RUMRUNNERS by Eric Beetner: Book Review

Is Elmore Leonard still alive and writing under a pseudonym? By page ten or so of Eric Beetner’s latest book Rumrunners, that was the question I was asking myself, which is high praise indeed considering Leonard is on the Mount Rushmore of crime novelists.

The plot: Webb McGraw, an aging rumrunner, is given a lucrative pick-up-and-drop-off gig by Hugh Stanley, who presides over a criminal empire “running anything and everything illegal.” Used to driving American muscle cars, McGraw enlists the help of a long-haul trucker to drive the eighteen-wheeler, which, of course, turns out to be a huge mistake. McGraw gets highjacked, barely escaping with his hide in tack, but now he’s faced with a dilemma: run and hide, or go back to Hugh Stanley and admit failure? But before the reader learns his decision, Webb McGraw goes missing. Enter Calvin Webb, the 86-year old father. Calvin Webb, a legendary rumrunner, is retired, but still hard-as-a-coffin nail, and he’s hell-bent on locating his only son. He just needs a little help from Tucker Webb, the grandson who steered clear of the family business, opting for the (eww!) insurance game instead. The two McGraw men set out to find Webb, and this sends them deeper and deeper into Hugh Stanley’s pocket, the stakes rising at every turn.

Even more than the cracker-jack-of-a-plot, which runs just as fast as the Fast and Furiouslike cars that litter this excellent book, I enjoyed the characters. The Stanleys and McGraws are as synonymous as the Hatfields and McCoys, and their collective histories are inextricably linked. The Stanleys, particularly Hugh Stanley, is the classic patriarchal villain, smiling and condescending from the relative safety of his ergonomic chair behind his large desk. With a stash of Iowa corn liquor in the drawer, he is devious, and calculating, and his exchanges with Calvin Webb are a pure joy to read. However, it is the McGraws that really stuck with me, especially Calvin Webb. Not since Buck Schatz in Daniel Friedman’s fantastic book Don’t Ever Get Old, have I encountered such a grizzled, foul-mouthed old coot as Calvin Webb. Rather than rattle off a list of inadequete superlatives, I’ll just let the man speak for himself. Here’s a snippet from chapter one where Calvin is sitting in a fancy donut shop, retired and bored, and he’s hassled by a hipster.

“Listen kid,” Calvin tugged the finger closer to breaking. “Just take your green tea dusted donut with quince paste filling and fuck off out of here. I’m drinking coffee and watching the cars go by. I ain’t hurting you.”

Great dialogue such as that is everywhere in this book, as is cinematic writing: car chase scenes so tense I had to puff my inhaler, hilariously realistic fighting involving gardening equipment. . .but I digress. Back to the characters. Perhaps the best thing I like about the McGraw men is they are outlaws, not criminals. They, unlike the Stanleys, have a strong moral compass, and this not only endears them to the reader, but also makes them heroes. There is, too, like in all great genre novels, a wonderful intertextuality to Rumrunners. The movies Smokey and the Bandit (because of the chase scenes and witty dialogue) and The Godfather (because of the Michael Corleone-esque way Tucker Webb is dragged into the family business) spring to mind. Also, I kept thinking of Leonard Elmore characters, like Chii Palmer in Get Shorty, for example, because of the tough-guy-with-a-heart way Calvin Webb and, toward the end of the story, Tucker Webb go about their business.

The ending of the book leaves it open to future McGraw men adventures, and I, for one, sure hope Beetner sticks with them a while. Oh, and this one has an awesome book cover (all 280 Steps books do), and the price is right (only $2.99 on Kindle). Highly recommended.