Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Rogues' GameThe Rogues' Game by Milton T. Burton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Milton T. Burton's "The Rogues' Game" might be construed as a novel of suspense or perhaps even a western. It is the author's debut novel. According to an anecdote, Mr. Burton wanted to write a novel already at 25, but being a poor typist he had to wait until word-processors become available. The book was published when he was 58.

It is 1947. A man (we never learn his name), an ex-intelligence officer with the OSS, comes to a small town in Texas, with his girlfriend Della, ostensibly to play a high-stake poker game. There obviously exists a more serious reason for his visit to the town, but the reader is only given small hints. Coincidentally, Mr. X and Della arrive in town almost exactly at the same time as the discovery of a huge oil field nearby. They take advantage of the oil frenzy (Della comes from an oil family and knows tricks of the trade), and get quite rich. The poker and the more serious and secret thing have to wait until later.

Three threads are intertwined in the novel: gradual revealing of Mr. X's real plans, the oil boom story, and the poker games story. To me, the second thread is by far the best - it has been fun to learn about the dynamics of oil frenzy: buying oil leases, paying with drafts instead of checks, and the "swiftness with which [an oil boom] unfolds or the speed at which fortunes are made."

The other two threads are not that interesting, in my view. The suspense novel component comes from piecemeal divulging of the truth about Mr. X's real high-stake game. While the insights into professional poker playing do not seem particularly deep, we get a bloody cockfighting scene as a bonus. The writing is competent, yet the characters are not portrayed deeply, and both Mr. X and Della are just too good to be true. But it is a feel-good novel and an extremely fast read.

Two and three quarter stars.

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