Given that I was headed down to Left Coast Crime in Phoenix this last weekend, I figured it was the perfect time to finally read a book that has come highly recommended to me by several other noir authors who I respect and enjoy. I’m talking about Kurt Reichenbaugh’s fast, dark novel, Last Dance in Phoenix. So I picked up a copy for the plane ride down and gave it a read en route. Trust me, it did not disappoint.
This book just has so much going for it in terms of knocking noir tropes out of the park. I mean, sure, the prose is lean, engaging, and excellent, and that’s all very important stuff. But what made it even better is the way the protagonist, Kent Starling, is absolutely the kind of guy that you know you shouldn’t be rooting for, though of course you do anyway. That’s one of my favorite aspects of noir — the ability it has to make the reader take the side of someone who is clearly a fucked up person, and to make that person strangely human or relatable in the process.
And Kent Starling is definitely both fucked up and relatable. The guy, who ought to be happily married to his beautiful wife Denise and living a stable life, is instead constantly looking for new women to bed on the side, and new ways to fuck up what he’s got. Every single time he seems to simultaneously regret it and justify it after. His inability to stop doing it borders on pathological, and even in the most dangerous situations he still falls into the trap of thinking with his member instead of his brain.
One of the things that really set this book apart from a lot of other noir books I’ve read recently is that it has some great flashback scenes, where we learn about the protagonist and what he was like when he was younger, back when he first began to develop his me-first-gimmie-gimmie approach to relationships and sex, an approach that constantly lands him in hot water as the book plays out.
Kent’s adventure centers around a former temp secretary at work he’s been bedding on the side who turns up dead almost the moment he finally decides to break things off with her. And right away he slips into amateur hour in his attempts to cover his connection to her, attempts that often only serve to make him appear guilty, and even to inadvertently create false evidence leaning in that direction.
I just really love these types of “everyman” noir stories. Far from a professional criminal and also far from a saint, Kent is a mid-level accountant as accustomed to taking relentless shit from his superiors as he is chasing women who aren’t his wife Denise. And like many “everyman” noir stories, once Kent decides he’s had enough of everyone’s shit, WATCH OUT.
This book kept me guessing who the killer was until the final pages. It’s filled throughout with the themes of duplicity and self-deception noir fans love. And drinking, lots of drinking, too. I was as sad to see it end as I was happy to see everyone involved earn their comeuppance. And boy, did they earn it. It’s a freaking great read.