This Hard-boiled KILLER Remains A Bit Dated Though Still Effective Novel
Jan 3, 2014
Growing up, I wasn’t a big reader, but when I did read it was almost always something relatively hard-boiled. I preferred the old-school private detective novels – the ones that always start with a big death that fuels a mission of vengeance for a modern day knight in shining armor (or trench coat) who’ll stop at nothing to see justice served. The trouble was I also grew up in a small town whose library didn’t offer up the best assortment of said novels, so I had to really hunt for the good stuff. Thankfully, some of these older books have found new life in reprints, digital form, or other collections; otherwise, I’d never have heard of Wade Miller – a pseudonym for a two-man writing team who produced some of the smartest prose this side of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Mickey Spillane.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last paragraph for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Jacob ‘Jake’ Farrow is a big game hunter who, after running away from home at a young age, has spent the bulk of his adult life perfecting his skills of tracking and killing the wildest prey known to man. Finding his way to Africa, he’s closed himself off to the greater world outside, choosing instead to sell his services as a guide for like-minded professionals wanting to go on the ultimate safari. However, when an old client of his sends a caller to his hut on the sub-continent, Farrow learns that he’s yet to truly face ‘the most dangerous game’: man. Against his best instincts, Farrow agrees to travel to America and take up the hunt for an elusive fugitive – a wild bank-robber who killed his client’s son. But not even Jake can predict what’s in store for him in the great stomping grounds that have become the United States!
THE KILLER is a brisk read, woven together on a tight central premise of vengeance. Farrow knows what he’s doing isn’t quite right, but he’s compelled to do it on behalf of his troubled friend. Along the way, he meets Clel Bocock’s comely young wife – a Southern belle with a penchant for being in the right place at the wrong time – and their turbulent partnership fuels much of the emotional angst Farrow struggles with. Can he do what he’s been sent to do? More importantly: should he do it? As he grows closer to Marget Bocock, he begins to feel things he’s never experienced, not only love but compassion for making the right choice for society-at-large. For a man shackled by his own rules (namely those governing the hunt), Farrow is a quick study in matters of the heart.
To its detriment, THE KILLER is dated by some of the social mores or niceties of its era. Written in 1951 – clearly a time when few would tolerate an open out-of-wedlock relationship – Jake and Marget’s relationship almost magically blossoms into a full-blown love affair so quickly it’s barely realistic by today’s standards. This isn’t to say that they wouldn’t have consummated their feelings for one another because they did; it’s just that there’s an insistence on both characters to express their newfound “love” for one another when today’s less stringent social requirements would more likely label it “lust.” This isn’t to say that they’re an illegitimate pairing; rather, it’s just a statement on what authors either deliberately or casually stressed as a whirlwind romance was little more than fodder for the minds of men captivated by such fiction.
Also – without divulging too specific a plot point – there’s a few significant developments that push the narrative forward which are entirely too coincidental to be taken as anything other than improbable convenience. Farrow happens to be in the right place to observe too many events critical to his task than would be tolerated by today’s jaundiced readers; it’s nice to “think” the tracker actually “tracked” his prey down, but the whole thing starts and ends with occurrences a bit too statistically unlikely for me to swallow.
Still, Wade Miller – as a writing team – craft a fast-paced hard-boiled delight that this reader was thrilled to have discovered.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. If you like true, old-school, hard-boiled prose, then you’re going to love Wade Miller’s THE KILLER. It has a hardened hero – a big game hunter who answered to the name of Jacob Farrow – on a serpentine road trip to locate Clel Bocock and his band of bankrobbers. It’s a mission for vengeance with the bounty offered by a grief-stricken father who saw his son shot dead in front of his own eyes. Plus, it’s got a femme fatale and a Southern belle both competing for their share of the action. You couldn’t ask for anything more.