You like the kind of life you’ve got here?” I asked her. “You like the people you live with?”
She looked away, bent to pick up the pillows. “I think we are in rats’ alley,” she said almost inaudibly, “where the dead men lost their bones.
I seem to be reading groups of books with connected themes without realizing it. First it was hardboiled detectives, then novels with self-destructive protagonists, and now it’s novels with Robert McGinnis covers. Anyways. John Farris is the greatest thriller writer you’ve never heard of, with several pages of accolades—and choice cover blurbs—from respectable sources of all types. With that high pedigree, I wasn’t sure how this book will fare: Farris got his start writing hardboiled thrillers under a pseudonym while he was just an eighteen-nineteen year old kid, decades before his breakout success, The Fury. Hard Case Crime dug up one of them, Baby Moll, to reprint, slapped on a Robert McGinnis cover, and here it ends up reviewed.
Peter Mallory used to be in the Syndicate, working for Macy Barr, the man who pulled him out of a bottle and gave him a new lease on life. But he walked out years ago, looking for a clean, easy, violence-free life. He found that life, along with a beautiful daughter of a high-society family. But after all these years, ties to the Mob are hard to sever. Barr’s in deep trouble: someone’s been killing off his old guard compatriots, and mailing him newspaper clippings of a crime he committed decades ago. And now Pete is dragged back in for one last job, to investigate and hopefully save the man he owes a life debt. It’ll take wits and cunning to survive—much less stay faithful to his fiancee.
The steamy, exotic Florida setting belies its cast and stage: Barr’s iron-fisted grip has deteriorated, leaving him a washed out would-be hood. His island mansion is home to a handful of hired guns, his younger brother, and a book-keeper and his wife. Oh, and Barr’s adopted Cuban daughter, the niece of one of Barr’s now-deceased old hands, and her caretaker. Barr’s intake is slipping; a competitor, Stan Maxine, has been edging in on his territory for years now, and is about to make some final push. In this tropical locale, in an expansive villa loaded with money and cars, Macy Barr’s criminal empire is in its death throes.
Mallory’s investigation into the past, and poking around to discover Barr’s lack of control in the town next door, often takes second-stage to the ongoing drama within the house. The cast of characters all have their own problems: aging hoods, the bookkeeper’s terrified wife, the terrified little girl and her flirty caretaker. Several wheels revolve within these walls, where everyone has their own agenda; plots and romantic intrigues criss-cross to make a dangerous web for Pete. The love-triangles, trysts, and loose wives are a strain on Pete—it’s interesting to see, for once, a hardboiled protagonist who must struggle not to have sex, thinking often his his fiancee. That’s a tough order, especially after Stan Maxine’s hot young wife appears.
I’ve never read John Farris before, and reading the back cover blurbs got me interested—quotes hyping his thriller prowess, by the likes of Dean Koontz, Peter Benchley, and Stephen King. His prose flows smooth and fast, making the book a joy to read. Mallory is a likeable protagonist, thanks in no small part to the first-person point-of-view and characterization, though most of the other characters are wafer-thin. Best of all, the pacing of the plot is fine-tuned, setting up aspersions, subplots, and red herrings every few chapters. Despite those strengths, I can’t say I got a strong thriller feel from the novel; the last few chapters went by with the blazing, explosive accuracy you’d expect, but the first three-quarters of the novel were slow-burn investigation.
Of course, Farris wrote this book when he was 18 or 19; not quite the hardboiled, experienced veteran his “Steve Brackeen” byline might lead you to believe. I’m still impressed by authors who put out works like this before they’re even out of college; it explains some of the book’s failings—imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and young writers often start out with imitation.
And the book does have some failings. With the exception of Pete and Macy Barr, all the characters are two-dimensional cardboard cutouts; they have some interesting backgrounds and motivations, but not a lot of character. I think most of the book’s problems come from its brevity; brevity might not be the right word, since the pacing is fine and the plot hits developments at all the right points, building to an explosive, guns-blazing finale. But it feels underdeveloped, with some plot holes demanding questions that are never answered.
If this Baby Moll sounds familiar at all, it’s because it doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen before. Unless it’s your second or third crime novel, not much is going to surprise you. It’s very well-written, a fast read with a compelling finale, so it’s a great way to spend a rainy Sunday. But its more-of-the-same, vanilla vibe doesn’t mix well with its thin characters and a plot that leaves a few holes in its wake. The pacing is a joy, and the plot development is smooth, but it feels like something’s missing—at the least, answers to plug the few plot holes would have been nice. Those minor complaints don’t overshadow its pleasant prose, great plotting, and explosive final chapters; it’s still a great read. After finishing Baby Moll, I have many great feelings about it; the book has problems, but is still enjoyable.