Tag Archives: Florida

The Other Side of Everything: Lauren Doyle Owens

The Other Side of Everything from Lauren Doyle Owens explores the lives of three characters as a series of murders takes place in a Florida community. That’s a one-sentence description of the book for those who want a quick summary. But for those who want a bit more, read on…

The Other Side of Everything concerns crime, murders to be precise, and so the book may be categorized as a crime novel and will probably end up on the mystery shelf in bookshops. But while this emotionally rich novel includes crime, the plot is more concerned with how residents in Seven Springs, this run-down, post-boom Florida community, react to the murders and how the murders impact their lives.

the other side of everything

Under scrutiny here are three characters: Bernard, a widower in his late seventies, a lonely man who lives with regrets. Then there’s middle-aged artist Amy who is not coping mentally following a cancer diagnosis which resulted in a hysterectomy and a double mastectomy. Finally there’s Maddie, a fifteen year old girl who lives with her mostly absent father and teenage brother after her mother abandoned them. All three of these people cope with their unhappy lives in various ways, and the murders pull them, ultimately, out of the ruts they’ve sunk into.

The Florida housing tract still contains some of the ‘originals‘–people who moved there in the 50s and 60s, but many of them died in the decades that passed. The first victim is one of the originals, and as other murders take place, it’s clear that someone is targeting elderly women. Bernard, who exists on frozen burritos and ice cream sandwiches, reconnects with Danny, an old friend he hasn’t seen in years even though they live just a few blocks apart. This visit forces memories of his prime to the surface:

Bernard looked around the sunporch, hunting for familiar objects. They used to play canasta out on the porch on hot summer nights in the days before air-conditioning. They would smoke cigarettes and laugh and drink. He could feel the ghosts of them all in that room, he could almost hear their lighthearted chatter, almost smell the cigarettes and beer. 

Amy, alone now that her architect husband left to go work in San Juan, becomes obsessed with the first murder. The elderly victim lived right behind her, and Amy begins painting a series of murder scenes which are so realistic, she becomes a suspect.

Maddie who cuts herself to redirect her emotional pain, waitresses at the local diner where men try to get her attention. For the most part, her prickliness acts as armour, but then she accepts a ride from a young man named Nate whose predatory behaviour is magnified by Maddie’s lack of parental protection.

I’m not going to mince words here: I loved this novel for strong characterizations, and its exploration of pain and loneliness. The murders and the subsequent solution were the least satisfying aspect of the story, but for this reader, that matters little. The characters are well-formed, believable people, caught in sadness, depression and regrets. Bernard hears the voices of both his dead wife and his dead mistress Vera, and while he understands that he made his wife unhappy (and didn’t deserve her kindness) he still has unresolved questions about Vera’s death. Amy spends hours looking at adoption websites:

She hovered over the photo of a three-year-old girl, and lingered for a bit, noting the girl’s tired eyes and crooked smile. Amy imagined making breakfast for her, and making up songs about tying shoes, teaching her how to paint, and walking her to school. She imagined a life in an instant, and, just as fast, it was gone. 

A smattering  of wry humour appears through Bernard’s friend, the impressible Danny, who doesn’t use his air conditioning because it’s a “waste of money” and who thinks sweating is “like exercise without the work.” Danny loves being a widower even though all the “lookers” are dead.

“But these are the best years, aren’t they? This is what we did all that other stuff for.”

Bernard was taken aback. These were hardly the best years. They were more like purgatory.

“Think about it,” Danny continued, a finger in the air, “our wives are gone, we can do whatever we want, with whomever we want. We can have whiskey sours for breakfast! We can look at internet porn! In-ter-net porn!”

In contrast, Bernard thinks that impotence is the greatest gift of old age and now, in retrospect realises how much energy he wasted “thinking about sex.”

Three people: Bernard, Amy, and Maddie. Three people at different stages of their lives, all struggling with incidents flung at them: death, cancer, and abandonment. All three pried out of their lives by a murder investigation.

