Review: Leadfoot by Eric Beetner

Leadfoot by Eric Beetner is the 2nd fast and furious thriller featuring the McGraws—a family who will transport anything you require and won't ask any questions.

The Dukes of Hazzard. “Thunder Road.” White Lightning. The moonshine-running driver hitting the backroads with suped-up Detroit iron and a trunkful of corn liquor, racing the revenuers, the sheriffs, and the competition…

The Rumrunners series by Eric Beetner takes this into Iowa corn country with the McGraw family, who’ve got hard driving in their blood. Unlike the archetype of The Driver as a silent motorhead who is magic behind the wheel and under the hood but can’t or won’t deal with people well—as in classics Sallis’s Drive and Vachss’s The Getaway Man—in Beetner’s hands, Cal McGraw is a country-fried combo of Parker with a little smart-ass Grofield in there.

“Slow it down, McGraw.”

Calvin McGraw, in his natural element—behind the wheel—turned his eyes to the rearview mirror and looked at his passenger through narrowed lids.

“You have any idea who you’re talking to?”

The man in back turned away and watched the flat Iowa fields race by out his window.

In the passenger seat beside his father, Webb McGraw grinned to himself. He’d grown up in this seat, hanging on around hairpin turns, getting to know the sound of a V8 as keenly as his own dad’s voice. He knew who the man in back was talking to: the best outlaw driver in the Midwest. Maybe anywhere.

The story kicks off with McGraw already speeding down the highway for a job with his son Webb in tow, to bring him into the business. Things go sideways and send Cal’s comfortable world as a rumrunner with a garage full of classic ‘60s muscle cars into a blood-filled ditch of backwoods gang warfare. The Westlake/Stark comparison is more than a compliment, it’s apt. Much like how the master Don E. painted colorful characters in quick bold strokes and never let a description slow down the story, Beetner keeps things moving along while giving us a full picture of Cal’s family life and ambitions. He’s not a pulp cartoon character; he’s been offered a job managing a pit crew for a stock racing outfit, but his loyalty to the Stanley family, who distill the moonshine he runs, keeps him in the outlaw life while they deal with a challenge from a more violent upstart crime family, the Cantrells.

These good ol’ boys definitely mean some harm, bringing in cocaine and hard drugs. The story’s set on the cusp of the ‘70s and Cal argues with his son Webb about his long hair and Hendrix tapes. Webb gets his first job doing a pickup down south, and the cargo turns out to be a bit more than he can handle, a feisty call-girl named Joni:

When his door shut she took off running. Webb scrambled to get out. By the time he stood she was across the lawn and headed into the neighbor’s yard. He ran.

After all that driving it felt good to stretch his legs, but he hadn’t planned to do it this way.

Joni’s high heeled boots made it difficult moving across grass damp with midnight dew. He caught her before she made it to the next yard. He didn’t know what to do so he tackled her from behind.

They rolled and he came up on top of her, the macrame bag between them, her breasts threatening to spill out of her top.

“Careful, boy, a ride ain’t free y’know.”

Webb felt his cheeks blush. He rolled off and hauled her to her feet. Both their jeans were grass stained and they each fought to catch their breath. As Webb marched her back to the car he thought how nice it was that bundles of dope or cases of hooch didn’t talk and couldn't run.

I liked Webb a lot, maybe even a hair more than cool Cal; because he’s still learning the ropes, he gets into more sticky predicaments, and I hope we get a spin-off if Calvin ever retires. Not that Cal and his wife Dorothy aren’t fun enough. Dot keeps the home fires burning but she handles herself well when the gang war gets ugly. Because Calvin may have outlaw blood, but he’s no cold-blooded killer. That’s a refreshing bit of reality in a hardboiled crime novel, where the bodies often pile up like firewood for winter. He just wants to drive, and knows that when you kill somebody, their friends and family don’t take kindly. Punch enough people’s tickets, and eventually someone will show up at your front door looking to punch yours.

But don’t worry, Calvin’s no pacifist, either. Once his family is threatened, he pulls out all the stops. He’s just not a crack shot as well as an ace driver. He has other plans, and the tension gets tauter than a garrotte wire before the story’s done.

The sensible man would gather his wounded friend and leave. Lou demonstrated his lack of sense by firing three rapid shots at the empty doorway. Two bullets went through the linen closet door and one pierced the wall.

“You boys better get the hell out of my house.” Dorothy made her voice loud and commanding. “Your friend is hurt bad there. You’d best get him some attention.”

“Bitch, all you had to do was sit still and wait,” Lou said.

“McGraws don’t sit still and wait for anybody.”

And that’s how we like it. The McGraws and the Stanleys are old-fashioned and care about the community; that community just happens to like home-made corn liquor of which the government disapproves. The Cantrells just see more territory to carve up. The new post-Vietnam ruthlessness gives them a strength over the Stanleys, but they learn that loyalty and blood ties can be just as potent an advantage. As a big fan of classic Detroit muscle and fast and fun storytelling, I really enjoyed this venture into the Rumrunners series, and hope there are many more coming. This is good pulp fun with a good hard edge to it, that left me grinning and laughing like Roscoe P. Coltrain.

 

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Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017, and the editor of the Protectors anthologies to benefit PROTECT. He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim (not as part of a clever heist). Hailing from Nutley, New Jersey, home of criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, Thomas has so far evaded arrest. He shares his hideout with his sassy Louisiana wife and their two felines. You can find him at www.thomaspluck.com and on Twitter as @thomaspluck.

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