In Bartley’s (A Bullet to Dream of, 2014, etc.) latest historical novel, a 1930s gangster with a conscience finds himself tangled up in big small-town mysteries involving murder, drugs and—most dangerous of all—young love.
In the book’s very first paragraph, Ross Duncan drinks Old Overholt rye, checks his pistol and reads his Bible, which provides a succinct snapshot of his character: a man with a hard past who’s willing to do hard things but who’s also looking for a redemptive path through life. Unfortunately for Ross, his path out West, after a couple of flat tires, leaves him stranded in Gentryville, a small California town that’s a hotbed of noir suspense. There’s a young, up-and-coming boxer whose trainer uses some unorthodox methods, including narcotics; a blowsy drunk with a hard-luck tale of an embezzling husband; and a good-time mayor with the muscle to enforce his special rules who’s facing an imminent election against his old mentor. As a bartender tells Ross, “There are a lot of things about this town you wouldn’t guess.” Ross, who stands up to bullies, becomes drawn to the tragedy of the boxer and his girlfriend; finally, he ends up working for the shady Mayor Vargas. The mayor has a blurry past, a mysterious wife and a plan for a big score. The mysteries of Gentryville soon stretch to San Francisco, with its scandal-ridden Hetch Hetchy plan to bring water from Yosemite, and to Detroit, with a tale of missing drugs and a missing wife. Bartley’s writing is confident throughout, moving smoothly from the clean prose of action scenes (“I shot him once in the chest”) to poetic asides on small-town sin; Gentryville, for example, is described as “a confined space that allowed the whispers to echo.” Ross, in particular, is a curious character: a bank robber who talks about physicists, evolution and psychiatry (“In prison I’d read some writings by a guy named Freud: ‘No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger-tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore’ ”). Although he sometimes seems overly informed, he’s an intriguing guide for a redemptive tale that’s also a meditation on love.
Another solid, entertaining noir thriller from Bartley.