas very near the spot where President Kennedy would be assassinated just days later. It doesn’t take a genius to make the connection especially when several other people on Carlos’ payroll start turning up dead. Frank just became a loose end, and he flees west with lethal hit man Paul Barone hot on his trail.
Meanwhile, Charlotte Roy has been trying to raise her two daughters in a small Oklahoma town which isn’t easy thanks to her drunken loser of a husband. When Charlotte has enough she takes the girls and starts heading to California, but she’s consumed by guilt and uncertain if she's done the right thing. After Frank meets Charlotte at a motel he realizes that traveling with a lady and two kids would make him a lot less conspicuous so he engineers circumstances so that they all go together. Frank is surprised when what started as a con to help him get away begins to turn into a real relationship with Charlotte and the kids. But that pesky hit man is still right behind them…
I read Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone earlier this year and enjoyed it quite a bit. Then I heard a tremendous amount of good buzz about this one before it released, and I’m pleased to report that it lives up to the hype.
In the wrong hands this concept could be just some cheesy tale about a ‘bad man’ who sees the error of his ways after becoming part of a family, but the strong character work done with Frank, Charlotte, and deadly Paul Barone is where this really shines. You thoroughly understand all of them, and despite the historical backdrop it all feels grounded and realistic with Frank and Charlotte struggling to deal with how their lives have been forever changed while Barone has to deal with a variety of setbacks as he just tries to complete his mission.
I particularly liked how Berney used the JFK assassination as the jumping off point, not the center of the story. It’s obviously the thing driving the plot, but what’s presented comes across as a believable scheme by one pissed off mobster instead of some vast shadowy tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory. So we’re not dragged into some Oliver Stone style fever dream.
The work done on the settings and time is top notch, too. We get an authentic sense of the places like New Orleans, Las Vegas, crappy motels, and roadside tourist traps. It all builds the mood of what it must have been like back then. There’s nice touches of how the mob operated at the time, too.
It’s a damn fine piece of crime fiction, and I’ll be tracking down more of Berney’s work.
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