- Series: Hard Case Crime Novels (Book 43)
- Mass Market Paperback: 254 pages
- Publisher: Hard Case Crime; Unabridged edition edition (April 26, 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0857683721
- ISBN-13: 978-0857683724
- Product Dimensions: 4.2 x 0.7 x 6.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 14 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,042,310 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Murderer Vine (Hard Case Crime Novels) Mass Market Paperback – Unabridged, April 26, 2011
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About the Author
In addition to The Murderer Vine, Shepard Rifkin authored such other novels as Desire Island, King Fisher’s Road, Ladyfingers, and The Snow Rattlers, and edited the collection The Savage Years. Born in 1918, Rifkin also served aboard the famous S. S. Ben Hecht, the ship that in 1947 attempted to run the British blockade of Palestine carrying hundreds of survivors of the Holocaust.
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The Murderer Vine is an absolutely terrific book and an enjoyable read at that. The cover features top-notch artwork by Ken Laager of a compelling blonde in high heels and a bed sheet with her feet wrapped in a vine. Although this precise scene is not in the book, it gives some of the atmosphere of the book and the woman is obviously none other than Kirby. In a brief foreword to the book, Rifkin explains that that, in the Amazon, a vine grows that climbs higher every year and has tentacles that reach out, and block the sunlight and the tree that it grew on eventually dies. He explains that, in South America, it is called La Liana Matador or the Murderer Vine.
The book is definitely hardboiled and definitely noir. It is a combination of a hardboiled detective novel with the subject matter being the famous slaying of the civil rights workers in Mississippi. The route that Rifkin takes to this subject, however, is unique. He doesn't focus on the moral or ethical aspects of that shocking event. In his fictionalized account, a father of one of the three young men who were brutally murdered hires a private eye (Dunne) to go down to Mississippi and find out who did this, get proof of who did it, and execute those responsible. The bounty offered is $100,000 per murderer and that half a million is more than this poor private eye could hope to make in a lifetime. The story is brilliantly told and, although there are a few meanderings in the beginning, it all worked for me.
The story begins in Puerto Lagarto (Porto Lizard) somewhere south of the Yucatan. It is a "dump" that is hot, sweaty, and has no paved streets and only one place with ice. Dunne explains that the refrigerator in the cantina is packed full of beer every morning and "I sit in the Bitterness and drink my way from the front to the back of the refrigerator and look at the bay." He hasn't seen any outsider in two years, but is now offering a sort of confession to a priest who has happened along. He explains: "If someone came here by mistake, he wouldn't like the food or the damp heat or the hammocks or the people. I don't like them either. But there's one big advantage living here. They don't extradite." Let that one sink in for a while.
The tale he tells goes back in time and he describes how he was once worked a job in Haskell (wherever that is) and a pusher had moved into the area, selling to the high school kids and the soccer moms. What happened, he explains, is that "one of the mothers walks in one evening into her fifteen-year-old daughter's room to find the kid mainlining horse into her thigh. Horse, that's heroin." He explains that the police wouldn't do anything and he wanted Dunne to do something, anything.
Well, after doing that job apparently his reputation for getting a tough job done, no questions asked, got out and Parrish walks into his office. "Parrish looked like a rich guy with a problem." The narrator "had him figured for a banker with a nice Bahama tan and a wandering wife who may have been necking with the mate of his chartered fishing boat." Instead, Parrish leans in and tells him that he wants him to kill five people.
Part of the story (and a major part at that) is the burgeoning romance between Dunne and his secretary, Kirby, who had originally been from the South and had been taking diction lessons trying to lose her upper-class Southern accent. "She had put her legs up on the desk. For the first time I noticed how long they were. She was holding the book above eye level, and her head was tilted backward. Her long yellow hair was swinging free. She was smiling at the book and tugging at her earlobe. I suppose that was the first time I noticed her."
And notices her, he does. "Her eyelids were painted a pale blue. I watched as she ran an index finger over the left one and her thumb over the other. They were the color of an early morning sky in summer."
Kirby volunteers to accompany the detective deep into the South as he will stick out like a sore thumb as a northerner and she can smooth the way with her down-home ways. Of course, once they pose as husband and wife, you know the fireworks are starting.
A lot of first half involves the preparations for going undercover, including creating an identity as a Canadian professor researching accents. The real action takes place as they head into the small town in the South and Dunne has to find ways to make time with the redneck sheriff and his cronies and figure out where the bodies are buried.
The writing is superb and the build-up to the climax is fantastic. This is another selection worthy of being in the Hard Case lineup. Rifkin does a great job of capturing the look and feel of the rural south in the early sixties and the racism embedded in southern society. He makes the reader feel as if they are back in the backwoods country, drinking moonshine with the rednecks who are quick with guns and tire chains and don't tolerate outsiders poking into local affairs.
This is one of those books that, as a reader, you don't want to put down until you finish. It's that good.
I intend to see if I can find other books by this author (nothing listed on Amazon)
Set in 1970 and loosely inspired by the real life case of Civil Rights workers murdered in the Deep South (the which event also inspired the movie Mississippi Burning), the novel follows a smarter-than-average PI named Joe Dunne, who is hired by the rich father of one of the dead workers to find the men responsible for the killings, produce evidence of their crimes, and then execute them in revenge. Dunne is not a killer by nature, and he struggles with the ethics of this task, but the money is too great to turn down.
Along for the ride is Dunne’s beautiful young assistant Kirby, a Southern transplant to New York City who understands the culture, who may or may not agree with Dunne’s views on race and class, and who consistently saves Dunne from his own ignorance.
I enjoyed the Dunne character who for the most part acted intelligently and recognized his mistakes, a few of which led to tragic outcomes for other characters. Too often, PI characters stomp around these books oblivious to the damage they wreak on the people around them. Kirby stole the limelight in every one of her scenes with her ingenuity and quick thinking.
The problem with this book was its stereotypical and dishonest portrayal of almost every white Southern character. The author depicted them all as evil, duplicitous, hate-filled bigots who would rather see all African-Americans hanged rather than give them equal rights. Anyone who actually lived in the South, especially during this time period, knows this was not true. Most racism of the period was a sort of casual assumed superiority, a pity and snubbing of black people, rather than outright hatred. It is true, of course, that this attitude is certainly what allowed the more extreme forms of racism to exist and propagate, but I do not believe most Southerners were this bloodthirsty or cruel. (Perhaps the book and movie that dealt most fairly with this sort of racism was The Help.)
The author got everything else wrong too:
There are no large swamps in Northern Mississippi. Nor did the local African-Americans believe in voodoo or African religions. (These plot elements would have been more realistic had the book been set in New Orleans or even parts of East Texas.)
I have lived in the South all my life and I never saw anyone drink iced coffee before Starbucks introduced it. It is still rare, actually.
The black characters in the book all acted like ‘Uncle Toms’ (the author’s words, not mine). This may have been true in earlier periods of history, but not in the late 1960’s. This characterization was rather demeaning.
Finally, my last complaint with the book was the ending. The author was going for the traditional downbeat noir ending, but it took too much faith to believe that one crooked small-town Mississippi politician could have pulled off the frame and set-up required for the novel’s denouement. It did not ring true.
In the end, this entry in the Hard Case Crime series is more interesting as an artifact of its time than as an enjoyable work on its own merit.