Sunday, August 30, 2015

THE MURDERER VINE by Shepard Rifkin

Every so often a novel sneaks up on me.  It catches me unprepared for its power.  It sits with me long after its last page has been turned, and the narrative swirls around the edges of my intellect.  I read such a book recently.  It is titled The Murderer Vine.  It was written by a mostly forgotten midlist writer named Shepard Rifkin, and published in hardcover by Dodd, Mead & Company in 1970.

The Murderer Vine is a piece of social commentary—specifically civil rights era South—disguised as a taut, lean, and hard suspense novel.  It explores the obvious bigotry and hate, but it also illuminates the red heat of greed, love, betrayal, and regret.  The novel opens in a nowhere Nicaraguan village of Puerto Lagarto where a lonely drunk tells his story to the only American he has seen in two years—
“Here we sit in Puerto Lagarto—Port Lizard. It’s on the old Mosquito Coast. Lizard and Mosquito, the two species down here. We’re far below Yucatan. Compared to this dump Yucatan is civilization. You put on a fresh shirt and thirty seconds later it’s sopping wet. No paved streets and only one place with ice. That’s the local cantina, La Amargura de Amor. The Bitterness of Love.”   
The narrative motionlessly transforms from melancholy to terse hardboiled and back again.  It is a microcosm of the civil rights movement; a hard and melancholy sadness masked with hate, rage, and fear.  Joe Dunne is a New York City private detective who makes his living knee deep in society’s murky below.  He takes photographs of cheating spouses, investigates black mail, and works corporate theft cases. 

Everything changes for Joe Dunne when a wealthy businessman approaches him with a special job.  The man’s son is missing, likely dead, and he wants Dunne to find the men, obtain enough evidence to convict, and then kill each.  The son was in Mississippi registering rural black voters, and it appears to be a clear case of organized murder.
Joe doesn’t like the job, but the money is enough to disappear to a warm climate with a fishing boat and enough beer to keep him for life.  His plan is dependent on his young Georgia-born secretary who weaves her way into the story with vivid alacrity.  She is the good and wholesome contrast with dark decay of everything (and everyone) else.

The Murderer Vine is a fascinating novel.  Its structure is complicated simplicity.  Its theme is nothing less than the gnawing corruption of good.  Its characters are drawn deeply with smooth, stark strokes, and none are simply good or bad, but rather the varying shades burn brightly on the page.  Joe Dunne is something of an everyman.  His anger, guilt and greed are common to us all.  He elicits empathy and understanding throughout, but in the end it is something much closer to pity. 
The Murderer Vine was reprinted by Hard Case Crime in 2008.  The cover art is by Ken Laager.    

This review originally went live November 13, 2013. I haven't read The Murderer Vine since, but I often, nearly two years later, think about it.     


mybillcrider said...

Great book. I read it when it was first published in paperback. Although it wasn't an original, I think it was published by Gold Medal in paper. I still have that copy around here somewhere.

Ed Gorman said...

One of the finest takes on the Civil Rights era I've ever read and one hell of a masterful suspense novel. Thanks for your excellent work, Ben.

michael said...

Thanks to you gentlemen for pointing me there. Just finished this riveting read. One of the great things about Gravetapping is how it helps you discover these hidden treasures!