On the Ropes
Reviewed by Stephen Miller
We remember those moments when time seems to stand still. For many of us, the first such occasion was when we watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take their initial, hesitant steps onto the surface of Earth’s moon in 1969. For others, it might’ve been when, during Monday Night Football in 1980, Howard Cosell announced the death of John Lennon. For Snake Morales, though, the life-changing occasion was the evening of the first Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight. February 25, 1964. Boxer Clay (later to become Muhammad Ali) outlasted Liston for six rounds, the match finally ending when Liston refused to leave his corner at the beginning of the seventh. Snake idolized Clay, who had trained in Snake’s hometown of Miami, Florida. It was a miraculous evening and “a slice of Miami moon hung like the blade of a freshly sharpened scythe.”
Then, the assassins came. They stormed Snake’s house, killed his parents and his older sister. Snake and his brother barely escaped, and then only after dispatching one of the killers with a machete.
So begins Magic City, the latest crime thriller from James W. Hall (Blackwater Sound, Forests of the Night). Magic City is a tale of political intrigue and visceral revenge, set in the seductive swelter of Vietnam War-era Miami. It’s a kinetic book that moves with the power and speed of a cigarette boat slicing through Biscayne Bay.
Following their parents’ ritual execution, Snake and his dim brother, Carlos, find themselves adopted by Miami Mayor Stanton King, a man powerful enough to summon President Lyndon B. Johnson down to Miami to meet the orphaned Cuban boys. Never lacking for any of the material things of life, Carlos and Snake remain loyal to Mayor King and his wife, the eerily distant Lola.
Years later, Stanton and Lola attend a hoity-toity art gallery opening for Alan Bingham, a photojournalist whose career is being given the full retrospective treatment. One of the images on the gallery’s wall catches Stanton’s eye. It’s a photograph from the Clay-Liston fight four decades earlier.
Beyond the fighters, in the third row of the Miami Beach Convention Hall sat a group of fans who were watching the proceedings in various degrees of attention. Framed perfectly by the rope rings, those fight fans were most certainly the focus of the photograph. Five of them sitting side by side.
It was, Stanton saw with horror, a collection of notorious people who might be easily recognized by any of a dozen patrons in the gallery tonight if they bothered to stop and take a longer look and burrow back into their memories for faces and events from forty years ago.
Snake and Carlos are soon dispatched by the maturing Stanton King to snatch and burn the image on display and obtain any existing duplicates. When they confront the photographer at his home, things get out of hand quickly and the artist is murdered -- but not before he confesses that there’s one additional copy of the offending black-and-white, and it’s owned by a crusty retired cop named Lawton Collins, who lives right across the street from Bingham with his daughter, Alexandra “Alex” Rafferty.
Lawton, a retired policeman, is busy losing his memory to the persistent haze of old age. Alex is a crime-scene photographer now training to work search-and-rescue for the Miami police, and her relationship with the single-named Thorn is heating up. Thorn, a professional tier of fishing lures, as well as a tough quasi-detective and the protagonist in many of Hall’s past novels, lives in a house on stilts in Key Largo, down in the Florida Keys, but he’s volunteered to watch Lawton while the lithe, black-haired Alex attends her final training sessions up in Tampa.
One day, while Thorn is on top of Lawton’s roof, busily repairing some old flashing, Carlos and Snake come a-calling. Knowing two bad dudes when he sees them, Thorn takes the fastest route down to the ground -- jumping off the roof onto Carlos’ back. The cat-and-mouse game that ensues, pitting the Morales boys against Thorn in a search for that last remaining Clay-Liston photograph, is the focus of Hall’s new novel.
But to call Magic City a yarn about the chase for a single photo is to simplify it to the point of caricature. Hall layers so much more into this novel: Miami social history during the time of the heavyweight fight; the boiling passions of the exiled Cuban community that took root in Miami (and is still largely there, anxiously awaiting Fidel Castro’s death); the mobsters who reigned in 20th-century Miami and nearly made Havana their next home base; and CIA operatives who were barely wet behind the ears during the Bay of Pigs invasion and are still, four decades later, awaiting their turn at claiming the ever-elusive glory that would have been theirs if not for their own tragic incompetence. While Hall’s portrayal of the Thorn-Snake dynamic is convincing enough, as those two characters begin to need and use each other, the author’s true gift in Magic City is developing and refining the tensions between the members of the older generation -- the spooks, spies and nefarious creatures who patrolled Miami during the 1960s, firing up the locals, and who are now in the twilight of their years. Consider this scene between Stanton King and Pauline Caulfield, the local CIA chief in Miami, as their discussion turns to the missing photo:
[Said King,] “That’s a stunning group. Lansky, you, me, Runyon, the other gentleman. Some sharp-eyed reporter digging around, who knows what they’d find. Because don’t forget we weren’t the only ones in the third row that night. I’m sure you know who I’m talking about.”
“All right. All right.”
“I saw it hanging on the galley wall and my heart flew out of my shirt.”
“Where is the photo now?”
“Long story,” Stanton said. “There’s only one copy left, so far as I can gather. It’s fallen into someone’s hands. They don’t know what they’ve got, I’m certain of that.”
“Oh, this is beautiful.”
“The sins of our fathers.”
The tension on display between these (and other) Cold War relics, who are trying to keep the biggest cover-up of all from hitting the evening news shows and inciting the downstream soldiers from the succeeding generation to violence, provide Magic City with the blast of energy that takes it beyond obvious comparisons to Elmore Leonard’s work, or Carl Hiaasen’s. For after the fireworks have cooled down, been reduced to ashes and scattered to the winds, the toxic blind idealism at the heart of this plot remains ready to cause damage both to history and the present day.
It is this well-wrought juxtaposition of old crimes and modern consequences that takes Hall’s work to a level beyond mere thriller or crime novel. Misguided ideology casts ripples across the ocean and tremors across the years.
The sins of our fathers, indeed. | April 2007