off the chart


James Hall

HarperCollins, £10.99 tpb June 2003

Reviewed by L.J. Hurst

My local mayor has just been thrown out after being caught buying his beer cheap through the local leisure centre. Imagine what opportunities would have tempted him had he been in Florida - that deep, strong Miami sun encourages a much greater eutrophication of the weeds. A dodgy councillor could find himself in the pocket of a man like Vincent Joy, and in turn a man who incurred the enmity of Vincent Joy might find himself heading for Davy Jones' locker. As Vince is moving from dodgy food companies, land deals and general corruption into the attractive new world of piracy on the high seas, that locker seems to be opening even wider.

James Hall's Thorn (he has no other name) is a man who, meanwhile wants simply to live, and to live simply, in his beachfront home, earning his living from tying flies and enjoying the company of Alexandra Lawton his girlfriend. Alex has a lot to offer Thorn, including toleration, when a girl comes up to him on a restaurant balcony and gives him a smacking kiss on the lips. Alex believes Thorn when he tells her that Anne Joy is an old girlfriend and of no significance today. That's how Anne takes it too - she immediately falls into bed with Danny Salbone, the latest branch of the Salbone family, and the one who is taking them into piracy. It's worth big bucks, and Anne, whose mother was a nut for a pirate tale back in the woods of Virginia, is soon going to sea with Danny on his raids and returning to his palace.

Love's sweet dream cannot last. A few blasts of machine gun fire in the Bay of Mexico see to that, and Anne finds herself with a long swim back to Florida. And it is there that her slimeball brother, from whom she has long been estranged, offers to house her when she discovers that the Anne/Danny wad has been looted.

Thorn and Sugar, his ex-police friend and co-adventurer, have no plans to get involved, except that Sugar has a grasping ex-wife and she holds the controls over their two children. Then Sugar's daughter is kidnapped. And although he is told that the reason is his failure to offer up that beachfront house, Thorn does not believe it could be something so petty. He feels more certain that it is not when a couple of G-men take him and Sugar for a spot of intimidation and indoctrination, not your usual combination of activities during a meeting with an ex-Secretary of the Navy. Unfortunately, Sugar does not believe it either, but neither can he now trust Thorn. Things are a mess, and they get messier. Are the G-men straight, or are they corrupt, or are they perhaps freelances trying to do the government work? How come the local police don't know? And how come those inside the service fail to receive any timely assistance from their colleagues?

That's the good guys for you. Imagine what the crooks - to whom double cross normally just means the way they carve their victims' chests - and their varying motives might be doing to tie the plot into knots. The bodies don't just start piling up - they get strung up in chains, like old time pirates, sometimes dead, sometimes alive. A man would be glad just to sit down and watch the sun set. And so would his daughter.

Some critics, such as Mark Timlin, prefer James Hall to Carl Hiaasen, as he's less "wacky". Oddly, though, Dave Barry's second novel BIG TROUBLE is set among a very similar criminal milieu on the sea-going coast (it's even got the dodgy food companies). Barry is a little shorter, but has a lot more laughs with as many grotesque deaths. If you've read James Hall before and found him too downbeat, try BIG TROUBLE. Otherwise, I guess, all of these authors would agree on one thing - they aren't lemmings heading for the Florida coast - they are wolverines.