Friday, October 5, 2018

Killing Suki Flood

In 2015, Hard Case Crime author Ken Bruen wrote an article in Publisher’s Weekly called “10 Best Noir Novels” with the #1 slot occupied by a 1991 book and author unknown to me: Killing Suki Flood by Rob Lieninger. The reviews were also universally positive for this hardboiled crime stand-alone, so I decided to give it a shot.

Although the story takes place in 1989, the novel has the feel and plot structure of a Fawcett Gold Medal crime paperback from the 1950s. 54 year-old trucker Frank is driving to his New Mexico hideout with $77,000 in crime proceeds stashed in the camper he’s pulling when he comes upon a sexy 18 year old girl broken down on the side of the road. Because this is a quasi-throwback crime story in need of a femme fatale, Frank stops to help the comely Suki.

Frank is 5’8” tall, 225 pounds and built like a tank, and Suki is sex-on-fire in a hot little outfit. One thing leads to another, and Suki winds up in Frank’s truck without knowing that she’s joining him on a getaway from a profitable crime. Their patter between dim bulb Suki and wisecracking curmudgeon Frank is hilarious, and the evolution of their relationship is a joy to witness. 

It turns out that Frank isn’t the only one of the pair on the run. Suki s being pursued by goons working for a wealthy and abusive ex-boyfriend allegedly for transgressions having to do with her ex’s car. All this over a Trans-Am? This seems a bit extreme to Frank. Could there be more to Suki’s story that she’s not sharing?

At 244 pages, this isn’t a long book by modern standards, but it still could have used some tightening up. The first third of the book, for example, is basically Frank and Suki getting to know each other in a hiding spot while goons methodically search the New Mexico desert for them. I wasn’t bored because the characters are all vividly written, but the pacing of the action was a bit off. “Killing Suki Flood” is basically one long cat-and-mouse game about an unlikely pair being hunted for their recent criminal actions.

Eventually, the hunted become the hunters and the action increases markedly in the novel’s second half. Once we understand the cast of characters, their secrets, and motivations, the second half of the book is a wild ride. Frank makes for an unlikely gallant hero, and the main villains are suitably reprehensible. The character of Suki’s crazy ex-boyfriend was prone to long monologues and theatrical torture - a bit much for my tastes, but the character was vividly evil enough to inspire loathing in any sane reader.

Even though this isn’t the greatest noir novel of all time (a high bar to set), it’s an inventive and well-written take on a classic pursuit thriller, and the final conflict between the adversaries remains one of the best fight scenes I’ve ever read. Lieninger is often compared to Elmore Leonard because both write quirky characters, but I actually preferred Lieninger’s writing because he keeps it hardboiled and never cartoonish. “Killing Suki Flood” is available today as a paperback, an eBook, and a freebie for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. Recommended.