The rain was soft at first–tapping politely on the flat white roofs; dribbling down blades of grass; collecting in droplets on large, saucer-like leaves. Then, the rain began to drive, battering the large, bushy fronds of cabbage palms, disturbing delicate Bougainvillea blossoms, and hammering the ground, causing mud to rise among perfect blades of St. Augustine grass, creating puddles where the driveways met the streets of Seven Springs, Florida.

An aside, this novel was NOT told through multiple voices. I’m getting a bit tired of the device to be honest. Now I’m waiting for the next book from Lauren Doyle Owens. She’s shown how much can be done with crime.

Review copy

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There’s a Hippie on the Highway: James Hadley Chase (1970)

Even though I have completist tendencies, I seriously doubt that I will read all the books written by British author James Hadley Chase (1906-1985). Chase whose real name was René Lodge Brabazon Raymond wrote under a number of pseudonyms, and there’s an extensive list of over 90 of his novels on Wikipedia. With that many books, that leaves the reader to select a) copies that are still available and b) titles that appeal. So with that in mind, it should be easy to guess why I picked: There’s a Hippie on the Highway,  a title I couldn’t resist.  The book is as strange as it sounds.

there's a hippie on the highwayAfter three years in Vietnam, paratrooper Harry Mitchell returns home. He has a job waiting for him in New York but decides to spend the summer in Florida. Perhaps he’s too restless to settle into the 9-5 rut, so he takes to the freeways and decides to hitch his way down to Paradise City on the coast of Florida. Big mistake.

The novel opens with a truck driver giving Harry a lift and warning him that “this district is about as unhealthy and as dangerous as your paddy fields in Vietnam.” Mitchell, who’s used to everyone having an opinion about Vietnam, tends to think that the truck driver is exaggerating, so he can’t accept that the backroads of Florida are as deadly as the jungle he just left. The truck driver, however, insists that what he says is true and proceeds to tell some stories about the aggression of hippies who’ve descended on Florida. Soon, Mitchell witnesses some of this behaviour first-hand. After a run-in with a bunch of crazed hippies, Mitchell meets a young man named Randy who’s coincidentally also heading down to Paradise City. Randy hooks up a job for Mitchell as a lifeguard at a beach restaurant, and Mitchell, who appears to be easy-going and content to go with the flow, agrees to take the job.

Randy and Mitchell still have to get to Paradise City, and they plan to hitch the rest of the way. A mysterious young woman driving a Mustang and towing a caravan stops and offers the two men a ride. She insists that they drive while she sleeps. The offer seems too good to be true, and Mitchell sniffs that there’s something wrong about the situation. Unfortunately, he doesn’t listen to his instincts, and the next morning Mitchell and Randy have a stiff on their hands….

The Paradise City restaurant is owned and operated by former safe-cracker, Solo Dominico. It’s a “snazzy” place that attracts the “Cadillac crowd,” but that’s not the only element buzzing around the restaurant, and Mitchell comes to the attention of ambitious cop, Lepski and also becomes mired in a war between gangsters bent on revenge and retrieving some valuable merchandise.

Part of the novel’s problem is that the question of “hippies” is never really addressed. The ‘hippies’ in the novel are mostly more of your Charles-Manson-knife-wielding psychos, and not the-make-love-not-war harmless types . Mitchell’s travelling companion, Randy, who has long hair, a guitar, and who has burned his draft card is closer to the hippie ideal. Truckers on the road can’t seem to tell the difference between harmless Randy and the nut-jobs that stalk the freeways wreaking havoc in Florida. There’s a Hippie on the Highway was published in 1970, post Charles Manson, and the book’s somewhat cloudy approach to hippiedom is never addressed or cleared up. It seems that anyone young with long hair is a hippie, so we see the drama unfold through the eyes of those citizens who are suspicious and terrified of those they don’t understand. This is a minor blip, and probably reflects the prejudices of the time more than anything else.

