Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Tim Hennessy on The Walkaway by Scott Phillips

Years ago, when I first stumbled upon The Walkaway, I thought it was the source material for the Paul Newman geezer heist film, Where the Money Is. However, Newman’s second-to-last live-action film bears a little resemblance: he’s a career thief moved to a nursing home who appears to be an immobilized mute after a stroke, a crafty nurse has his number and enlists him in helping her get money to leave her dull life behind: she thinks he either has money stashed somewhere or could help her rob a bank. The coincidence introduced me to Scott Phillips’ work, the premise of his novel intrigued me more, once I made the connection to its proper cinematic roots.

Picking up where The Ice Harvest left off, Gunther Fahnstiel has a suitcase full of dirty mob cash and the body of Charlie Arglist to dispose of, after accidentally backing over him with his RV. Gunther buries the body in a gravel quarry, the only other person who knows about the body and the windfall is his third wife, Dot. The narrative jumps to ten years later, Gunther’s been placed in an elder care facility because his advanced senility requires supervision. On a quest to get a haircut, Gunther wanders through downtown Wichita where everyone and everything familiar to him seems to be misplaced or different than he last remembered. Fading memories, the inescapability of life moving by, Gunther’s thoughts drift from his misdeeds as a morally flexible lawman in 1952 protecting his lover from her psychopath husband after he returns from a stint in the military, to where he hid the money.

Several people are in pursuit of Gunther. Ed Dietrele, a retired detective sergeant who has a lifelong habit of watching Gunther’s back, who returned to help, as well as get answers about a few mysteries plaguing him surrounding the events of the strip club slayings years ago; Gunther’s step-son, Sidney McCallum, who put up a $12,000 reward, his way of repaying Gunther for giving him the money to buy the strip club he runs; local knucklehead, Eric Gandy who’s hoping to cash in if he can only manage to stay sober enough to stay one step ahead everyone else.

Propelled by the connective tissues of an ensemble and their intertwined subplots, what always made The Walkaway stand out was the way it worked as a shaggy dog detective story complicated by cunningly crafted deceptions and misunderstandings rooted in knotted family trees. Operating as a prequel/sequel, Phillips crafted a sepia-toned crime story with characters haunted by melancholy and regret, who deftly pivot from moments of slapstick to chilling menace.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about Paul Newman a lot lately, or the affable, sometimes sly way Gunther handles even the most awkward missteps, reminds me a lot Newman’s late-career roles. Throughout the book, I couldn’t help but imagine what could’ve been if Newman took one last chance on another dark role before enjoying retirement. I can’t help but think the way Phillips captures the rhythms of the day-to-day life of small towns with an eye towards the absurd, where secrets are traded, and the seedy underbelly goes nearly undetected, would have appealed to Newman’s sensibilities. Despite popular thinking, there aren’t more innocents in the less densely populated parts of the country, just more room to bury secrets.

That Left Turn at Albuquerque, the latest novel from Scott Phillips is available now. Grab a copy at your favorite local bookstore through Indie Bound or from

Subterranean Books (they'll have signed editions)

Barnes & Noble


Tim Hennessy is a bookseller and a contributor to Publishers Weekly, Tough, Mystery Tribune, Crimespree, & others. He is the editor of the anthology Milwaukee Noir from Akashic Books. Follow him on Twitter @timjhennessy.

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