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The Devil's Redhead

David Corbett

Ballentine Books/Random House

US Hardcover first

ISBN: 0-345-44752-2

Publication Date: July, 2002

373 Pages; $24.95

Date Reviewed: August 2, 2003

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003



Mystery, General Fiction

08-25-03, 06-14-04

Beginning with a poignant dedication, ending with a happy-but-sad reconciliation, 'The Devil's Redhead' is a dark, moving, genre-blurring novel. Part mystery, part elegy to the way things were, dominantly a love story, this is a violent, unsettling, but engrossing book.

We meet the primary characters, Dan Abatangelo and Shel Beaudry in the early Eighties. Abatangelo is a talented photographer and successful drug smuggler; Shel deals blackjack in Vegas. They meet each other and fall quickly, passionately and wholly in love. Seeking to escape the increasingly dangerous drug smuggling world, Dan puts together one last deal to fill the bank account. Plagued from the start with problems and bad omens, the deal goes horribly wrong. Dan, Shel and others are arrested, convicted and jailed. In return for lighter sentences for Shel and his partners, Dan serves ten years in prison. Released in 1992, Dan has but one goal - to find Shel and re-start their life

Thus begins the story. While Dan is imprisoned, Shel has become a red-headed Florence Nightingale to Frank Maas, a pharmacological psycho, crank head, and all round screw-up, engaged in low-life crimes with a motley crew of none-too-bright petty thieves and drug sellers in the Delta of northern California. Paralleling the opening story, Frank attempts one last deal so he and Shel can escape to a better life. This deal, too, goes horribly wrong. Frank, in a substance-induced paranoia, murders two teen-age cohorts, and finds himself squarely in the center of a war for control of the Delta's drug trade. When Dan finds Shel to rekindle their relationship, she is deeply depressed, guilt-ridden but loyal to Frank, still in love with Dan, and the pawn in a violent gang war between white-trash drug lords and the Mexican Mafia.

'The Devil's Redhead' tells a complex, layered story - one of love lost, regained, lost yet again; the other of drug deals, vengeance, and desperation. Urged by his late wife to "tell the love story", Corbett does, indeed, tell a mesmerizing love story that is the core of the book. In Part 1, Dan and Shel meet, fall in love, separate and re-unite. In Part 2, Dan and Shel again fall in love, separate, and re-unite, this time midst a tangle of terror, violence and horror. But there is nothing simple about this love story. It is equal parts selfish and selfless, passionate and crazed. Dan rescues Shel from Frank, Shel leaves Dan to keep him safe from Frank's retribution, Dan enters the drug fray to keep Shel safe, and Shel manipulates the drug warriors to keep Dan safe. It's a tangled ploy and counter-ploy, a dark, downward spiral driven by depression and fueled by desperation.

'The Devil's Redhead' is a gritty, disturbingly violent book. Unlike classic body count books with their scores of unnamed, unstoried deaths, nearly everyone who dies in 'The Devil's Redhead' - and there are many - has a name and a character, however unlikable. Their deaths are graphically portrayed and vividly described. Some deaths are inevitable, stupid and pointless, but powerful; others are unexpectedly noble; still others are simply, heart-breakingly sad. Abatangelo often photographs these deaths, giving them a double whammy - death described in fact and death preserved in photo.

Corbett writes with control, depth and perception. While the plot is well tuned and well delivered, Corbett's characters set this book apart from the mystery norm. Each primary character, and the many exceptionally well-drawn secondary characters (especially Bert Waxman, reporter, friend and foil to Dan), is fully developed, uniquely nuanced, and understandable if often unlovable. Corbett's characters mix action with self-reflection, violence with soul-searching, to bare their psyches along with their fates. While the writing style is deceptively simple and descriptive, the underlying motivations are complex and keenly observed. Corbett effortlessly weaves Kirkegaardian philosophy, international politics, and the simplicity of the eighties in contrast to the violent cruelty of the nineties into an introspective, fated love story.

'The Devil's Redhead' is an excellent book, astonishingly good for an author's first work, but it's a tough book to recommend. It is an exceptionally dark, grim and violent novel - not one to be tackled by anyone with a weak stomach or in a weak moment. It is a book about pain, viscerally described physical pain mixed with equal amounts of powerfully observed emotional pain. Every major character in the span of the book grows and changes, and almost every character dies. Many readers will find it overwhelmingly depressing. It took me days to shake off the knotted stomach and cloud of gloom I felt after reading this story. But, my kudos to Corbett for writing the love story. Like many of the songs of Leonard Cohen, 'The Devil's Redhead' is depressing, disquieting, but indelible. Kudos, too, to Drue Pennington McNeil for the dust jacket design and to Ralph Gibson for the photo. It's a perfect reflection of the novel.