Saturday, November 19, 2011

The beauty of newspaper book reviewers is that they have the space and usually the passion and intelligence, as Oline Cogdill does, to dig into the substance of a novel they're reviewing rather than just recount the plot.

I doubt I'll get a better review than this one from Oline in the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

South Florida
Murder gets personal for Hall's Thorn

By Oline Cogdill, Correspondent

November 20, 2011

'Dead Last' By James W. Hall. Minotaur, 304 pages, $25.99

The newspaper obituary isn't just the announcement of a person's death and service schedule. Obits often are homages to a life well lived, an insightful look at a person and the impact he or she had on their world.

But in the intriguing "Dead Last," the obit becomes a sinister weapon that takes aim at Thorn, James W. Hall's perennial Key Largo beach bum.

Thorn has never been the most sociable of characters -- content to eke out a living tying fishing flies, enjoying "the wayward scent of wilderness" and becoming involved with one nefarious crime after another.

But the death of Rusty Stabler, his wife of one month, throws Thorn into grief-fueled rage over which he has little control. "Some crucial atom inside him had cracked apart and all the wild-eyed craziness . . . stabilized by her presence went into a state of fission." Nearly suicidal, Thorn starts burning everything he owns -- clothes, furniture, mementoes. The bonfire "cleansing" is in full force when Buddha Hilton, the 19-year-old sheriff of Starkville, Okla., shows up at Thorn's Key Largo house. Michaela Stabler, a high-profile lawyer who was Buddha's adoptive mother and Rusty's aunt, was murdered in her bed in Starkville. Rusty's newspaper obituary was placed next to the body.

The murder scene is eerily similar to "Miami Ops," a failing TV crime show being filmed in South Florida that is written by Sawyer Moss and stars his twin brother, Flynn. Adding to the coincidence, the Moss brothers are the only sons of April Moss, the newspaper obit writer and an old acquaintance of Thorn.

Buddha has little use for Thorn, and both are out of their comfort zones in the urban jungle of Miami. But they make a credible detective team as they investigate whether the growing pattern of murders is a ploy for better TV ratings.

Hall always has made it easy to want to get lost with Thorn as he wanders Florida, and this 12th outing continues those high standards. "Dead Last" works as an exciting detective novel but also provides an insightful look at grief and rising above pain, and proves the adage that when one door shuts, another opens. The usually laconic Thorn is a fury-filled machine whose grief makes him ready to slash out at anyone in his way. The calm Buddha, who bears the physical marks of horrendous abuse as a child, sees through Thorn and forces him to deal with his grief. The scene where Buddha passes on her observations to Thorn about his personality is an inspiring moment full of humor and truth. A surprising plot twist signals a change for Thorn that he may not be equipped to handle.

"Dead Last's" solid story and characters who continue to grow show why Hall, who retired in 2009 as a literature professor at Florida International University, ranks at the top echelon of Florida mystery writers.

Oline Cogdill can be reached at

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