Casey’s Last Chance, the debut novel of journalist Joseph B. Atkins, leads the reader a merry chase throughout most of the Southern United States, as it follows the twists and turns of self-described loser Casey Eubanks’ very short career as a hit man. It is a narrative that has real possibilities, but possibilities that aren’t always realized. This is especially true in the treatment of the final cataclysm which ends the novel — too much of what should be the most exciting material in the book is described in only the most general terms. The reader is left out of the scene entirely.
What the book does best is transport the reader back to ‘60’s America. It is a world where factory workers trying to unionize are demonized as Communists and local law enforcement is more often than not in the pocket of scoundrels. It is a world Atkins paints in thorough detail. People drive Chevrolet Biscaynes, Ford Rancheros and even Studebakers. Gas is 25 cents a gallon. Tattoos of Rita Hayworth grace the forearms of our hero, and a random blond looks like Fay Spain. They listen to “Cathy’s Clown” and “Heartbreak Hotel” on the radio, and the drive-in movie is showing Odds Against Tomorrow. Atkins has the time scape down cold.
Would that he was equally adept at characterization. The “good guys” — a reporter who seems to know everyone all over the South, a beautiful Polish union organizer, and a rogue FBI agent — are not drawn with any great depth. They are not quite the best planners. They don’t always seem to be thinking of the obvious. Too many of the characters lack depth. Villains, especially local Southern lawmen, are often stereotyped.
The most interesting of the characters, and certainly the most effectively drawn is, as no doubt he should be is Casey Eubanks. Although even here there is some confusion about him early on. His motivation at the beginning of the novel is unclear at first. Events that took place before the book starts are not explained very carefully, and when they are explained, they are difficult to believe. Indeed, early on, there is even some question about his race. As the novel proceeds, things become clearer and Eubanks becomes a more rounded and believable figure.
Casey’s Last Chance is a workmanlike crime thriller with enough twisting and turning to keep all but the most critical readers happy.