Bloody Murdock, by Robert J. Ray: Introducing Matt Murdock

First published in 1986, Bloody Murdock ($13.95, 246 pages, ISBN: 978-1-60381-887-2), is Robert J. Ray’s first Matt Murdock mystery, a twisty tale about dirty deeds in Hollywood’s seamy underbelly. Ex-cop and Private Eye Matt Murdock is the kindred spirit of John D. Macdonald’s Travis McGee and other truth-seeking, BS-hating, women-loving hardboiled types who came before him.

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“The story never stops and the lushly decadent southern California life was never more so.”

—Publisher’s Weekly

“Murdock is a West Coast Travis McGee—tired and a little bored, but ready to mobilize. A good look at society’s X-rated side. Fun.”

—T. Jefferson Parker, author of Laguna Heat

“A splendid suspense novel. After a chilling beginning, real horror cuts in like a turbocharger.”

—Oakley Hall, author of The Coming of the Kid and Corpus of Joe Bailey

PI and ex-cop Matt Murdock is picky about the cases he takes on. Being a bodyguard isn’t his favorite gig, especially when the client is a high-handed number-cruncher like Ellis Dean. But Murdock is short on funds, and the case is a puzzler. It doesn’t hurt that it features the death, accidental or otherwise, of a beautiful woman. Murdock has a weakness for damsels in distress, even after it’s a little late for rescue. Gayla Jean Kirkwood, killed in a car wreck on the Pacific Coast Highway, was a good-time girl, high-class waitress and wannabe starlet.

Dean fires Murdock and ends up dead, clearing the way for Murdock to sign on with the victim’s sister, Meg Kirkwood, a gorgeous dead-ringer for her sister. The case will offer other female distractions, including a fresh-faced and overly eager girl reporter.

Who would want Gayla Jean dead? Was it a scorned lover? Someone at the chic club where she worked? The men who paid to photograph her naked? Or was she simply collateral—the real target being the Mexican actor driving the doomed car? As his investigation continues, Murdock and his client will discover just how dirty deals in Hollywood can get. If they live long enough.

ROBERT J. RAY is the author of seven previous novels: Cage of Mirrors, The Heart of the Game, Murdock for Hire, The Hitman Cometh, Dial “M” for Murdock, Murdock Cracks Ice, and Merry Christmas, Murdock. A sixth Matt Murdock mystery—Murdock Tackles Taos—in in process. Ray is also the author of a popular non-fiction series on writing, The Weekend Novelist, and he shares writing techniques on writing on his blog. A native of Texas, Ray holds a PhD from the University of Texas, Austin. Tuesdays and Fridays, he writes at Louisa’s Bakery and Café in Seattle. For more information about the entire Matt Murdock Mystery Series, click here.

Read on for an Excerpt:

I read about the death of Gayla Jean Kirkwood on page one of the Tribune, Orange County’s largest newspaper, on a rainy Sunday in March. Her photo—a pretty, smiling girl framed in newspaper black and white—looked familiar, so I read the whole story.

She’d been to a Saturday night party in Bluebird Canyon, a snappy upscale section of Laguna Beach, where she’d apparently met a young dude from Hollywood named Jaime Modesto. The party had been at the home of a Laguna Beach art dealer named Philo Waddell.

Gayla Jean and Modesto had left the party together around 3:20 a.m. Sunday morning, and started driving north on Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway. At approximately 3:31 a.m. Modesto’s Pontiac Trans Am had slammed up against a wall of rock just on the outskirts of Laguna. The car had caught fire, the gas tank had exploded, and both Modesto and Gayla Jean Kirkwood had been killed. The photo, which covered a third of the front page, showed some cops, a couple of emergency vehicles, a smoking wreck, and a fire crew fighting a fire that was spreading up the hill. Burning up was not a good way to die.

The reporter was careful about documenting how hopeless it had all been, and how quickly the emergency units had responded. The journalist’s name was Teresa Aiken, and she was an ace at laying out chronology.

The Laguna Beach PD had arrived seven minutes after the accident. The fire department had arrived two minutes after the police. Two cars from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department had arrived at 3:52 a.m. And the paramedics, who weren’t needed at all, arrived at 4:01.

The fire had spread from Modesto’s car up the hill to ignite some dry brush, and had done a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of damage to a house that was probably worth close to a million, because of the spectacular ocean view. The rain had started at 4:30, the paper said.

The story didn’t mention any witnesses.

Down below the picture of the scene of the accident, there were photos of Jaime Modesto and Gayla Jean Kirkwood, side by side, smiling into the camera. Modesto was what some women would call handsome—sad eyes, open face, Valentino grin, though with a better set of teeth than old Valentino. The paper said Modesto had made three movies in four years, the last one being Tijuana Rose, a story about Mexican illegals and their problems getting across the border.

Modesto himself had “emigrated” to the U.S. seven years ago. His hometown back in Mexico was Guanajuato. His present address was Marina Del Rey. When he’d got himself burned to death on PCH on a dark Sunday morning in March, Modesto had been twenty-six.

The picture of Gayla Jean Kirkwood showed a girl in her early twenties, strawberry blonde or light redhead, with intelligent eyes and a smile that turned out just lopsided enough to make her interesting. She’d died young, and died pretty.

Gayla Jean’s residence was Newport Beach, where she was also employed as a waitress. Her hometown was Fort Worth, Texas. She was twenty-three, the paper said. She was “survived” by a sister, Margaret Kirkwood, also of Fort Worth. I looked at the picture again and felt sad. Two kids were dead. They had probably smoked a joint at the Bluebird Canyon party, decided to share a bed for the night, and had wound up in a surprise funeral pyre on a dark road in the clammy beach fog of Southern California.

Maybe I’d seen her around. She’d lived in Newport Beach, where I lived. Newport Beach was a small town, snug, smug, cramped, on that edge of America about halfway between Kansas City and Honolulu. Maybe we’d passed one day on the pier. Maybe we’d locked eyeballs across a room, a bar, a restaurant. Maybe she’d served me a beer, or some fish and chips, or some spaghetti and meatballs. Maybe I’d made her day with a tip, on a sunny summer Sunday when I’d had money.

Now, looking at her lopsided smile, I wondered what Gayla Jean’s hopes had been, what she liked for breakfast, how she handled sorrow and frustration, whether she was neat or sloppy, what made her happy, what kind of men she chose, what made her sad.

Something—the look in her eye, the pretty, lopsided smile, the short, terse formality of the obituary—made you think of Gayla Jean as a butterfly, with only one summer to live.

 

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