Thursday, November 24, 2011

Couldn't Have Written A Better Review Myself

James W. Hall is dead-on with Thorn’s latest case


■ “Dead Last,” by James W. Hall.

Minotaur Books. 304 pages. $25.99.
A new book by James W. Hall is something to put away for a special treat: something to look forward to. But inevitably, I push other things aside so that I can dig into what will no doubt be a most pleasurable experience. I’m addicted to following the exploits of Thorn, a character at once unique and everyman-ish, spontaneous and guarded, outrageous and surprisingly disciplined.

The Thorn we meet in “Dead Last” is processing grief. Cancer has taken the woman he loves. Mr. Hall’s description of Thorn’s ritualized mourning, which includes burning many of his personal possessions, is dead-on accurate. Thorn is a man who carries little material baggage. Watching him strip even further down to essentials, a kind of excessive and half-mad cleansing, reveals his nature with dramatic economy.

As ever, Thorn’s fate presents him with a case to solve and a wrong to right. Uh, better change those nouns to plural.

How’s this for a plot premise? A Miami-based television cast and crew staffs a low-rated cable series named “Miami Ops.” A running plot line involves a serial killer who, outfitted in zentai suit (a skin-tight garment that covers the entire body) selects victims from hints picked up in newspaper obituaries. The killer deduces locations, weapons and other details from the obituaries as well.

The spandex-clad perpetrator is cunning and ruthless, but the series is about to be dropped by the network. The scriptwriter, Sawyer Moss, knows a lot about obituary writing because his mother, April, is the obituary writer for the Miami Herald. Sawyer’s twin brother, Flynn, is one of the show’s stars. The other is Dee Dee Dollimore, a gorgeous actress hungry for fame who is Sawyer’s girlfriend. Dee Dee’s father (and former abuser), Gus, runs the show.

Now the series seems to have inspired a copycat — a real serial killer who imitates the methodology of “Miami Ops.”

One of April’s obituaries is about Rusty Stabler, Thorn’s deceased wife. Details in the obit lead the real-life killer to murder Rusty’s aunt, who lives in a small town in Oklahoma. Since Thorn is mentioned in the obituary, it doesn’t take long for the Starkville, Okla., sheriff, a very young woman named Buddha Hilton, to visit Miami, tear Thorn away from his beloved Key Largo and involve him in her investigation.

Buddha is a fascinating minor character. Only 19, she is a self-made professional with skill, courage and shrewd perceptions. Like Dee Dee a victim of parental abuse as a young girl, Buddha would seem to have a bright future. She accomplishes much in a short period of time to further her investigation into crimes that become part of an FBI case worked by Thorn’s sometimes buddy Frank Sheffield.

However, Buddha’s future is cut short by the zentai killer. Thorn now has one more death to avenge, and his own life is in jeopardy. There is an unsettling glee among some of the “Miami Ops” gang that the copycat news might just spike the ratings and save the series. Is one of them behind these killings?

“Dead Last” is gorgeously complicated by the network of relationships the author designs. Perhaps the most important is that Thorn and April have to sort out the meaning of their youthful one night fling so many years ago. Awkwardly reacquainted by their involvement in this investigation, they cautiously try to make sense of it and of each other. That old and brief attraction haunts them and eventually provides the reader with an astonishing revelation.

“Dead Last” provides an abundance of violent action, excruciating suspense, brilliant characterization (check out April’s mother, Garvey) and precise and evocative delineations of Miami neighborhoods. It also offers a vivid exploration of the psychotic elements let loose in contemporary society as reflected in, perhaps nourished by, today’s morally hazardous popular culture. Thorn is by now a monument: solid and substantial, a bit tarnished and a convenient target for low-flying birds.

And Mr. Hall is in the vanguard of those who have erased the line between literary fiction and genre fiction.

Want more James W. Hall? “Over Exposure,” a new collection of his fine short fiction, is available as a Kindle
eBook for a mere $3.99. ■


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