Are you one of those loyal crime-fiction fans whose good taste and hard cash help propel each new offering from Michael Connelly , John Sandford and Lee Child onto the bestseller lists? There’s nothing wrong with that: They’re talented fellows. Still, after you’ve devoured five or 10 Harry Bosch , Lucas Davenport or Jack Reacher adventures, how much more are you likely to learn about the heroes’ mettle or their creators’ skill?
Why not live dangerously and seek new thrills? There are legions of lesser-known, but not necessarily less-talented, novelists out there, eager to entertain you. One good example is James W. Hall, author of “The Big Finish.”
Hall isn’t a new face. He’s published a bunch of novels and won the Edgar and Shamus awards. I reviewed one of his books a few years ago and enjoyed it, but that didn’t prepare me for the excellence of this one, a tough-minded tale of love, violence and duplicity.
It’s the 14th of Hall’s books to feature a formidable Floridian called Thorn, who lives in Key Largo and ties custom bonefish flies for a living, except that he keeps being drawn into the world of danger. Thorn may remind you of John D. MacDonald’s immortal Travis McGee — Hall gladly admits his debt to the McGee books — or perhaps Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, because Thorn also lives off the grid, unburdened by credit cards or a driver’s license. Old enough to harbor doubts and regrets, he clings to a code that keeps propelling him into harm’s way.
This time, Thorn is jolted into action by the disappearance of his son Flynn. Flynn had joined up with the Earth Liberation Front, whose assaults on toxic coal-mining projects and other bad actors are deemed terrorism by the FBI. After ELF tries to expose animal cruelty at a huge hog farm in North Carolina, bullets fly and Flynn vanishes, whereupon Thorn grimly sets out to find him in unknown, perilous territory.
The villains who await him include a psychopath who, being a “hardline vegan,” likes to eliminate people by stuffing raw hamburger down their throats. Another dubious character has prospered in the hog-farming business: “Three times a year he took delivery of eight thousand pinkish-white and cheerful piglets, spent four months fattening them from their arrival weight of about forty-five pounds to their target weight of two-fifty, then shipped them off to slaughter at the factory ten miles down the highway.”
I won’t spoil your morning by explaining exactly what 8,000 growing pigs do to the air, water and earth, not to mention the health of human beings in the vicinity. Let’s just say that it might make you reconsider your next BLT.
The hog farmer also manufactures a hallucinatory drug that instills in the user a childlike desire to please. He sells it for use as a date-rape drug, and at one point it’s used to make Thorn far more docile than usual. Yet for all this nastiness, “The Big Finish” finally turns on the love of a father for his son.
Hall is a published poet who compares that craft with Thorn’s tying bonefish flies — precision work that is repaid in pride rather than money. The poet in him sometimes injects touches of lyricism into his narratives, such as this moment on a North Carolina river: “Sunning itself in that open space, a great blue heron was flushed by Thorn’s passing and with a startled cry it rose awkwardly then swooped forward in front of his canoe and raced along before him skimming the water with the tips of its wings, leaving its brief autograph.”
Less lyrical but more typical is this glimpse of the psychopath explaining his philosophy to a man he’s about to kill: “People do what they do [and] then they’re gone. They get replaced by others who do whatever the hell they can get away with and then they’re gone. No grades. Just one big mosh pit writhing with everybody squeezed together. That’s all I can see.”
Hall sees more than that. His vision takes in both the beauty and the horror of his chosen turf, the dangerous Southern landscape that McGee once trod. He’s a strong and welcome voice.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
THE BIG FINISH
By James W. Hall
Minotaur. 295 pp. $25.99