Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sacramento Bee

Another nice review, this one from California. You can see the complete review with photos and stuff right here.

What is it about Florida that lures writers?
By Allen Pierleoni -
Published 12:00 am PST Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Story appeared in SCENE section, Page E1

James W. Hall, showing off a small tarpon he caught, then released, on Florida Bay, often writes about "a certain kind of character I knew ... from years of living in the Keys: 'Don't tread on me, I don't want to be connected to the grid, I came here to reinvent myself.' "

How about some tension in the tropics? There's plenty of it in the many Florida-based suspense thrillers that show up each year, as loyal readers worldwide have long known. Consider Florida's unique locale and twisted history – and all those ecological issues.

This subgenre likely has its roots in the 21-volume Travis McGee series by John D. MacDonald, published between 1964 and 1985. In more recent years, the wacky novels of the high-profile Carl Hiaasen have blended ironic humor with Elmore Leonard-style losers and a certain style of eco-diatribe.

Maybe it's time to get James W. Hall on your radar. Hall, 60, has a doctorate in creative writing and literature, and has taught the two at Florida International University in Miami for 35 years. Along the way, he has published three volumes of poetry and nearly 20 books of fiction and nonfiction.

He's best known for his 10-title series starring Thorn, a taciturn beach bum who lives on the Florida Keys. Book by book, plot by plot, Thorn beats the long odds and bests the villains. One of those books, "Blackwater Sound," won the 2003 Shamus Award for Best P.I. Novel, beating out heavyweights George Pelecanos and Laura Lippman.

The Thorn series also touches on the ecological crises that contribute to the ongoing destruction of Florida by developers and corrupt industries.

In the latest adventure, "Hell's Bay" (St. Martin, $24.95, 320 pages), Thorn does his ex-girlfriend a favor by helping with the maiden voyage of her luxury houseboat. It's the centerpiece of her new business, which specializes in taking high-paying guests for weeklong trips to remote fishing areas in Florida Bay, near the Everglades. Of course, things quickly go adrift.

I caught up with Hall by phone at Disney's Vero Beach Resort, during his recent book tour.

Q: Thorn would never stay at a Disney property.

A: I know, people keep reminding me of that.

Q: Please describe Thorn.

A: He's evolved, but the original idea was Henry David Thoreau with a .357 Magnum and a dark past. He wants to be left alone and sit out beside his Walden Pond and watch the light change color on the ocean. The psychological struggle he goes through between being engaged in the world vs. being disengaged – that's something I very much identify with.

He makes his own rules and applies them as he sees fit. I've had to kill just about everybody he's ever been associated with, just to get him involved in things.

He's based on a certain kind of character I knew pretty well from years of living in the Keys: "Don't tread on me, I don't want to be connected to the grid, I came here to reinvent myself."

Q: This is one of the few times you've had a female villain in a Thorn novel.

A: Sasha's MO is to hold her victims under water and drown them. "How long can you hold your breath?" she asks them before she takes them under.

When I create bad guys, my attempt is to scare myself. What is it in the world right now that's most horrifying to me? It's that person who brings a sense of moral righteousness to what they do. They don't care anymore about themselves. They're doing something for a purpose that's beyond themselves, almost in a military, heroic sense. They're suicidal. That's the new evil in the world. In some sense it all flows from 9/11.

Q: "Hell's Bay" reveals some appalling details about the phosphate industry in Florida. In fact, many of your books address the rape of the state's environment, but I don't recall you ever being preachy.

A: The challenge is not to get on the soapbox. As much as I like John D. MacDonald, Randy Wayne White and Carl Hiaasen, they're a little guilty of the soapbox thing. I try to create a sense of place through lyricism and feather in the hard information as subtly as I can.

My publisher and my agent don't know how to sell me. I used to be a poet and now I'm a mystery writer, and who gives a (darn) about that. The promotion shtick they were trying to force on me this time was I'm this environmental writer and an activist. Not true. I just said no.

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