Last Dance in Phoenix
Review by: Mark Palm
It may be the politically correct times in which we live, but it seems to me sometimes that hard-boiled noir fiction is in a bit of a critical rut. It’s been a long time since Chandler and Cain et al were churning out their heel-with-heart tales at an amazing clip, but you can find some good books out there, if you are looking in the right place. Last Dance in Phoenix by Kurt Reichenbaugh is just such a novel. It’s a tough, seedy thriller with it’s heart in the right (wrong) place.
Kent Starling is the protagonist, there’s no way you can call him a hero, and while he’s not a tough-guy detective, or an out-of-luck criminal he’s got enough flaws, bad attitude and worse luck to fit the bill. Kent is an accountant, working day after featureless day in a sterile cubicle moving numbers from one column to another just to keep his clueless bosses off his back so he can earn a paycheck. He can’t remember the last time that he had any kind of meaningful connection with his wife Denise, and his future looks like more of the same, so he spends his nights battling insomnia with ambien and booze, and hoping that something exciting might show up. In classic noir style, two things do; first he falls into an affair with Valerie, the perfect wrong (right) woman, and he hears from a troubled friend from his past; Roy Biddles. When they were kids Kent thought that they were best friends, but the more he looks back the more it seems like Roy was just a socially-inept loser with a talent for trouble.
In quick succession Kent sees that his affair with Valerie might be a huge mistake when he starts receiving compromising pictures of him and Valerie on-line from Roy. After that things get real bad real fast; Kent gets paranoid, loses his job and then the dead bodies start to pile up. Before long Kent finds himself tangled up in a situation that just keeps getting worse and worse, no doubt aided by Kent’s coping mechanism, which is to drink a lot of booze and chase every woman that crosses his path.
There are a ton of juicy plot twists in this novel, which I cannot reveal, and several characters,who seemed uninteresting at first, become essential to the story because of Mr. Reichenbaugh’s clever plotting. Kent’s wife Denise is particularly interesting, and relevant, but spoiler’s prevent me from saying too much. I can tell you that she is a every bit a classic noir character as Kent, perhaps even more.
All of this keeps building and building, as we see Ken, an accountant, sneaking through the streets of Phoenix, breaking into houses and firing guns, until we reach a slam-bang climax, violent and twisted as anything out of Pulp Fiction, which ties up all the ends we have known, and reveals a bunch that I had no clue about. It’s a particularly fitting, and grim end to a tale that I enjoyed, but didn’t really feel good about. That is real noir.