It’s hard not to notice a full-page ad for a book in the New York Times Book Review. And when the title surfaces in publishing industry buzz as well, any reviewer would find it hard to avoid taking a look. Certainly, I did. Then, when I found out that the plot revolves around one of the seminal historical events of the past century, I had no choice. That book rose to the top of my “must-read” list. It certainly didn’t hurt, either, that one of the author’s previous novels won a slew of major literary awards. It’s no mystery, then, why I rushed to read Lou Berney’s November Road as soon as possible after its publication.
November Road by Lou Berney (2018) 320 pages
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
“It’s a crime story, a love story, a deeply American story.”
What a delight to learn that the book is simply terrific! This goes a long way toward explaining the buzz in literary circles and at the publisher that placed the ad. Surely, it also reinforced word-of-mouth, which is the surest route to steady sales. Fellow author Megan Abbott noted that “It’s a crime story, a love story, a deeply American story.” She might also have mentioned that it’s an historical novel. The story is built around one of the most prominent conspiracy theories regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. And that’s a subject guaranteed to capture a great deal of attention. Need I add that it got mine?
Gangsters and JFK’s assassination
In the five decades since JFK’s murder, many Americans have continued to doubt that the Warren Commission got to the bottom of the story. The lone-assassin hypothesis stretches credulity in a number of ways. Among those who think about such things, the favorite alternative culprits are the CIA, the Mafia, the Russians, the Cubans, and Lyndon Johnson. In my own reading on the subject, I’ve come to believe that the most credible explanation is that men within the CIA are the most likely to have been responsible for the assassination. (See my review of Mary’s Mosaic by Peter Janney, Why did JFK die? The most convincing explanation I’ve ever read.) But for Lou Berney the Mafia clearly makes for a better story.
A thug with a heart of gold
Berney’s protagonist, Frank Guidry, is Carlos Marcello‘s man. Marcello ran the New Orleans crime family for four decades. Wikipedia notes that “Credible investigators, mob figures, Robert F. Kennedy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation reportedly believed Marcello masterminded the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy”—that gangsters killed JFK. In November Road, Frank is charged with helping Marcello to clean up after the murder, eliminating any evidence that leads back to him. The assignment sets Guidry off on a cross-country chase that threatens him and the woman he falls in love with. Charlotte is fleeing her feckless husband in Oklahoma with her two young daughters in tow. Their journey together with Frank is the central thread of the plot.
Berney paints his characters with great skill and subtlety. These are not one-dimensional figures placed in the story to move the plot along but living, breathing human beings. And his pacing of the tale is flawless. November Road is a superior example of the thriller-writer’s craft.
About the author
Lou Berney is an accomplished writer. He won several awards for The Long and Faraway Gone, a thriller published in 2015. He’s also the author of numerous short stories in major literary publications and has published a book of short stories as well. Megan Abbott has called him “One of the most talented crime novelists working today.”
For additional reading
You’ll find this book on The 40 best books of the decade from 2010-19.
You might also enjoy my posts:
- Top 10 mystery and thriller series;
- 20 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers; and
- 20 outstanding detective series from around the world.
For an abundance of great mystery stories, go to Top 20 suspenseful detective novels (plus 200 more). And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).