Another blip is that the novel is, at times, an uncomfortable blend of styles: snappy, hard-boiled 50s dialogue which drifts in and out into late 60s lingo:

She sat down, spread her legs so he could see her pink nylon crotch and regarded him with her sexy look that seldom failed to get results. “Come on, tough cop. Before we talk business, reduce me to a jelly.”

“That will be a pleasure,” Lepski said.

He crossed the room and paused before her. As she began to pull up her sweater, he swung his hand and slapped her hard on her right cheek.

She reared back, her head slamming against the back of the chair. She recovered her balance and her face turned into an angry, snarling mask.

“You stinking, goddamn …” she began when his hard hand slapped again, jerking her head back.

Lepski eyed her and moved away.

“Listen, baby, I take nothing from any whore. I wouldn’t touch you wrapped in plastic. I’m busy. I’ve spent a buck. So sit up and stop acting like a whore in a 1945 movie.” He suddenly grinned. “And let me remind you you are now talking to a cop who is a better animal than you, but not much better.”

She drew in a long breath, touched her face tenderly, stared at him, then the rage slowly died out of her eyes.

“You’re quite a man,” she said huskily. “Let’s go to bed, damn it! I think you could launch me off my pad.”

“Let’s talk.” Lepski sat opposite her. “When I’m on police duty, there’s no count down for my rocket.”

Of course, this may also not be a fault of the narrative as much as Lepski’s underlying desire to be a noir-type hero (he even admits that his 40s style works), but still there’s the sense that this is a novel that sometimes uncomfortably straddles the decades. The idea of the Vietnam vet who’s survived jungle warfare only to return to a mess back home appealed to this reader, and there are some great characters here with lowlife cop, Lepski topping the bill. The interactions between the cops as they jockey for favour in the department and Lepski’s search though the seedier dives of Florida are a lot of fun. Looking around on the internet, this doesn’t seem to be considered one of James Hadley Chase’s best, but hey… what a great title, right?

I’ve read and enjoyed No Orchids for Miss Blandish, so if any James Hadley Chase fans have any other recommendations, I’d be happy to hear them.

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Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

“The night,” Joe said. “Tastes too good. You live by day, you play by their rules. So we live by night and play by ours.”

While I watched the film Mystic River and enjoyed it, I’ve always passed on Dennis Lehane novels, but his latest, Live By Night sounded too good to miss. The book, which screams for a film adaptation, is the story of a gangster, Joe Coughlin, the son of a prominent Boston police officer. Just as I finished the book, I read that Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company bought the film rights. I hope that DiCaprio takes the main role as he’d be my pick for Joe Coughlin.

The book begins very strongly and drops us right in the action with Joe about to meet his death:

Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life–good or bad–had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.

Now with an opening like that, how can you not continue?

From this point, the novel goes back in time and the story picks up in 1926, with Joe, a 19-year-old hood who works for bootlegger Tim Hickey, knocking off a speakeasy with the Bartolo brothers. Joe is initially unaware that the joint belongs to Hickey’s arch-enemy Albert White, and he’s also unaware that the cool, unflappable girl who serves the drinks, Emma Gould, is also Albert’s mistress. Joe is too young and too smitten to read the danger signals:

Behind Emma’s pale eyes and pale skin lay something coiled and caged. And not caged in a way that it wanted to come out. Caged in a way that demanded nothing come in.

It’s with the introduction of Emma that we see Joe’s major character traits–both the flaws and the weaknesses as he makes decisions that will come back to haunt him for the rest of his life. Live By Night is the bio of Joe who eventually becomes a major Irish-American gangster–or outlaw as he prefers to be called. Joe’s life is defined by its times, so the backdrop to Joe’s illegal life is the fallout from the 1919 Boston Police Strike which devastated Joe’s family, Prohibition and the Depression. While Joe’s former Boston Police force brothers have been cast adrift by the strike, Joe has taken another path entirely, and at thirteen, he was a ‘juvenile delinquent,’ knocking off newsstands with his partners-in-crime, the Bartolo brothers. Joe makes the choice to “live by night” and doesn’t see too great a difference between supposedly legal and illegal lives, and gradually he builds an empire, an illegal life built in response to the times.

