From the point of view of fiction, the assassination of John F. Kennedy is a gold mine that just keeps on giving. Lou Berney’s personal take, November Road, is a stylish and entertaining addition to this crime sub-genre. This story is predicated on the premise that Carlos Marcello, a New Orleans mafia boss, was behind the hit on Jack Kennedy, payback for the scrutiny and squeeze that Jack and his brother Bobby, the Attorney General, were putting on the mob. As a theory it’s plausible, a lot of people believe Marcello and fellow gangsters Santo Trafficante and Sam Giancana organised the 1963 killing of the President. Berney weaves his fictional story into historical fact and well-thumbed conspiracy theory deftly, it makes for an intriguing and exciting read. This is a clever thriller; part love story, part road trip, part political conspiracy thriller. November Road is a deadly game of cat and mouse, at times it’s brutal, Barone the hitman is a genuinely frightening presence, a stone cold killer. The novel has a ring of truth, as a character study it’s fascinating to see Frank Guidrey find out what kind of man he really is. This is a thriller with a hard-boiled core, taut prose, crisp dialogue; it’s as juicy a slice of Americana as you could hope to read. Berney is a good enough writer to make you believe in the people here and their relationships, even sketched in characters, like Marcello, work perfectly. The love story clicks and the ending has a kicker that will leave you emotionally drained.
1963, New Orleans, the city know as The Big Easy. Frank Guidrey is somebody in this town. He’s soaking up the atmosphere on Bourbon Street, the French Quarter; the smell of booze, the go-go girls on the balconies, the music, even the Friday night flair ups that leave the cops unmoved. He heads for the Carousel bar at the Monteleone, he’s popular, he’s a fixer. One of Sam Saia’s boys asks Frank to finesse Lieutenant Dorsey of the eighth district, smooth the way to opening a new club, Guidrey will do it but it’ll cost. He spies a young red head across the room giving him the eye, she comes over, attracted to the danger. Guidrey works for Carlos Marcello, Marcello runs New Orleans. Before Frank can get cosy with the girl, Mackey interrupts. Mackey thinks he’s in trouble, he wants Guidrey to find out if Carlos has a hit out on him. Frank rings Seraphine, right-hand woman to the boss, and gives up Mackey, what choice is there? Mackey would have done the same to him. Guidrey returns to the bar and leaves with the girl on his arm.
Charlotte, known as Charlie, is 28, is getting her two girls and her husband breakfast before rushing downtown to Hotchkiss Photographers. Charlie develops films and does preparation work for Mr Hotchkiss but she’s taken up photography too, although he won’t take her seriously. At the bank Jim Feeney Bank hems and haws before agreeing to delay her family loan repayments. Charlie is bored, fed up. Then the bombshell, news comes through about Kennedy:
“Is this a joke? Earl, is this some kind of joke?”
Guidry wakes up with another girl in his bed, he tells her to scram but she’s watching TV when he comes out not the shower, crying, the president was shot in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, he’s dead. Guidrey’s usual cool slips, he was two blocks from the assassination site parking a get away car only a couple of weeks ago. It gradually dawns on Guidrey that Mackey may have known too much, Guidrey realises he knows too much. There is little choice but to run. Seraphine puts Barone to work, there’s a clean up underway. Guidrey crosses paths with Charlie and her girls, with Barone on his tail they may be useful cover.
Berney takes something familiar and gives it an original twist. From the early richly flavoured descriptions of the French quarter of New Orleans and the Carousel bar the tense atmosphere of this classy thriller is set. The mood of the time, particularly in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination is brilliantly realised; the sense of personal loss and anger – the collective experience are vivid and real. Berney is a stylish writer, November Road is a top notch page turner.
Paul Burke 4/4
November Road by Lou Berney
HarperCollins 9780008309336 pbk Apr 2019