Found two I did and one of them, Stolen Woman, is an honest to goodness Gold Medal book. Happily, I opened the book and wondered if Branded Woman was a flash-in-the-pan or a sign of something special. As if I really needed to worry.
Burke is an American piano player who performs at La Mujer Robada, a bar and showplace just south of the American border in Calexico. Ironically, the bar’s name, translated, is “stolen woman.” It is remarkable how often that term comes into play in this novel. I mentioned in my review of the newly award-winning short story “Hungry Enough,” by Cornelia Reed, how I love the way titles can have one meaning as you start the book and a different meaning after you’ve finished. The same holds true with Stolen Woman except this time, you actually get multiple meanings.
Burke plays the keys and the boss’s wife, Gretchen, with equal flourish and artistry. The problem occurs when the boss, Frank Portillo, comes home early and finds Burke and his wife in bed together. One instant later, Frank is lying dead on the floor, a smoking gun in Burke’s hand. No sooner had the gunshot’s blast faded away than a Mexican policeman, David (pronounced Dah-veed), arrives and escorts Burke away. Except they don’t go to the police station. David blackmails Burke to get the American to carry a “package” over the border. Having no choice, Burke relents. Now, Burke is a murderer and a smuggler.
Then he meets Feeney, an American border cop, who seems to know a little bit about everything, including Burke’s murder rap and subsequent blackmail. Feeney also puts the screws to Burke, using the piano player as a pawn in Feeney’s goal of taking down the top drug smuggler in the area, El Uno.
Burke’s in a tight spot. He can’t run, he can’t hide, and he’s beginning to realize he can’t trust a whole lot of people. But there seems to be one, a Mexican senorita named Socorra, who fawns over him, even going so far as to arrange to meet Burke in a fun yet contrived way. This little scene is actually quite tender, a rare respite amid all the other shenanigans. He falls for her—natch. Then things really go wild: bullets fly, truths are revealed, and alliances (and double-crosses) come to light. It’s a roller coaster for Burke and you as the reader.
Stolen Woman is a master class on how to withhold the big reveal while still giving clues along the way. There is something like three or four reveals toward the last quarter of the book. I’ll admit that I saw the last one coming. No, check that. I suspected it based on one particular character’s actions. Still, when it was time for the final curtain to be raised, it was still satisfying.
A hallmark in pulp fiction is the innocent person caught in a web of unfamiliarity and having to do what it takes to survive. Like Christa Faust’s heroine, Angel Dare, in Money Shot, Burke doesn’t know his way around the underworld. Burke is a piano player. He’ s not a former hit man piano player who can fire a gun and always hit the target; he’s just plays piano. So he’s not equipped to deal with all the stuff that comes flying his way. But he deals with it as best he can. It’s fascinating to watch him go through the motions, having to fight his way out of the tangled mess he’s in. Miller purposefully puts Burke through the ringer—hey, it’s entertaining, to say the least—but he also shows us Burke’s changes, both in his outlook on life and his situations. Burke gets a harder edge to him as he starts to see different angles, a possible way out. Burke is a different man by the end of the book, less sure of himself, but confident in what he’s done and what he now has to do. And, more often than not, Miller uses Burke’s hands as the metaphor of Burke’s predicament at various stages of the book. It’s something to watch out for and note.
Style-wise, Miller is a fine practitioner of good pulp fiction turns of phrase. Some examples that stuck out:
• He ground out the words.Miller even got a little tongue in cheek with one of the characters:
• The name tasted evil.
• His narrow cold eyes gave away what he was like inside.
The Mexican straightened. His eyes flashed. “You forget, Senor. It is you who are dependent on me!” All he failed to do was twirl his moustache.Wade Miller—actually the writing team of Robert Wade and H. Bill Miller—can write a pulp yarn with the best of them. Branded Woman is an excellent place to start as you can find the Hard Case Crime version fairly easily. But don’t’ stop there. Stark House Press just released two titles: The Killer and Devil on Two Sticks. Search for any Wade Miller books, including Stolen Woman. There’s quite a bit going on in such a brief little book. If you’re a writer, study it. It’ll make you a better writer. But don’t forget to just read it for fun.
Note: The Mystery File’s website has some excellent material about Miller including an interview with Robert Wade and a bibliography.