There are a couple of times throughout the novel when it’s not certain whether Joe will survive, and so it’s evidence of the novel’s strengths that the scenes are packed with tension even though that we know on the first page that he has survived at least several decades. The plot, packed with some great scenes, is arguably stronger for about the first half of the novel as Joe struggles to survive through various hostile situations, and as Lehane illustrates, through Joe’s choices, we see that character is fate.

“Someone else–a real good egg of a fella–will stand up for you in the yard or in the mess hall. And after he backs the other man down, he’ll offer you his protection for the length of your sentence. Joe? Listen to me. That’s the man you hurt. You hurt him so he can’t get strong enough to hurt you. You hurt him so he can’t get strong enough again to hurt you. You take his elbow or his kneecap. Or both.”

After the halfway point, for this reader, the novel’s pacing slowed down, and the second half of the novel is dominated by a love story. While I still enjoyed the tale of a gangster’s genesis shaped by the excesses and lucrative vices buried deep in the repressive layers of American culture, and the faithful creation of a flawed man, there’s a tiny bit of moralizing that creeps in here as he faces off not just other gangs but the KKK and religious nutcases, so that Joe becomes an iconic figure, wise, just, and meting out decisions that would have made Solomon wonder if he’d done the right thing. It’s just a bit overdone, and for this reader, Joe’s not a ruthless enough creation. We see Joe, an intelligent character make choices that are not always the smartest but which are pivotal to his character. There’s part of Joe, no matter how succesful he becomes, that’s uncomfortable with the uglier side of his life, but Joe chooses to bury those aspects of his profession, and the author follows suit. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this is undermined by having Joe as the most self-actualized character in the novel, and the result is a dissonance that introduces character credibility issues.  That complaint aside, I can see this will make a brilliant film.

Live by Night is flawed but I’d hazard a guess that the flaws won’t deter Lehane fans, and I would certainly read another novel by this author. Apparently Lehane’s earlier novel The Given Day (called the author’s opus by some of his fans) includes the story of Joe’s family against the backdrop of Boston history, and after finishing Live by Night, I bought the earlier novel.

Review copy

 

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A Cold Night for Alligators by Nick Crowe

A few weeks ago, I entered a book-give-away contest at Kevin’s blog, and to my astonishment, I won. Of the three books on offer, I grabbed A Cold Night for Alligators by first-time author, Canadian Nick Crowe. Some reviewers compared the book to the work of Carl Hiaasen. I can’t comment on that as I’ve never read any, but I can say that there’s a touch of Christopher Moore  and even Bill Fitzhugh. Chances are that if you like those writers, you’ll enjoy Crowe’s novel. So what is A Cold Night for Alligators? It’s part road trip, part buddy novel, and part mystery. Oh and part innocent Canadian abroad.

The novel’s narrator is Jasper, a twenty-six-year-old man who lives and fights with his girlfriend Kim in the house that used to belong to his parents. Jasper’s father is dead, his mother is in a nursing home, and Jasper’s only brother, Coleman disappeared one night 10 years earlier. Coleman began exhibiting mental problems during his teens and was building a spaceship in the back garden right before he disappeared. Coleman’s disappearance has nagged at Jasper for years as he feels partially responsible.

The novel starts off very strongly with an earnest and believable first person narration from  Jasper as he stands on the subway station on a Friday night waiting to catch the train home while listening to his workmate, Phil moaning about his woes:

It had been another riveting day at the office. I spent most of the day aimlessly searching the internet, reading in turn about Scrotum Smasher, a punk rock band from Northern Ontario who released one classic record in 1986 then promptly disbanded, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, an affliction caused by a slow-moving virus that destroys memory.

Ok, so we’ve established that Jasper is a slacker, and for that, I liked this open-minded, kind character very much. While Jasper listens with one ear, he’s thinking about his upcoming weekend and the inevitable arguments he’ll have with his long-term girlfriend, Kim. But those arguments never happen. Fate intervenes in the form of a loony and when Jasper wakes up from a coma 7 months later his life has changed. Not only is he horribly injured but his girlfriend has moved on and now lives with her new man, Donny …  in Jasper’s house.

