In the 1970s, there existed a thing called a “mystery movie.” The mystery movie was neither a television series nor a movie but rather a TV contrivance that allowed for 90 minute (or occasionally two hour) episodes that tended to be of higher quality than most shows of the day. The most famous mystery movie characters were Lt. Columbo, Marshal McCloud, and Commissioner McMillan (and wife). The latter was a modernized and updated version of the classic THIN MAN couple. Like those films, the mystery movies tended to be better written, a tad more literate, generally wittier, and with genuinely interesting mysteries needing to be solved by their heroes.
HEART ATTACK AND VINE is the closest thing I’ve come across to a mystery movie in decades.
Starring James Garner.
Caleb Rush (aka Crush) is the bouncer/bodyguard hero of Phoef Sutton’s new book but the character’s background and dialogue had me reading him in Jim Rockford’s voice much of the time without even realizing it at first.
One of my favorite things about Phoef’s style here is that he comes to it with an award winning background in Hollywood writing and production so the many pop culture references that dot the book (such as the plot’s maguffin being the prop letters of transit from CASABLANCA) fit naturally and don’t seem shoehorned in.
After years of a rather iffy history of con games and who knows what else on the wrong side of the law, Crush today is attempting to better himself and his life in an almost Zen-like fashion but as often happens in this type of situation, his former life keeps turning up.
The plot twists and winds and turns frequently and even though I’m a veteran at figuring out these types of things, it kept me off-balance right from the beginning. Without giving too much away, an old friend, ersatz sister, and former partner in crime has reinvented herself as a successful movie star. But it’s all part of a big con, a long con, and she wants Crush involved. Even though he tries to stay out of anything too shady, he reluctantly goes along and the game is on.
Rachel, the main female cast member, is a wonderfully delineated character. She is written as a superb contradiction in terms. You know from the beginning you can’t trust her and yet over and over you find yourself trusting her just like Crush even though you know you shouldn’t, and then feeling all the mixed emotions that brings. She will literally do anything to accomplish her goals and yet somehow still comes across as likable.
New Orleans and Hollywood serve as the story’s main settings, detailed more than enough to differentiate the two. We meet the cast and crew of Rachel’s new movie as we learn that her ultimate goal is to marry her director. Unbeknownst to her, however, someone else has a very different con job going on simultaneously, one which eventually gets Crush blamed for murder as the bodies start to pile up.
Again, in the best tradition of the mystery movies, there are unexpected twists on top of unexpected twists as HEART ATTACK AND VINE tensely races toward its conclusion. By the end, I wanted nothing more than to watch the next episode! Since HEART ATTACK AND VINE is actually the second book to feature Caleb Rush, in a way I CAN watch the next episode by backtracking and reading his first appearance in CRUSH.
If you’re a fan of stylish, clever modern mysteries—or 1970s mystery movies—I heartily recommend you do the same. Start in the beginning or start where I did, with HEART ATTACK AND VINE, the most enjoyable mystery novel I’ve read in years.