Thursday, August 28, 2014


Save the Last Dance for Me is the fourth Sam McCain novel—and my favorite simply because it is the first in the series I read—written by Ed Gorman. It was published by Carroll & Graf in 2002, and it is currently available as an eBook from Mysterious Press.

The year is 1960. Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy are running for President, and Black River Falls finds itself home to a group of Ozark refugees. It is a fundamentalist mountain tribe seeking salvation at the fangs of rattlesnakes, and it has a penchant for distributing anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish pamphlets around town—a particular favorite, “The Jews Behind John F. Kennedy”. Sam is hired by the religious leader of the group, Reverend John Muldaur, to find (and presumably stop) the person who is trying to kill him.

It turns out Muldaur waited too long. He is poisoned at a snake handling ceremony, and Sam, who is a lawyer, a private eye, and an investigator for the county’s most prominent jurist, Judge Esme Ann Whitney, is tasked to solve the crime before Richard Nixon appears in Black River Falls on a campaign stop.

Save the Last Dance for Me is as good as medium-boiled detective fiction gets. It is a finely executed mixture of charm and despair, small town politics, and human frailty. Its pages are littered with hate, lust, and, on occasion, violence—not to mention a mild wry humor—but it is also sensitive and empathetic. Mr Gorman describes the hill-country people with pity, fear, and understanding—         

“You can’t estimate the effects of poverty on generation after generation of people, that sadness and despair and madness that so quietly but irrevocably shapes their thoughts and taints their souls.”

“There’s nothing more frightening than a youngster who has been completely indoctrinated by his parents. He’s as soulless as a robot and as deadly as an assassin. You can’t reason with him because the ‘on’ switch in his brain doesn’t operate. His parents turned it off permanently long ago.”

It is also sharply plotted, and downright entertaining. Sam McCain is likable, and, more importantly, recognizable. He enjoys reading paperbacks, watching film, and the company of fresh, attractive, and intelligent women. The townspeople are odd without being outrageous—the incompetent but pitiable Chief of Police Cliff Sykes Jr., the smug rubber band flipping Judge Whitney, and the beatnik and sleaze writer Kenny Thibodeau are allowed to breath without dominating the tale.


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Ben, this sounds good. I like reading novels with real-life characters. I have read only one book by Mr. Gorman. It was a western, "Cavalry Man: The Killing Machine," whose main protagonist, if I recall correctly, is a man of scruples and rather compassionate as he tries to repossess a newly invented machine gun from his brother (I think). I found the writing style smooth and effortless. Of course, I have been the poorer for not reading Mr. Gorman's crime and mystery fiction.

Ben Boulden said...

Prashant. The Cavalry Man novels actually remind me quite a bit of the Sam McCain novels. Different time, and crimes, but the empathy, and compassion are very much the same. If you enjoy westerns, try Ed's Leo Guild series; Guild, Death Ground, Blood Game, Dark Trail.


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Ben, thanks for the recommendations. I absolutely enjoy westerns except they have to share my reading space with books from nearly every genre.

michael said...

Interesting. The empathy and compassion of Ed Gorman's protagonists includes not only his private eyes (McCain, Dwyer, Conrad and Payne, but also his leading western characters. I think most of Ed's protagonists are autobiographical to a degree, which is why they strike a special chord with the reader.

Ben Boulden said...

Michael. I agree completely. Mr Gorman's protagonists plainly see the pain of the people who populate the novels, but he has a knack of avoiding an absolute darkness. There is love, joy, and wonder. A difficult line to hold. I think his Leo Guild novels are as good as genre western gets.

michael said...

Thanks Ben; I need to get those pronto. Wonderful website by the way!