Kiss Your Ass Goodbye by Charles Willeford; Masterstroke by Douglas Payne; The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke; Touch of the Past by Jon L Breen; When the Killing Starts by Ted Wood; The Very Last Gambado by Jonathan Gash; Killshot by Elmore Leonard - review by Philip Oakes

Philip Oakes

December 1989 Crime Round-up

  • Charles Willeford, 
  • Douglas Payne, 
  • James Lee Burke, 
  • Jon L Breen, 
  • Ted Wood, 
  • Jonathan Gash, 
  • Elmore Leonard

Kiss Your Ass Goodbye

By Charles Willeford

Victor Gollancz 156pp £11 .95

Pharmaceutical salesman Hank Norton, cutting a selective swathe through compliant females in Miami (‘A girl who thinks that sex is dirty, and feels bad about it, can be a damned good piece of ass’) falls heavily for mysterious, musky Jannaire, only to encounter her so-called husband who threatens to do him in. Scare tactics (a shot which clips the stucco, a Whiz Bang planted beneath his car bonnet) start the adrenalin racing and Norton goes on the offensive. Who’s going to head the casualty list? A witty, misogynistic tale of the sex wars served at body heat by a master hand. Perfectly plotted narrative with not a wasted word, not a motive misconstrued. Willeford’s view of the human condition is bleak; his commentary terse and funny. Sad that he died last year. This novel sees him off with full honours.


By Douglas Payne

Michael Joseph 313pp £12.95

This is an odd one. At a smart New York viewing art dealer Paul Reynolds buys what he believes to be an undiscovered masterpiece by dead painter Adrian Berkeley, whose reputation was made in the 1930s. Tracing the picture’s provenance he finds a further hoard of seemingly-authentic canvases which sell for a fortune. Then the originals turn up... Much ado about forgery and art-world antics, but even more instructive about the follies of expertise and self-deception. Quietly done (voices, not weapons, are raised in anger and the sole death is the result of an accident) but the steady and inventive unravelling of plot keeps you reading. Quirky and romantic: give it a try.

The Neon Rain

By James Lee Burke

Mysterious Press 212pp £5.95

Warned by a convicted murder – framed on false evidence and bound for the electric chair – that he too is on someone’s hit-list, Cajun homicide detective Dave Robicheaux seeks to discover whose target he’s become before he ends up dead. New Orleans setting for violent story of drug deals, master-minded by commie-hating ex-general, which buy arms for Contras in Nicaragua. A chilling array of heavies, including psychopathic redneck and CIA assassin, seen in sharp focus against well-rendered background of gulf and bayou and emanating evil as pungent as asafoetida. Notable too for its choice of hero – Vietnam veteran and reformed alcoholic, whose political perceptions are powerfully post-Reagan. No doubt who the good guys are. Don’t miss it.

Touch of the Past

By Jon L Breen

Macmillan 196pp £10.95

Urbane literary whodunnit in which Wilbur de Marco, a successful writer of mysteries in the 1930s, is found murdered in his mountain-top house entirely furnished with artefacts from 1937. What happened that year to make it so special to the dead man? Could there perchance be a clue in the question? The quizzing is done by plucky young bookshop owner Ruth Hemming who buys de Marco’s vintage library and inherits the mystery. Light, dry and artful; the kind of fiction that reached its prime before crime took itself seriously...

When the Killing Starts

By Ted Wood

Collins Crime Club 234pp £10.95

Canadian small-town police chief Reid Bennett accepts finding fee of $25,000 from supposed mother of rich kid Jason Michael who has signed up for action overseas with mercenary force known as Freedom for Hire. Bloody skirmish in boondocks training camp leads to vendetta with top mercenaries, followed by murder of the alleged Mrs Michael. Bennett pursues the investigation aided by super-dog Sam. Macho stuff which confidently bestrides whodunnit and adventure genres, with firearms and combat know-how and a tough line in cop talk. ‘My mouth is full of dead woman and lipstick’ complains our hero after vainly trying to revive a drowning victim. Quite possibly habit forming. This series could run and run.

The Very Last Gambado

By Jonathan Gash

Collins Crime Club 260pp £10.95

A ‘gambado’, says the invaluable Websters, is ‘a droll or fantastic movement ... a gambol, a sally or a flourish’. In other words, a caper. The one in which Lovejoy – the wisest and widest antiques dealer of them all – is involved is a plan to rob the British Museum during the making of an utterly duff movie. He’s the fall guy, needless to say, with a roster of available ladies on hand to cushion the fall. ‘Any way of heating this place except rape?’ enquires one of them, diving into a chilly sleeping bag. Deeds not words are the answer. An unflaggingly joyful read, full of scams and serendipities. ‘Filming’ observes Lovejoy ‘is a kind of hectic boredom with squabbles.’ No pundit has put it better.


By Elmore Leonard

Viking 287pp £12.95

Leonard’s been troubled, so he says, by his past failure to create a strong female lead, but he handsomely makes up for it here. Steel-worker Wayne Colson and his wife Carmen witnesses to a bungled bid to shake down an estate agency on the Canadian border, flee from brutish hitmen – the half-Ojibway Blackbird and his cohort Richie Nix, whose ambition is to rob a bank in every state, bar Alaska – and settle glumly in Missouri, sheltered by the Federal Witness Security Programme. Useless, of course. The programme treats them like dirt and the showdown awaits. Far from his customary patch of Miami sleaze, Leonard explores the anguish of plain folk under stress and metes out appropriate retribution, with Carmen as executioner. Change of location and some change of pace, with blue collar ethics triumphing over law ’n order incompetence and hoodlum guns. Excitements rousingly up to par; dialogue, as usual, to crisp the page.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

Follow Literary Review on Twitter