Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Last Match by David Dodge (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

"The Thirteen Match game ... is one of the simplest and most effective swindles in existence. The mark can't ever wins unless you want him to. You throw thirteen matches ... on the table. Then you and the john take turns extracting one, two, or three matches from the pile at a time.... The aim is not to take that last match." — from The Last Match

Fans of author David Dodge who were thrilled to see his series character Al Colby back in print with Hard Case Crime's rerelease of Plunder of the Sun are bound to be even more excited to learn that The Last Match, a new, never before published novel and Dodge's last, has been unearthed and is finally available to the public, more than 30 years after it was written.

Dodge, also the author of the novel Alfred Hitchcock used as the basis for To Catch a Thief, used pieces of his life throughout his fiction. A world traveler with his family, he alternated novels fictionalizing his trips around the world with travelogues chronicling the true events. His daughter Kendal Dodge Butler writes in the afterword to The Last Match that "I have such a well-documented childhood that at times I'm not sure whether a thing really happened or it's just something I read in a book." She also believes that Curly, this novel's hero, is simply her father "dreaming of long cons."

But whatever is true and whatever may be recycled from earlier novels (but based on real people), The Last Match is a fine example of Dodge's writing. I didn't particularly enjoy the treasure-hunt aspect of Plunder of the Sun, but the writing was impeccable, and as a fan of long-con stories like The Sting and The Girl with the Long Green Heart (another Hard Case Crime reprint), Dodge's final book was right up my alley. There's not a whole lot in the way of plot; the hero, only known as "Curly" because of his hair, is basically writing a memoir of his time traveling the world pulling cons on unsuspecting marks, and sometimes getting involved with local women.

His adventures take him to many exotic locales, each connected to the last merely by a necessary trip to the next country to escape the authorities of the one he pulled his last job in. He acts as chauffeur to the Honorable (and untouchable) Regina Forbes-Jones in France, and takes charge of a stunningly beautiful (and equally naive) honey-skinned women named Boda while writing suspect letters for Arabs in Tangier. He subsequently hitches a ride in the fire-room of a ship to Peru (after looking out for Boda's future welfare, of course — he's hardly a cad) where he helps perpetuate a Spanish Prisoner scheme much like the Nigerian scam that permeated e-mail of late (this illustrates how old that particular game is).

And that's only the first 150 pages or so. On and on Curly goes and it is simply impossible to predict where he'll go or what he'll do next. Often I got the sense that Dodge wasn't even sure, that he was just letting the story go where it took him. This gives The Last Match an immediacy that is equally as fascinating as the story being told.

Which brings me to another reason I liked The Last Match better than Plunder of the Sun: this book displays the easy flow of a writer who is very comfortable behind the typewriter. You don't attempt to chronicle a period in the life of a character in detail unless you are confident in your ability to improvise at the keys. I had the feeling that the other novel was so tightly plotted in order to get the story told efficiently that there was little room for movement, and that comes through Al Colby in his gruff manner. Conversely, The voice of Curly is unforced and very natural. It poured easily off my tongue when I read it out loud to my infant son (yeah, I know, but those board books get tedious after the 37th reading!), even the most complex sentences were easy reading.

Dodge does go a little wrong with the ending of The Last Match in an attempt to give it a climax with some emotional weight, but the rest of this 315-page work (comparatively large for Hard Case Crime, but I'm not complaining) takes the reader on quite a ride. And Curly the life-long confidence artist is not a character I am likely to forget any time soon. "Nevah feeyah."


David Cranmer said...

A terrific book and the character of Curly is indeed memorable. One of the finest in the Hard Case Crime series.

Craig Clarke said...

I agree. So far, my two favorites are this one and Lester Dent's Honey in His Mouth.

Related Posts with Thumbnails