Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Miami Herald Review
Posted on Tue, Feb. 26, 2008
Phosphate's at center of explosive plot
BY SAM HARRISON
James W. Hall. St. Martin's. 320 pages. $24.95.
Between the coasts of Florida lies a land of rich, little-known and sometimes violent history, a land of cattle ranches and phosphate mines held and worked for generations by a few families. This land and these people are the driving force behind James W. Hall's newest thriller, which features Hall's recurrent hero Thorn.
Abigail Bates, matriarch of an old Florida family with vast holdings in land and phosphate, is murdered while paddling the Peace River, drowned by a woman waiting in ambush. We know right off the bat who did it and why. The killer is a tough and skilled veteran of the Iraq war, a widow whose son is dying from the same type of cancer that killed her husband, a cancer caused by exposure to the giant phosphate slag mountain that dominates their small town. What this all has to do with Thorn is the life blood of this fast-paced novel.
As Hall's readers know, the laconic Thorn is happiest sitting on his porch in the Keys tying flies, and that is where we initially find him. He is reluctantly drawn into a scheme concocted by on-again off-again girlfriend Rusty, a local fishing guide, to build and outfit a houseboat for luxurious fishing excursions in upper Florida Bay and the Everglades. Their first customers are a father and daughter, John and Mona Milligan, and a travel writer and her photographer. But there's much more to the booking than just rich folks out for a unique fishing experience. John Milligan is Abigail Bates' son. As the boat moves up Florida Bay, Milligan spills a whopping big secret that invests Thorn in the investigation.
A healthy suspension of disbelief is required to accept all the converging premises, but once that's done, the story takes off. The narrative weaves back and forth between Thorn and the soon-to-be besieged houseboat contingent, the killer and her son, and Thorn's investigator pal Sugarman, who is pursuing the real story of Abigail's drowning. What Sugarman finds gives heft and nuance to the motivation and character of Sasha Olsen, the driven killer.
Hall's ability to evoke the deep, primeval essence of the Bay and Glades -- the water, air, wildlife, feral excitement -- are unmatched, and the life and death struggle that ensues is heightened and set apart by a heavy ambivalence. Thorn and the others are fighting for their lives, and we're pulling for them, but the tension is of a grander variety because we also see the story from the killer's perspective. She's way around the bend, but she's got a legitimate cause. And when all the mayhem subsides -- sharks and gators join the arsenal of high-powered weaponry and a reciprocating saw -- her resignation is unusually moving and darn near poetic.
Maybe no place has the stark dichotomy of Florida. Forty miles from Miami, the glow still visible, you're in the middle of an ancient and dangerous landscape that gives no quarter. Throw in the most dangerous predator on the planet with an axe to grind, and you've got all the ingredients for a thoroughly indulgent and hardy stew of a thriller. With his unerring sense of place, and a frighteningly sure grasp of the dark side, nobody cooks it up like Hall.
Sam Harrison is a writer in Ormond Beach.
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