Friday, September 19, 2014

Crime Fiction: The Good Life by
Frank Wheeler Jr.

(Editor’s note: The following review comes from Steven Nester, the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine. He last wrote for January Magazine about Kevin Cook’s non-fiction work, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America.)

Sometimes to do the right thing, a lawman must cross the line and do dirty with the bad guys, and nobody knows that better than Sheriff Earl Haack Jr., of Linden, Nebraska. Plainspoken and direct, his daddy was a lawman who gave him the job and taught him to be a cop in the way that makes the most sense in a world that will never be tamed. “Remember, Junior,” Dad said. “Order comes first.” This means that to keep the right side of the law safe, a cop sometimes has to step over the line and bring the fight to the criminals -- and take some of their profits in the process.

Frank Wheeler Jr.’s The Good Life (New Pulp Press) is a modern-day Western in which the classic land-grab of ranchers and railroads routing dirt farmers and other decent folk has been updated. Now we’re given feuding drug dealers at war with each other over territory, while they go up against politicians looking for election-year publicity and underpaid police wanting a piece of the action. Junior does a good job keeping the animals in line and lining his pockets, but when it comes to women, he’s a bit fleeceable.

While serving as a detective in Denver, Colorado, he busts an Argentine college student named Camila for cocaine possession. It’s love at first offense, and Junior ends up marrying her. But she was in the deal for a green card only, and carries on an affair right under Junior’s nose. Camila eventually leaves Junior to return to South America, nearly wrecking him. Camila also knows how some cops can work with drug dealers, and that Junior is one of those people. She’s always thinking.

Junior’s in the middle of cleaning house when he’s tipped off that Nebraska’s attorney general needs a big bust he can show proudly to voters in advance of his upcoming re-election fight, and he intends that bust to take place in little Linden. The problem is that Junior already took out the AG’s fall guy. Junior’s plan was to quietly make the local drug establishment go away, then put his own people in to run the organization. Now he must steer the state police to a new target, a guy in Lincoln, Nebraska’s capital. Just as he has his head together, though, Camila shows up again, ostensibly because her wealthy father cut her off, but also packing plenty of the coochie-coochie that Junior can’t resist. Even so, Junior learned his lesson and he’s not buying it. When an assassin breaks into Camila’s apartment and uses her as a human shield, Junior sees it as a “gift from God,” and attempts to line up a shot that will kill them both. This story hinges on why she returned to Junior, and when she’ll play her hand.

What’s hindering Junior’s shady organization is a spy on the inside. The obvious suspect is Camila. A stranger comes to town and Junior takes notice, casting more doubt upon her. But when hog-tied and helpless, Camila comes clean. She tells Junior she represents a South American cartel that’s looking to move in and play ball with Junior -- Camila assured the cartel that she’d get her husband on the team. She owes El-Perro Negro, her boss in South America, for the death of his young cousin. But there is an insurance policy: a thug named Andres -- the stranger -- who’s in Linden to make sure Camila does the right thing, and he must be dealt with.

As far as Junior is concerned, feeding the state police the middle man in Lincoln, as well as his supplier in Chicago, in order to do business with the source in South America sounds like a good plan. In the meantime, there’s a mole to locate as Junior and his half-brother, Mikey, and second cousin Eddie continue to cull the weak, the unwary and the useless. The dealers Junior thinks he can use are asked to leave the country for a while. When they return they’ll have jobs.

The imagery in The Good Life is of Nebraska during harvest time, all corn stubble and chill, and like the best of Hemingway, death lingers in the background, built into the scenery. “Air smells like chaff,” and the reaper is on the prowl, hanging in the breeze. There’s some great good-ol’-boy repartee here, and the beauty of this genre, or at least of country boys cracking wise, is the brevity and pith of their observations and wit.

Junior Haack is a realist, and takes the course of action that makes the most cold-blooded sense, whether it’s beating the screw-up Mikey to knock some sense into him, allowing Camila -- the woman who hurt him so much -- to return to his life and (by his standards) change it for the better, or murdering and dismembering the competition. Despite everything, he’s still able to get a good night’s sleep.

Says Junior: “What I’ve come to understand about murder is its necessity. And if something is necessary, why regret it?” ◊

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