Blackheart Highway

by Richard Barre

Published by Berkeley Prime Crime

326 pages, 1999

 


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Haunts and Heartache

Reviewed by Frederick Zackel

 

Wil Hardesty, the detective in Richard Barre's new book Blackheart Highway, isn't actually a private eye. He's a ghost hunter.

The word "ghost" goes back to the Old English gaste, which means "soul, spirit, or demon." But it traces even farther back, to the Sanskrit word hed, which means "to be angry."

Ghosts are angry. They resist being ignored or repressed. They want revenge. They want to be avenged. A ghost haunts us -- in the same way a conscience haunts. A ghost is a guilty conscience. And what is most repressed -- the act of murder -- will always boomerang.

Hardesty is used to ghosts. He's dealt with them in three previous novels. Barre's Shamus Award-winner, The Innocents (1995), sent Hardesty after "coyotes" (i.e., people who smuggle illegal aliens across the Mexican border into the United States) when the skeletons of seven murdered children were found buried in the California desert. Bearing Secrets (1996) involved the P.I. with a plane that crashed 17 years ago, the current suicide of a 1960s Berkeley radical, and a 20-year-old political kidnapping that went terribly wrong. And The Ghosts of Morning (1998) centered around Dennis Van Zant, Hardesty's best friend, who may have committed a murder, who may have disappeared in action in Vietnam, who may have reappeared after 20 years gone.

Hardesty is, himself, a man haunted. Years before, while he watched from the shore, unable to change fate, his only son Devlin died in a surfing accident. Hardesty still relives that moment:

Dev on his birthday board, ripping toward the pickets; "Waaatch me, Daad." A slow-motion horror film without end.

His son's death led to the death of Hardesty's 20-year marriage. After that came a period of "hard shots and beer backs," followed by "twelve-step programs and talking to yourself." Now Hardesty drinks club soda with lime. But, Barre tells us, "insanity was always as close as the nearest pull tab or twist-off, aptly named for recoverers like him whose body chemistry resembled memory yarn, ready to snap back at a moment of distress or temptation, a whiff of the demon loose in a glass. One too many and a hundred not enough."

The ghosts in Richard Barre's great new novel Blackheart Highway are Arlene, Sara, and Megan Whitney, the wife and two daughters of 1970s country music star Don Lee ("Doc") Whitney. Twenty years ago the three were discovered shotgunned in their home in Bakersfield, California.

Doc Whitney was at the crime scene, too, passed out, doped up, with his finger still curled around the trigger of the murder weapon. He was immediately arrested for the murders. He was tried and convicted; a last-minute change of plea to guilty on Whitney's part halted the death penalty phase, and Whitney instead drew three consecutive life terms in prison.

Now Whitney is on parole and has returned home -- a new variation of the Prodigal Son -- and the Bakersfield locals aren't at all happy about it. As one says, "This is a caring town, but most people I know wouldn't spit on him if he was on fire."

Detective Hardesty, in the meantime, is in Bakersfield for a respite after his last bout with ghosts. He is just tagging along with his new love, Kari Thayer, on a weekend business trip. He hopes to get in a little reading. Instead, while visiting a used bookstore, he encounters two street types trying to rob the storeowner. The owner is a "transfixed mouse looking into the eyes of a rattlesnake"; she is unprepared for the casual violence these losers threaten.

Like any good fictional detective, Hardesty comes between her and them. But this scene doesn't play out in a stereotypical or formulaic fashion. Oh, Hardesty is the champion for the defenseless. But not in the way the reader expects. The violence is character-driven, not plot-driven, letting the reader know right away just how good a writer Richard Barre is.

Hardesty's actions in the bookstore lead to some local notoriety, which inevitably leads to a visit from Luther DeVillbis. A local oil lawyer, DeVillbis used to be the partner in an oil wildcatting venture with Doc Whitney's father Gib. But Gib disappeared when Doc was still a teenager -- and didn't turn up until some years later (while Doc was in prison), buried in a sump hole outside of town, his skeleton showing a bullet hole in the skull.

DeVillbis thinks Doc Whitney wants to harm both him and his 40-something son Cole. He wants Hardesty's protection.

Cole DeVillbis says he isn't so worried about Doc Whitney: "I know people who'll take this guy out if I say the word." Cole has seen the ex-con at the local track and recalls that he had a "face like Desolation Valley." The two men had gone to high school together; they dated the same women.

As Hardesty investigates, he learns more than a few curious things about his lawyer client, his quarry, and the case in general: That DeVillbis had hired another private investigator before him, a man named Farley Kroft, who has since disappeared. That Kroft and an associate had beaten Whitney up at a truck stop, but had made a point of not injuring the former singer-songwriter's face. And that everybody he asks seems to have a different opinion about Doc Whitney. ("Frankly," Hardesty tells Jenelle Lockhart, one of Doc's ex-wives, "I'm having a hard time finding two people who agree on who Doc Whitney is, let alone where." She says, "Put them all together -- everything they told you -- and shake the bag. Whatever you pull out is what he is at any given moment.")

The P.I. also learns that Whitney may actually have been framed for the long-ago murders of his family.

Hardesty eventually succeeds at tracking down Doc Whitney, a man whose face "you might call handsome without the hard miles, the obvious pain. Flecked green eyes seeming to look through Wil and into territory he'd seen before on patients sitting in front of military-hospital windows." But just then a sniper tries to kill them both. (Later Hardesty will discover that the shell came from Cole DeVillbis' Winchester Model 70.)

