Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Murderer Vine by Shepard Rifkin (Hard Case Crime)

I avoided reading this book for the longest time, and I'm not exactly sure why. It may have had something to do with its being inspired by the same true-life event that Mississippi Burning, a movie I did not enjoy, was based on. I've been very timely about reading and reviewing all the other Hard Case Crime novels either before or soon after their publication date, however, so the fact that The Murderer Vine sat fallow on my bookshelf for nine months was an anomaly indeed.

The completist in me (and the fact that HCC has never published a purely awful book) eventually forced me to pick it up this past January instead of skipping over it again in favor of yet another book. This was also in part because the topic of civil rights was very much in the press following the inauguration of President Obama. But, even so, I opened The Murderer Vine with a marked lack of enthusiasm.

I shouldn't have waited.

When private investigator Joe Dunne takes care of a local heroin dealer, a referral gets him another job: to kill the five people responsible for the disappearances of three local boys who went down to Mississippi to work for civil rights. Dunne heads down South undercover with his attractive and capable assistant Kirby Jamison as a dialectologist and his wife, on a case unlike any he's handled before. For one, it takes a lot of planning to avoid the worst-case scenario:

"I wrote [the plot] out briefly as if I were a writer writing a screen treatment for a cynical film producer who had a superb sense of film construction. I wrote it as if a very critical film reviewer were to look at it when it became a movie. But there would be a big difference ... between a lousy review and winding up dead somewhere on a lonely country road in northern Mississippi."

Dunne is surprised by the duplicitous nature of the stereotypically "hospitable" Southerners: smiling to your face (so as to be perceived as good Christian folk) while gossiping and worse behind your back. (It was that way in 1944 [the setting of the 1970 novel], and it was still that way in the mid-1990s when I left for the less outwardly pleasant but more honestly antisocial people of New England.)

Dunne stands out but manages to get in good with local blacks by not treating them as inferiors. Kirby, a Southern native herself, endears herself to the rest with her open and charming ways. Author Shepard Rifkin has a talent for transcribing Southern dialect so that it reads much like it really sounds. Especially rich is Rifkin's characterization of Dunne, a richly complex individual with conflicting desires and a strong moral compass. Rifkin nearly allows Dunne to get out of favor with us in his pursuit of "fitting in" during a scene on a bus. Luckily, Dunne and Kirby have such chemistry with each other that their scenes together are a joy to read.

On the surface, The Murderer Vine is a private eye novel much like the ones Dunne picks up at an airport ("At least I would have pleasure picking holes in the heroes.... The novels were unintentionally funny"), but more accurately it's about the P.I. himself much more than the case. Rifkin's skill at creating believable characters (some of the supporting cast are truly remarkable) and his use of setting and dialogue — in short, his pure storytelling ability — make up for the fairly thin mystery, and the gut-puncher of an ending only serves to make it unforgettable.

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