Friday, January 22, 2010

Crime Fiction: Gone ’til November
by Wallace Stroby

Readers (especially the American variety) have grown accustomed to seeing villains in crime fiction portrayed in starkly negative terms, or else given such repulsive quirks that whatever humanness they manifest must be considered suspect. So Wallace Stroby runs some risk in making his killer for hire, Nathaniel Morgan, the most engaging character in Gone ’til November (Minotaur).

African American, 57 years old, and the veteran enforcer for Mikey-Mike, a New Jersey drug dealer whose wares just aren’t as high-grade or in demand as they once were, Morgan has a girlfriend half his age, a vintage Monte Carlo he loves almost as much, and musical tastes that run to the rhythms of Sam Cooke, Walter Jackson, and the Impressions. He also pops Vicodin at an alarming rate, because he’s suffering from a rare form of cancer that may take him down long before any of his “business rivals” get their shot.

Lacking health insurance or even the prospect of appealing for limited social aid (how would he answer, after all, the application’s request for “current occupation”?), Morgan has made rather desperate plans for his future. He wants to ditch New Jersey, his girlfriend and her son in tow, and find a doctor somewhere far away who can administer the medical treatments he needs. If Mikey-Mike or his hired pistol-pushers try to track him down, Morgan figures “he could deal with that, too, protect what was his. What he’d earned.” All he needs before putting his plan into action is more money to add to the savings he has already hidden away. And that requires him taking on a last assignment for his narcotics-king boss.

Meanwhile, in far-off Florida, a late-30s sheriff’s deputy named Sara Cross has come to the aid of a fellow officer, Billy Flynn, who’s shot and killed a well-dressed young black man, Derek Willis, on the edge of a cypress swamp in the middle of a steamy night. Willis was driving a car with Jersey plates, and according to Flynn, when he pulled Willis over and asked that he open his trunk, the younger man made a break for it. Flynn thought his fleeing suspect had a gun, so plugged him three times in self-defense. Sara finds a zippered bag crammed with firearms and ammunition in the vehicle’s trunk, which might indeed have justified Willis’ actions. And though she has doubts regarding the incident -- why was there a baby seat in Willis’ car? Why didn’t Flynn call for backup before he approached the driver? -- she attests to her fellow officer’s account of the proceedings. It looks like a “clean shoot.”

However, as the immature Flynn -- who used to be Sara’s lover as well as her partner on the sheriff’s squad, but now has a new and jealous girlfriend -- tries to reignite their relationship, our heroine’s suspicions about the Willis shooting mount. Exacerbating them is the appearance of Willis’ “wife,” the mother of their child together, who comes to collect his corpse and “raise hell, most likely.” She tells Sara that Willis “never carried a gun in his life,” which is enough to provoke the conscientious sheriff’s deputy to look a bit further into the provenance of the dead man’s revolver.

Then there’s the mysterious guy who Sara thinks is following her, but whose face she can never quite make out in passing automobiles. She wonders what his role is in all of this -- not knowing that in fact it’s Morgan behind the wheel. His last job for Mikey-Mike, the one that’s going to give him his nest egg for a new life, turns out to be retrieving $350,000 that had been secreted in the car driven by Willis, who was also on Mikey-Mike’s payroll. Why were the weapons discovered, but no reports of all that cash? Morgan wants to know where the money went -- and whether he can steal it for himself, add it to his nest egg. Accomplishing that, though, will put him in dangerous contention with a couple of trigger-happy twins and the considerably more competent Sara Cross.

Stroby, a former editor at Newark, New Jersey’s Star-Ledger newspaper and the author of two previously praised crime novels, The Barbed-Wire Kiss (2003) and The Heartbreak Lounge (2005) -- both starring quondam state trooper Harry Rane -- is meticulous in entwining his narrative threads here, reaping drama, originality and suspense from what seem at first to be Gone ’til November’s familiar themes. But it’s his chief adversarial pair who keep one turning these pages: Morgan, the professional gunman who treats killing like any other occupation, and sees no percentage in surplus deaths; and Sara -- brave and smart, but flawed and too much on her own, struggling as her county’s only female deputy sheriff while she cares for a 6-year-old son whose life is as much at threat from leukemia as Morgan’s is from cancer. The older protagonist is certainly the more engaging -- it was worth every risk to make Morgan a nuanced, sympathetic figure -- but Sara Cross demonstrates potential for growth. That’s good, because her appearance here isn’t her last. As Stroby says, “there will be at least one more book about her, though it won’t be [my] next one. Beyond that, I can’t say, but she’ll definitely be back.”

Swiftly told but suspenseful, filled with moral choices and a bit of welcome ambiguousness at its end, Gone ’til November is
a small story with a hell of a kick.



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