Jasper, is a little uncomfortable (nothing more) with his girlfriend finding a new man while he’s in a coma. That, of course, would be bad enough, but that girlfriend ex “party-girl extraordinaire” now  “God-botherer” has moved her new man into Jasper’s parents’ home. She seems to be pushing the envelope of decent behaviour, and this also creates a very awkward situation when Jasper comes out of the coma. Again, Jasper seems to roll with it–it’s just not in his nature to hold a grudge or be angry. For these reasons, Jasper’s character is a little too good at times ( he notes that Donny “was being pretty good about the whole thing” and that illustrates how Jasper misses the point at several times throughout the story), but that seems to be the author’s intention.

Jasper has problems adjusting back to his life, but two things happen: he receives a phone call on his birthday from the Fort Myers area of Florida, and while no one speaks on the other end, Jasper is convinced the anonymous caller is his long-lost brother Coleman. Jasper and Coleman spent many childhood summers in Florida, and both boys grew up with a “lifelong love of the Sunshine State.” But then there’s a second phone call–this time from a Florida sheriff who says that a homeless man gave him this number. Jasper is first intrigued and then takes a fishing trip down to Florida with Donny and his hapless, burping friend, Duane (read: shit magnet) to see if he can trace Coleman.

The road trip is peppered with bizarre characters, but that’s nothing to what awaits them in Florida. Here’s Jasper arriving at Aunt Val’s isolated ramshackle place which she shares with Rolly Lee–former front man for the Fort Myers band General Gator:

When we pulled in at the edge of the open area and parked the truck, I noticed a group of men behind the barn. An overweight man with a massively distended bare stomach and matchstick legs was throwing beer bottles while a rough, smoke-smeared artillery of men were taking aim and firing with slingshots and pellet guns. As we got out of the truck, I heard one pop and shatter. There was a chorus of whoops and cheers. I made a mental note that if I had to go looking for an extra truck part, not to do it barefoot.

“Jesus Christ,”  Duane said, “your uncle in a fucking militia or something? This is like Waco.”

Donny nodded. His mouth agape. “He really knows how to throw a cookout. There must be sixty people here.” Another ATV blazed into sight from the mud road and did a donut. Two men got off, beers already uncapped.

“Go man go,” Duane shouted. They nodded in our direction and spat as they went past.

A Cold Night for Alligators could be an incredibly dark novel if it were written from a different angle. But with Crowe’s gentle humour and quirky characters–all seen through Jasper’s wondering eyes–the novel is instead an amusing, light read. The plot sagged a bit in the middle and I had problems with the naiveté of one character whose name I can’t mention without giving away too much.

Can’t help but wonder how Floridians would see the book, but from my perspective, Crowe captured swamp culture perfectly.  It’s a world of its own. Try going off the beaten track in Florida (I’m not talking about the tourist traps) and see what you find. I’ve seen Water Moccasins ribboning through brackish water, alligators deceptively lazy at the side of the swamp, and on one dark starless night I walked through a field while the air was thick with thousands of shimmering fireflies. This geographical region is unique and mysterious. It’s one of the areas that leaves an imprint on the people who live there, and Nick Crowe captured my memories of the place perfectly.

Thanks Kevin!

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The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford

“All through life we protect ourselves from countless hurtful truths by being a little blind here–by ignoring the something trying to flag our attention on the outer edges of our peripheral vision, by being a little shortsighted there–by being a trifle too quick to accept the easiest answer, and by squinting our eyes against the bright, incoming light all of the time. Emerson wrote once that even a corpse is beautiful if you shine enough light on it.”

I first came across cult author Charles Willeford through the bizarre film, The Woman Chaser. The film was so odd, I knew I had to read the novel the film was based on, and I was delighted to find that the book was every bit as bizarre as the film. I was hooked. Then I moved onto other Willeford novels: Wild Wives and The Burnt Orange Heresy.

