A compelling premise kick-starts Bret Lott’s “Dead Low Tide”: Landing a johnboat in the marsh just off a Charleston golf community, 27 -year-old college dropout Huger Dillard — “smack in the middle of wasting my life” — and his blind father, Unc , discover a woman’s body buried in the mud. Their innocent expedition for some night golf quickly becomes a tense standoff among club security, the Department of Natural Resources and heavily armed sailors from the nearby Naval Weapons Station .

That setup pushes “Dead Low Tide” toward an ambitious series of twists: another corpse, military intrigue, illegal poker, dark family secrets, friendships betrayed, even terrorists on U.S. soil. While Charleston might conjure up moonlight and magnolias, one of the novel’s strengths is its evocation of the region’s dense military presence.

But the book navigates its way uncertainly — here a murder mystery, there a late-blooming coming-of-age tale, suddenly a political thriller, intermittently a romance. The opening scenes — the discovery of the body and its immediate aftermath — stretch chapter by chapter for nearly half the book, slowed by digressions and explanations: why Huger calls his father Unc, how Huger and his mom came to live among the blue bloods, languorous descriptions of history and geography, plus a boatload of back story from Lott’s 1999 novel “The Hunt Club” (featuring these same characters). Only occasionally does the new book seem to remember the corpse, flashing images of “those teeth, that flesh, and whatever had happened — whatever had been done to — her face, and the glow and glisten of water runneling off a body.” But honestly, there’s little room for her with all the book’s extra freight, at least until a surprise villain at the end helps deliver a fresh burst of back story about everything that’s been happening.

Lott is often a fine stylist, from sublime descriptions (Unc is “disburdened of the visible world”) to earthier images (the real estate bubble popping “like a bathtub fart”). But smooth language can’t overcome the distracted plotting and herky-jerky pacing that prevent “Dead Low Tide” from finding an even keel on either the “literary” or the “thriller” side and ultimately leave the book scuttled just where it should be rising to a higher waterline.

Taylor reviews mysteries and thrillers frequently for The Post.

”Dead Low Tide: A Novel” by Bret Lott. (Random House)


By Bret Lott

Random House. 241 pp. $26