Madeline Kimbell is a damsel in distress; Virgil Tucker is a lawman with a strong sense of justice and a network of friends on both sides of the law who can help to keep her safe. Milton T. Burton’s The Devil’s Odds has all the ingredients a good Southern noir should have: strong, dark men, strong, beautiful women, desperate secrets, nasty criminals, murder, gambling, Texas Rangers and the mob just before the end of World War II. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Like most women in peril, Madeline has seen something she shouldn’t have and now some very unpleasant people are chasing her. It was obvious from the beginning that she wasn’t telling Virgil the whole truth. Fortunately Virgil saw that too and knew he’d have to dig up her secrets himself.
I really like Virgil, who is tough as shoe leather and tenderhearted enough to adore his aunt. I especially liked the way he related to the old vaqueros who worked at the ranch. When it comes to the bad guys, he gives as good as he gets, always working to stay a step or two ahead of them. I cheered for him when he beat up Madeline’s ex and almost fainted when he was pursuing leads and got captured by the nasty sheriff and his two slimy henchmen.
I especially like it when writers include real people in historical fiction. Burton’s information about the Maceo brothers and George Parr added depth and believability to the book. It was fun to learn that even though the cowboys no longer ruled the west, it was still wild right into the twentieth century.
Another element of the story I found fascinating was Virgil’s connection to his family, who are descendants of Mexican royalty. His aunt oversees the family ranch as well as any man but still found time to chide Virgil about getting married and settling down to take his place as head of the family.
Burton has a true gift for description. The book was filled with eloquent passages like this one:
The joint where the meeting was to take place was a little roadside tavern with a hilly, sloping floor, a half dozen booths, and a poorly adjusted gas heater that barely dispelled the damp chill of the day. We arrived first but didn’t have long to wait before the front door creaked open and three men entered.
Two of them were younger, obvious bodyguards. But it was the third man who got my attention.
With an air of almost palpable corruption that hung about him like a cloud of gnats, Albert Gracchi looked like about a hundred and sixty pounds of spoiled meat in a fine suit and a five-hundred-dollar overcoat. His skin, which was deeply pitted and gouged from the long-ago ice pick attack, had an unhealthy, reddish purple tint to it. His eyes were two lifeless brown orbs set in irises the color of dirty dishwater, and his nose was thin and beaklike over a mouth that was a wide, lipless slash.
The two bodyguards took bar stools close to the door, while Gracchi walked slowly back to the rickety table near the rear where we sat. He didn’t offer to shake hands and neither did we. Instead, Grist said, “Sit down and say your piece.”
Gracchi stiffly eased himself into a chair across from the old man and turned to snap his fingers for the place’s single waitress. When she arrived he asked for a cup of coffee only to be told, “This is a beer joint. If you want coffee, go to a drugstore.”
Much to my surprise, he didn’t take offense. Instead he laughed and ordered a bottle of Falstaff. When he spoke his voice was rich and cultured, with an almost lighthearted ring to it, like the voice of a well-traveled and sophisticated man with an easy appreciation for the little ironies of life. That voice was the most disconcerting and spooky thing about the man. It was like hearing a cadaver singing a Verdi aria, and it made me shudder inwardly.
All the five senses are engaged in these few paragraphs. I found that throughout this book, making it a very entertaining read. There’s a lot of violence, but I thought it was integral to the story and did not seem overly done. These are bad people who do very bad things, so the violence is not unexpected.
I did enjoy the rather whimsical ending, which I won’t give away here, but I highly recommend The Devil’s Odds. It’s one you’ll want to read again and again. I was saddened to read of Milton T. Burton’s death in early December. I truly believe the writing community has lost a great contributor.
Leigh Neely is a former newspaper and magazine editor. She currently does freelance work, blogs at Women of Mystery, and recently wrote the short story, “A Vampire in Brooklyn,” which is in the anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices.