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It’s 1980 and amateur photographer Dan Abatangelo “…blew into Las Vegas the first week of spring, primed to hit the tables, sniff the wildlife, maybe cat around a bit. Given his focus was pleasure, not business, he saw no need for an alias.” This is the introduction to David Corbett’s debut novel a decade ago. It was nominated for both the Anthony and Barry Awards for Best First Novel of 2002. Now, for the first time available in a beautifully formatted eBook with a new, and starkly evocative cover, from MysteriousPress.com/Open Road. A decade ago, it bode well for ex-private eye Corbett’s future as a novelist. That opening somehow makes the reader like Abatangelo, yet tells us that he has some yet to be revealed flaws. The fact that ‘if’ he was focused on business, he would use an alias. What kind of businessman uses an alias? Yet, despite his idea of fun being gambling, “sniffing” the wildlife and catting around, there is a sense of realness to Abatangelo, and there is somehow a likeability.
The scene goes on and has him joking with the desk clerk, flirting a bit. He checks in, goes to his room, showers, then has a leisurely dinner, and heads for the casino. He avoids the tourists, isn’t impressed with the “kitschy pandemonium” and then the narrator reveals that, “Years later, he would reflect that the only thing louder than a Vegas casino at night is the inside of a prison.” There it is again. Abatangelo is likeable, fun loving, not a shallow man (he avoids the touristy stuff) and not a novice (he’s not impressed by the ‘metallic clamor and the popping of lights’) yet, he is no innocent, since we know that in the coming years he’ll learn that a prison is louder than a casino floor.
All of this is a perfect opening, a masterful opening to a modern noir novel. Dan Abatangelo is a likeable character, but he isn’t exactly a knight in shining armor either ( he cats around, gambles, is in a business where he’d consider using an alias and he’s going to learn about the inside of a prison). He goes on to pick out a table to play twenty-one, mostly because of the women dealing the cards. She was stunning, “She had the kind of smile that said: Gentlemen, start your engines.” And four hours later he leaves the casino with Shel Beaudry, having incited her into walking off her job. Before the night is over they are in bed and on their way to being in love. Shel is also painted as a lady with a past, a street smart woman who also is no innocent, but an admirable person, a strong woman just the same.
Three days later, the whirlwind romance continues, they fly to San Diego for the ocean breeze. They finally crawl out of bed and start to do couples things. See the sites, enjoying the nightlife and they start to share more than just their bodies, more than just sex. Little by little, they reveal more and more about themselves. Shel wonders how a photographer has so much money to throw around. He compares himself to the poet, Rimbaud; “He gave up poetry and ended up running guns in Abyssina.” he tells her. When this causes Shel to frown just a little, he reveals that he doesn’t like guns. Doesn’t like what they do to people. Finally he comes clean with her, He gives her a gold an amethyst necklace and tells her the story of the goddess Amethyst and the god, Bacchus. Then he gives her a chance to walk away when she realizes that the legend isn’t the only story behind the gift. He isn’t a rich photographer, but a high level pot smuggler. He had a chain of dummy companies to hide all the money in and he had a credo: No guns, no gangsters.It’s only money.
So, Dan Abatangelo is revealed as a knight in tarnished armor. In many ways the perfect protagonist of a modern noir story. He may be an outlaw, but not ‘really’ a criminal. Shel loves him, they make unspoken commitments to each other, except Shel stipulates, “I see guns, I’m gone.”
Two years later, the federal government, contrary to Abatangelo self-image, bust them and Abatangelo’s crew bringing in a big shipment. Abatangelo takes the fall, so Shel will get a lighter sentence and he gets ten years. Dan is still in love with Shel, and Shel tries to hold on for Dan to get out, but not knowing if he’ll even want her when he does get out, and because they won’t be able to see each other even when he does because of parole stipulations, she ends up with a damaged man. Frank is a loser crank head who Shel falls for over a sob story of how his doper girlfriend killed Franks son. Frank is on a mental and chemical slow boat to hell, and he’s taking Shel down with him. The people Frank owes for his habit aren’t the gentleman pot smugglers who eschew guns. These are hyped up redneck violent criminals, the kind of people Dan avoided and couldn’t identify with. And they have plenty of guns and speed freaks to fire them.
When Frank decides to double cross his dealers and sets up an ambush that goes wrong, he drops Shel in the middle of a cartel war in the delta area of northern California. When Dan, who decides he has to see Shel, walks in in the middle of the war, he is lucky to escape, and though’ he rescues Shel, she decides she has to protect Dan and goes back to try and extricate herself, Frank and Dan from the gang.
What follows is an action packed chase through a nightmare of crank dealers and the over the top gang wars between a redneck gang and a Mexican gang and Shel is just a pawn, a bargaining chip to be discarded without a thought. It’ a story that is filled with violence, betrayal, suspicion and tragedy and senseless killing on every side. The cops are powerless, or corrupt, and Shels only ally is a scarred young Mexican gangster, with a romantic streak whose only real loyalty is to himself.
At first Dan is on the periphery of this crime war, there are many reasons for him to not get involved. First, it could land him back in prison. Secondly, he hates guns and isn’t experienced with this level of violence. His one reason for getting involved is his love for Shel but he must find away into the war and into the midst of the rival gangs and he has few resources to aid him on his way.
The author, David Corbett devised a story and a complicated plot that are mostly winners, and the characters of Dan and Shel are excellent in the noir genre. They are real, they are both noble and flawed; both sinners and saints. The character of Frank is one who draws the readers sympathy as well as our scorn. In many ways he is a ‘child of a lessor god’, the only thing to like about him is his story, which proves to be a lie. Frank could have been fleshed out just a little more and not to have teetered on the edge of caricature before tipping into that void. For the most part the other characters, both large and small are cardboard cut outs, whether they be drunken crusader-reporters, crooked cops and politicians, bad guys or mindless thugs badder guys.
However, the development of the minor or secondary characters is just about the only flaw in Corbett’s debut. There were a couple of places in the resolution of the plot where the scenes begged the reader to suspend reality, but these could be easily forgiven when the meth driven criminals were involved and it was easy to believe they suspended reality everyday. Further, the plot stops and starts in places as Corbett expands on developing the sense of place; the shady bars, the street life, a character agonizing in a lonely motel room, or sitting at his kitchen table trying to decide what to do next.
But Corbett did proved himself a master of delivering a sense of place (even if at the expense of the plots flow) both in the physical environs of the books setting, and in the psyche of the drug scene of the early ‘90s. Corbett’s dialog is beautiful as well as the narration. Despite the flaws, which can for the most part be forgiven, I was tempted to give this book Five Stars. It is wonderfully dark noir. And it was written when the genre really needed both new players and rescue from sinking into parody. But, judged against his work since then, it’s only fair to rank it slightly lower.
Today, a decade later, David Corbett has risen to be one of the vanguard of brilliant noir novelists. He continues to write award winning and critically praise crime stories. But, as one of the vanguard of the brilliant, he has added penning books on the craft of writing (The Art Of Character), manuscript reviewing and editing services, and lecturing at seminars, classes and workshops for aspiring novelists. He also regularly contributes to MURDERATI, one of the most engaging and informative blogs on writing and the writing life on the web.
Article first published as Book Review: The Devil's Redhead by David Corbett on Blogcritics.
Copyright © 2012 Robert Carraher All Rights Reserved