Evocative Scenes Of the Crime

By Patrick Anderson,
whose "The Triumph of the Thriller" has been nominated for a 2008 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for criticism
Monday, February 25, 2008

HELL'S BAY

By James W. Hall

St. Martin's Minotaur. 306 pp. $24.95

THE BLUE DOOR

By David Fulmer

Harcourt. 325 pp. $25

James W. Hall and David Fulmer are talented crime writers, Hall the winner of an Edgar award, Fulmer of a Shamus. Their work is distinguished not only by intelligence and passion but also by an exceptional sense of place.

For Hall the place is Florida. When his trouble-prone fishing-boat captain, Thorn, denounces corporate thugs "with giant shovels or derricks and mile-long drills" who are busy raping and plundering the state he loves, he could be channeling John D. MacDonald's immortal Travis McGee. Indeed, Thorn seems a conscious tribute to McGee, although McGee was the more dashing hero and the McGee books are more lighthearted, more pure fun. This is probably intended, and perhaps inevitable. Hall started publishing in 1987, not long after MacDonald's death ended the McGee series, and things have gotten worse, environmentally speaking, since then.

In "Hell's Bay," Thorn, his pal Sugarman and Thorn's sometime girlfriend Rusty are pitted against a family of billionaires whose firm, Bates International, carries out massive phosphate mining that is polluting waterways in central Florida. At the outset, we see the Bates family's 87-year-old matriarch murdered -- dragged underwater and drowned in a stream her company is polluting. Her killer, Sasha Olsen, is a formidable Iraq war veteran who blames the Bates company for the lung cancer that killed her husband and has her teenage son near death. What's not clear is whether she acted alone or in cahoots with someone else, perhaps the dead woman's scheming son or enigmatic granddaughter, John and Mona Milligan, both of whom hunger for control of the family conglomerate.

Hall puts Thorn and Rusty aboard Rusty's new, million-dollar houseboat for an excursion in the Everglades, with both suspect Milligans among the paying customers. This luxury cruise soon becomes the fishing trip from Hell, as a well-armed Sasha arrives to pick off her unarmed prey. An exciting confrontation follows as Thorn battles to save himself and the others from crazed Sasha and her shadowy allies. Along the way, Hall expounds on such topics as the joys of creating bonefish flies, the ecological importance of mangrove roots, the toxic horrors of phosphate mining and the challenges of going one-on-one with a bull shark. "Hell's Bay" offers a tasty mix of rip-roaring adventure, caustic social commentary and lyrical appreciation of the beauty that still exists in Florida, despite everything.

David Fulmer also has a highly developed sense of place, but he keeps moving it around. His first three novels were set in New Orleans, early in the 20th century, and combined crime stories with the emergence of jazz pioneers such as Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden. Then came "The Dying Crapshooter's Blues," set in Atlanta in the 1920s, which featured the great bluesman Blind Willie McTell. Now, in "The Blue Door," Fulmer has advanced to 1962 Philadelphia, where he relates the murder of the lead singer in a local doo-wop group called the Excels. It is Fulmer's achievement, in each of his novels, to have nailed both the city and the music.

In "The Blue Door," an over-the-hill boxer named Eddie Cero takes a job as a private investigator. He is soon caught up in the disappearance of Johnny Pope, that talented lead singer. This leads him to Johnny's sister Valerie, who now sings at a club called the Blue Door, and to a suspicion that Johnny's white manager might have had the singer killed rather than pay him the money he owed him. The murder eventually is solved, but the novel is really about the music of a particular time and place. Eddie's treasured record collection includes early Elvis offerings on Sun Records, three versions of "Gloria" and two versions of "Eddie My Love" -- "and in his studied opinion, the Teen Queens' surpassed the Chantels' ."

Eddie can shut his eyes and see rock-and-roll jamborees where "wild men in luminous suits gyrate across the stage, screaming like banshees, doing splits and spins, their processed pompadours slashing the air, as the drums, guitars, and pianos and the screams of the girls ripped and roared and soared around them." When Eddie walks the streets of South Philly, he sees the hookers and the hoods, he relishes the aromas of "cheesesteaks, kugel, manicotti and fatback gravy," but "more than anything else, he reveled in the disjointed symphony of the streets . . . rock and roll and rhythm and blues, polkas and waltzes, nightclub croons and gospel, an Italian block to an Irish block to a Negro block, and on and on, each contributing to the grand work." As lovers of Florida's waterways will delight in James Hall's Thorn novels, students of American roots music should find much to cherish in Fulmer's books. Each is a highly personal serenade to America's past.

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