Willeford is considered a crime/noir writer, and he’s perhaps best remembered as the creator of Miami detective Hoke Moseley. Miami Blues is the film version of one of Moseley’s tales, and if you haven’t seen it, then do yourself a favour and find a copy. Do yourself an even bigger favour and hunt down a copy of The Woman Chaser while you are it. But it’s bizarre, so be prepared.

burnt orange heresyThe Burnt Orange Heresy is a change of pace for Willeford. The story is told by Jacques “James” Figueras, a Puerto-Rican American, who’s an ambitious art critic. Every aspect of James’s life is geared towards becoming “the greatest art critic in America–and perhaps the world.” At age 34, it’s been a long hard haul for James. He’s made enormous financial sacrifices during the course of his career, and has sacrificed short-term gain for the long-term goal. A graduate of Columbia, he was a teacher of art history, but managed to morph into a full time writer of art criticism, thanks to  a  $400 a month stipend from a premier art magazine,  and this “wedge” into the upper echelons of the art world gives James the clout to write freelance for other magazines.

It’s a precarious lifestyle, and James sacrifices to maintain his independence. There’s no long-term girlfriend in his life, no messy relationships with women, no vices, no expensive habits, and he lives in a modest, tiny apartment.

James travels to Florida to “cover the Gold Coast for the season,” and here he finds himself in a relationship with Berenice, a teacher from Ohio. What started out as a holiday fling has become an annoyance, and although James enjoys sex with Berenice, she’s moved into his apartment and won’t go away. Berenice is easy on the eyes, but annoying and messy as a permanent fixture. “[A]s stealthy as a 140-pound mouse,” Berenice’s clinginess rattles James’s nerves, and he finally resorts to nastiness to shake her loose:

“Later I asked her to leave in a harsh and nasty way. She wouldn’t fight with me, but she wouldn’t leave. On these occasions she wouldn’t even talk back….she was destroying me. I would leave the apartment, forever, and come back a few hours later for a reconciliation replay and a wild hour in the sack.”

But since “a woman is only a woman,” James finally gives Berenice the heave-ho. Thinking he’s got rid of her, he attends a party at the Florida penthouse apartment of New York Lawyer and art collector, Joseph Cassidy. Taking James aside, Cassidy reveals a strange story. He’s managing the affairs of a reclusive, elderly French painter named Debierue. Debierue, considered the originator of the minor, brief Nihilistic Surrealism movement, only ever had one exhibit at his Paris framing shop decades before, and his later works have been viewed only by a handful of world-class art critics. Cassidy reveals to James that Debierue is now living in Florida, and he strikes a deal with James.

In return for giving James Debierue’s address in order to gain access for a coveted interview, Cassidy wants James to steal a painting for his private collection. To James, the opportunity to interview Debierue and assess his work is the chance of a lifetime, and an article featuring Debierue’s art would seal James’s career in the art world. James doesn’t hesitate, and he agrees to Cassidy’s deal.

James plunges headlong into Cassidy’s scheme, and never once quibbling about the morality of the situation, he’s led by his ambition into a morass of complicated choices.

Willeford always surprises me, and The Burnt Orange Heresy is no exception. This  is a marvellous story and it’s considered by many Willeford fans to be his best work.  The tale is told through the eyes of James, a strangely emotionless man who admits his conscience is ‘invented.’ He burns with a frighteningly intense ambition to be the world’s greatest art critic, and just how far he’s prepared to go is the substance of this book. But the tale is much, much more than a crime novel, and as the story unfolds, it explores the “uneasy symbiotic relationship” between the artist and the critic and ultimately questions the nature of art itself.

Willeford was a strange character, and at one time in his checkered career, he enrolled in the graduate Art programme at a university in Lima, Peru, but was thrown out when it was discovered that he didn’t possess an undergraduate degree. Several of Willeford’s book are out-of-print, and some of the rarer titles are available at extortionate prices. Well I’ve read three Willeford novels so far–all different and all excellent. If you like noir novels at the edge of twisted, then Willeford comes highly recommended

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