Things only go from bad to worse for Doc as he is arrested for the shotgun murders of missing private eye Kroft and his associate. He tells Hardesty that he didn't commit these latest killings, though in his own mind, he's still not sure that he didn't do in his family two decades before. "I know I could have done it," Whitney concedes.

To find out the truth about the slayings both new and old, and maybe to clear Doc Whitney's name, Hardesty must become a ghost hunter. Like the Blackheart Highway itself, a road out of Bakersfield that Barre describes, the story begins to "climb and snake, taking care of one problem while creating another." And the reader hangs on to every word of that journey.

Along the way, we relish author Barre's impressions of California's Great Central Valley and of Bakersfield, at its core. The valley is a living character in this novel, as pivotal to the tale's progression as are the good guys and the bad guys. To Hardesty, who spends most of his time on the California coast, the valley, "though familiar to him, always seemed like a foreign country, so different was it from the coast." Even the heat of the day has a special, suggestive name in the valley: "the blowtorch."

This is Steinbeck country, a flat land of farmers, roughnecks, wildcat drillers, longneck beers, motorcycle leathers, irrigation canals, pump shotguns, strip malls, mobile-home parks, fast-food outlets, honky tonks, and truck stops. Tough territory. Tough inhabitants. Like Don Lee Whitney or some of the other characters in Barre's new novel. Here, for instance, the reader meets Chris ("Crash") Alvarez, a sideman in a honky-tonk saloon. Once upon a time, Alvarez played backup on Doc's country albums. Once he had a future; now he's trailer-park trash. ("Nice digs, huh?" Alvarez says to Hardesty at one point. "You have any idea what it's like to peak at twenty-six?") Then there's Ryland ("Rye") Rossert, an investment partner whose office is in an industrial park ("in a cul-de-sac with an oil well on the lawn"). Rossert and the senior DeVillbis have known each other for 40 years. The two men are the same age -- 64 -- but while lawyer DeVillbis is a crusty old devil with an artificial hand, Rossert has a boxer's speed bag hanging in his office and wears a tiny diamond in his left earlobe. He's a self-made millionaire, but explains, "I grew up in a converted railroad car in East Bakersfield trading punches with guys like Raul Garza. Four, five on one sometimes. No quarter asked and none given. Now they take orders from me and like it."

Barre is a generous writer. He gives his characters perception, insight, and intelligence, rare commodities in mostly plot-driven popular fiction. A waitress who spots (but doesn't recognize) Doc Whitney at a truck stop notices "the man in the black Levi's jacket and jeans, the pulled-down trucker's cap reading Kenworth Diesel above the bill -- dark hair struggling against it, scar above the right eyebrow and another losing itself in a sideburn. Stubble defining his chin, wary eyes framed by deep deltas; dried-up river, she thinks, wondering why." Later, as Whitney is about to be ambushed in the truck stop's parking lot, "her eyes shift to the two men hurrying after him, each taking a different route. Like the herd dogs at the ranch she grew up on."

Some writers offer the reader blocks of description. The reader has to wade through them, and the plotline suffers. But Barre is too good of a writer. No words are wasted.

His techniques bear examination. Like some authors, Barre frequently ends a scene with a question; the reader needs to read on to discover the answer. And often Barre starts his next scene, then returns within that scene to complete the previous one. Combined, the two techniques help propel the reader onward and deeper into the story.

At times Barre will introduce the reader slowly to a character. The character is seen from a distance, then gradually comes into focus, the same way Shane or Clint Eastwood rides down a mountain and into a valley. For example, Cole DeVillbis, the race car-driving son of the oil lawyer, takes five paragraphs to come into focus. The essence of suspense is delay. We wait with delicious anticipation for the picture to unfold. The longer it takes for a character to come into focus, the more psychological depth we come to expect from that character. Barre lets the bad guys have depth, too, a rare treat in too much of today's commercial fiction.

Because Richard Barre writes primarily about the Southern California territory between the Pacific Ocean and the coastal mountains, he is often compared with mystery writer Ross Macdonald. Yet they haven't much in common. True, they both deal with the past that won't stay forgotten. But Barre's word choices are more compact, denser than Macdonald's. Barre was a copywriter and owner of his own advertising agency in Southern California for 15 years before he began writing mysteries. Advertising demands lean and rugged prose. It always seeks the most economical and efficient word, one that is sharp and crisp. You can see Barre's economy of language in his descriptions -- of an all-night café, for instance (where coffee is "a black substance that tasted the way mimeographs used to smell, even with cream and sugar added"); or of a murder scene, with "the smell of gun discharge and blood thick enough to chisel."

However, Barre also writes with a poet's eye:

As they approached the crest, found cover in the fringe manzanita about where Cole had, he was conscious of drips off the cedar trees and the smell of ozone, ragged bands of mist fading the far ridges.

Barre is a very sophistical writer; he always keeps the reader engaged. Blackheart Highway is suspenseful and the story moves like whitewater. A pleasure to read. | June 1999

 

FREDERICK ZACKEL, who now teaches at Ohio's Bowling Green State University, is the author of Cocaine and Blue Eyes (1978) and Cinderella After Midnight (1980). His last contribution to January recalled his tutelage by Ross Macdonald (see Have You Ever Thought about Doing Something Serious, Like Detective Fiction?).