Friday, September 26, 2008

BABY MOLL by John Farris

Peter Mallory is on the verge of obtaining everything he has ever wanted. He owns a business, he is a respected resident of the community, and he is set to marry a beautiful and intelligent woman. He is in a good place, but when an old associate appears at his bait shop Mallory’s past threatens everything he has built.

Mallory was a lieutenant in the Florida Mob when he walked away six years earlier and now the boss wants him back. He doesn’t want to go, but he wants his past to stay where it is and when the boss threatens to share a few details with his fiancée he unwillingly agrees.

When he arrives he finds the Don a shadow of his former self. He has aged and lost control of his own turf. He no longer protects territory from rival gangs and even worse old associates are being murdered one by one. After each murder a news clipping is delivered that tells the story of a murder he and the others committed years earlier. It’s getting to the Don and he needs Mallory to look into it and figure who it is and stop it.

Baby Moll is the best reprint Hard Case Crime has released. It was originally published in 1958 as by Steve Brakeen and while it is very much a product of its era it has lost little of its impact. The story is told with a sparse and economical style that reminded me very much of Michael Crichton’s early John Lange novels, but the mystery and plotting are one step beyond what Crichton was doing in the 1960s.

The characters are perfect—the aging mobster is drawn with a brilliantly nuanced mixture of menace, sorrow, bluster and loss. The supporting cast is an oddball group that Mr. Farris effectively uses to clutter the mystery and build tension. Mallory never quite gets a handle on their motivations or even who a few of them truly are.

The mystery is structured perfectly; it is a balance of hardboiled American mixed with a flavoring of an intricate whodunit with a dash of suspense novel thrown in for good measure. The whodunit is the mystery itself—the diverse cast and their conflicting motives interlaced with the careful release of clues and even a few red herrings to keep both Mallory and the reader off-balance. But it is presented and stylized as a down and dirty hardboiled novel that will appeal to anyone who enjoys an old style suspense novel.

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