5 out of 5
Books like The Murderer Vine are why I’m so dedicated to the Hard Case Crime imprint: books off the beaten path of the pulp genre it favors; one-offs from writers I might not otherwise glance at, or undiscovered classics.
Shepard Rifkin isn’t a name I hear bandied about often in the crime writers’ hall of fame, and a google search doesn’t have much about him. With HCC reprinting this 70s novel from the writer, obviously it has some notoriety that someone knew about, but without their guidance, who knows if I ever would have come across it? And had I never come across it, I wouldn’t have experienced one of the most stunning, affecting reads of my recent past – the kind of experience I crave in these kinds of books, when you are covering your eyes in anxiety over what you’re reading – what it means for its characters; what it means for the story. A story that leaves an impact.
There’s a bit of a blurb about the titular vine prior to the book proper, which basically outlines it as a type of parasite: growing along the bark of a tree unto the canopy up above, until it essentially overtakes the tree, robbing it of all its nutrients and eventually ruining its base of support, and causing the downfall of both plants. Mutually assured destruction is pretty common in noir, eh?
The actual story opens up with narrator Joe Dunne, drunk and cynical in Puerto Lagarto, regaling a man who’s sat next to him with the tale of how he came to be where he is. Ah, so, it’s… a flashback. Generally not the most gripping of setups, since you’re assured that the main character will survive.
As I was reading, I became so immersed in the story that I forgot about the ‘murderer vine’ preface; I forgot that this was a flashback. I forgot we were supposed to end up somewhere far away from New York, where we start. Once things kick in to gear, which is pretty early on, I was just in the moment, and Rifkin doesn’t pull any tricks along the way: even bearing in mind the aspects above, there’s this immense push and pull in the text that urges you along, stuck between the story’s progress, and what that progress necessitates.
Dunne, a P.I., is hired on to look in to a rich man’s missing son. But the instructions are a bit more devious than that: ‘missing’ is pretty much assumed to mean ‘dead,’ and ‘dead,’ in this case, is ‘murdered.’ For a mighty sum, Dunne is asked to provide proof of the crime, and also put a final stamp on its executors. Rifkin’s style isn’t hard-boiled: Dunne is a reasonable sort, with some recognizable noir affectations – a wiseguy line here and there; a dawdling glance for his secretary fatale type, Kirby – but his thinking patterns are wholly recognizable as that of an average joe’s, albeit one with some know-how to do the task he’s been asked. And the payday sounds right. He agrees.
And the story twists and turns from thereon out, not so much via plot reveals – The Murderer Vine doesn’t “cheat” any of its story beats – but in the way we get from A to C, with the ‘B’ being the meat of things: how Dunne’s perceptions and motivations change when he learns more about the murder.
It’s intense stuff. It’s very real. And as such, it’s painful, in the best of ways.
By story’s end, I had a moment of wishing that some of the thematic elements connected a bit more distinctly, but after sitting with it more – and that’s the kind of book this is, one you sit with for a bit – it all began to sync up, dramatically, from that opening passage on the vine, to Dunne’s evolution in its midsection, and to the distressing concluding matters that bring him to his current, tale-telling state in Puerto Lagarto, with his final ask of his listener mimicking the “don’t tell anyone about this” request that’s common in secret-spillers in this genre, but, due to what we’ve just read, carrying much heftier conceptual implications.