Dodgers by Bill Beverly

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Dodgers by Bill Beverly

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A road-trip crime story that is so so much more. Beverly's tale of a bunch of LA hoodlums on a mission deserves to be the next great American classic.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2016
Publisher: No Exit Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781843448570

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British Book Awards: Crime and Thriller Book of the Year 2017

Judging a book by its cover can mislead. It can especially mislead if you don't look closely at the cover and are just grabbed by the feel or style of the design of the thing. Being misled is not necessarily a bad thing. For reasons best left in the depths of my addled brain, the styling of Dodgers had me thinking 'noir'. I was expecting late fifties, early sixties. If I'd looked closer, I'd have seen that it is much more contemporary than that. Then again…

Then again, I wasn't disappointed because although Beverly's road-trip debut is bang-up-to-the-minute in setting and language and action, in style and ethos it harks back to many a classic. When the blurb writers suggest a character is part Sal Paradise, part Bigger Thomas, part Holden Caulfield, you tend to think yeah, right – paid for those compliments. But no – well, I'm guessing 'no they weren't paid for' , but what I mean is 'no, don't discount the blurb' – for once it is bang on.

East is a look-out for a crack-house. He runs a crew, a twelve hour shift, part-night, part-day. The boys are youngsters from whatever kind of life delivers a black child to be doing this kind of a job in not-so-horrible suburb of LA rather than being in school. Some of them are better at it than others. Some of them, like East, are a natural, which is how come he's running his own crew; is how come when things go badly wrong and the raid hits the house without those inside being warned, East is allowed what he might consider a second chance.

Fin, the man at the top with clean-ish hands, offers him a job. Him and four others, and no choice about that – East isn't going to like who he's travelling with – are headed to Wisconsin to take out a judge. Reason is: the judge is witness to one of Fin's nephew's potentially going away for a long time. Fin doesn't want that.

East just needs to stay in Fin's good books, a way of staying alive, at least for now. Plus he knows Fin trusts him. For some reason.

Clearly the boys can't just catch a flight – too traceable – and for the same reasons they have to ditch their cards, their phones, their weapons, anything that's them. They're given a van. Money enough so they can gas the truck, stay in motels, eat, be normal, a group of cousins taking a road trip to a family wedding, with nice new clean identity cards and driving licences (for those old enough – more-or-less) to prove it.

Only it turns out, one of them is still carrying. There shouldn't be a gun in the wagon, but there is, and it's in the hands of the least stable of these low level crooks. A darkness, not just on the edge of town, but carried with them well away from it.

Everything about this book is tight. The plot is simple. A gang sent to commit a contract killing, and what happens on the way and what happens next. It's a really short timeline. There's a sharp rational believable reason for everything that happens. Only one co-incidence is needed for the narrative imperative, the rest would, possibly, probably, play out just like it does. There are no easy choices. Many choices feel like they don't exist, like what happens is inevitable. Life can be like that.

The writing is also contained. Sharp. Insightful. Observational. The author's training in literature and his apprenticeship (if I can call it that) in criminology, pay off. References to American classics are not hyperbole, they're earned, and I'd guess deliberate. Echoes of Kerouac's masterpiece in particular haunt these pages, not just in the attitudes of the characters but in the underlying, sub-poetry of the prose. He could see the land, the flash movements in the brush, an animal, too fast to spot. Dog, maybe, or coyote. They had coyotes in LA, but they were skulking creatures, big rats. They ran down alleys and stayed in shadows, and before long somebody would shoot them dead. No law against doing it. Just another gunshot in the night.

Another beat generation.

The third-person approach doesn't for a second take us away for East as the focus. It's all about this fifteen year old kid, trying to get it right, and mostly failing. He's on the wrong side of the tracks, but he's trying to the right thing all the same: do what he's paid to do, do it well, look after his mom as best he can, preferably without having to be there, and as for a home, a family, well…kind of, but not the kind you'd talk about. For all of what he is and where he is, there is a core of rightness in him, almost – but maybe only 'almost' – of goodness. Enough for the reader to root for him, to really want it to be ok in the end. But this is a world of conflicting loyalties and the end can come in the blink of a bullet-flash.

There's some superbly subtle analysis of the problems of the small-town mid-west and their mirroring of the urban decay on the west coast.

Sometimes you read a great crime story and you can see the visuals and eagerly await the film-makers getting their hands on it. Then you get lucky: you find one where the visuals are such that you want them to stay out of anyone else's hands until the author has had his due acclaim, you want it to remain unfilmed for years until the written word has had its first brief flash of glory and then been allowed to settle into that undimming glow that constitutes a classic. That's what this book deserves.

Loved everything about it.

For another debut novel taking the all American road trip as it's theme Bookbag can recommend Cross Country Murder Song by Philip Wilding.

Booklists.jpg Dodgers by Bill Beverly is in the Top Ten Crime Novels 2016.

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