For those unfamiliar with Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford series, forget all those reviews you have read about other Florida mystery protagonists being the “spiritual successor to John D. MacDonald’s legendary Travis McGee.” Because the only—and I mean the only—one able to make that claim is Marion “Doc” Ford, resident marine-biologist-slash-adventurer of Dinkin’s Bay, Florida. White’s writing style is in no way derivative of MacDonald’s, and Doc Ford is no McGee clone, but I guarantee if McGee and Ford were to meet in person, they would hit it off famously. The latest installment in the popular series, Deep Shadow, unfolds like an episode of the hit TV show “24,” basically playing out in real time; it takes nearly as long to read the book as for the entire story to go down. As Deep Shadow opens, Ford finds himself a somewhat unenthusiastic participant in what he perceives as a harebrained scheme to salvage legendary lost Cuban gold. The legend: Shortly before Castro took over control of Cuba in 1959, the previous president, Fulgencio Batista, made good his escape. It was not an unmitigated success, however, as the airplane carrying a significant portion of Batista’s ill-gotten gains disappeared, thus fueling the dreams of fortune hunters for the next 50 years. Ford’s friend Arlis Futch believes he knows the plane’s whereabouts and mounts a small expedition to retrieve it from a remote Florida lake; what neither counts on is the arrival of a pair of highly unreformed criminals with a nose (actually two noses) for gold. Taut and stressfully paced, Deep Shadow is one of those “read-till-you-drop” books—not for the faint of heart or anyone who is having trouble sleeping!
The Serialist is David Gordon’s debut novel, and an auspicious one it is. If you are a fan of what used to be called “pulp novels,” The Serialist should be right up your alley. The protagonist, a hack writer by the name of Harry Bloch, has been writing under a variety of colorful pseudonyms (Tom Stanks, J. Duke Johnson, Sybilline Lorindo-Gold) in any cheesy genre you might care to mention: vampire novels, soft-core pornographic science fiction, an advice column in a skin magazine and a mystery series featuring a half-Ethiopian Jew, half-Native American anti-hero by the name of Mordechai Jones (“the ghetto sheriff”). Now Harry has been hired to recount the exploits of one Darian Clay, a serial killer on death row who was a big fan of Bloch in his Thomas Stanks guise; if all works out, it promises to be Bloch’s first book under his own name. On the surface this would seem to be a fairly straightforward proposition, but hey, this is a mystery after all, so surprises abound (for instance, just as Clay’s last appeal falls on deaf judicial ears, a couple more murders very much in his style take place, displaying certain hallmarks no copycat killer could know—go figure). Terrific characters, a game (if somewhat reluctant) protagonist and clever dialogue make The Serialist a really excellent debut just itching for a sequel.
Top cop in a meth Mecca
Sharing debut honors for March is Ken Mercer, whose Slow Fire follows the checkered career of a disgraced cop. Will Magowan, once the star of the LAPD narcotics division, was summarily dismissed after becoming addicted to heroin. There was a reason for his addiction, though: In order to convince the perps that he was not a cop, he had to use drugs in front of them, or suffer the deadly consequences; it was a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, and it ended badly indeed. So it is a major surprise when Magowan opens his mail one morning and finds a letter from Haydenville, California, a town he has never heard of. Moreover, they are offering him a job: Haydenville Police Chief. He can scarcely refuse; he is fresh out of rehab, it has been close to two years since he last worked and he has been reduced to living in a small travel trailer in “the ragged edge of the county.” Naturally, bucolic little Haydenville turns out not to be the picture postcard village the Chamber of Commerce would like to portray; instead, it is methamphetamine Mecca, so who better to clean it up than a reformed druggie cop? Slow Fire is without a doubt violent (two people die rather graphically on Magowan’s first day on the job), but exceptionally well-paced and carefully plotted, another fine debut (and, we hope, the beginning of a fine new series).
Mystery of the month
When someone with the writing chops of Michael Connelly says “Jo Nesbø is my new favorite thriller writer and Harry Hole is my new hero,” you don’t have to agree with him, but you do have to pay attention. I, for one, happen to agree with him: Harry Hole is one of the most compellingly flawed protagonists in contemporary suspense fiction, in the august company of such luminaries as Ken Bruen’s blackout-prone alcoholic detective Jack Taylor, Andrew Vachss’ singular (and singularly named) outlaw Burke and Ian Rankin’s introspective/depressive cop John Rebus. In Hole’s latest adventure, The Devil’s Star, the Oslo detective finds himself once again pitted against arch-adversary Tom Waaler, a golden-boy colleague who can seemingly do no wrong—except that Harry is convinced past any reasonable doubt that Waaler is a career criminal and a cop killer. Problem is, Harry is a bit of a lush, and nobody else gives his theories an ounce of credence. And then the homicides start, a series of killings with an odd similarity: A tiny red diamond in the shape of a pentagram accompanies each victim. Oh, and guess who gets paired with Harry Hole to investigate the murders? Righty-o, none other than the aforementioned Mr. Waaler, and a difficult task it is to ascertain which one is more annoyed by the arrangement. The situation quickly approaches critical mass, and not in any way you might predict (or at least not in any way that I predicted, and I am fairly adept at that sort of thing after so many years of practice). A year ago, I reviewed Jo Nesbø’s Nemesis and noted: “High tension, lightning pace, a flawed but ultimately sympathetic protagonist: Nemesis has it all.” Ditto that for The Devil’s Star, and let’s up the ante with a couple of masterful twists and a killer ending (literally)!