by Jonathon King
Published by Dutton
258 pages, 2004
Tricks of the Light
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
Fans of James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series should definitely check out promising newcomer Jonathon King's Shadow Men, the latest novel to feature his Florida-based detective, Max Freeman.
Some of the similarities between these two series are pretty obvious. Both writers share an affection for moody heroes living in endangered demimonde cultures of the American South, and both pay more than passing attention to the natural world, with King's lovingly rendered descriptions of the humid closeness and fragile dark beauty of Florida's Everglades an easy match for Robicheaux's loving portrayal of the Louisiana bayous. At other times, the interconnections are more subtle -- the emotional and psychological baggage carried by the authors' spiritually damaged detectives; the obsession with unsolved crimes of the past that refuse to dissipate, but linger like unwanted ghosts; and the flailing sense that the world is not quite right and that something valuable is being lost forever.
On occasion, these correspondences are a tad too cute and self-conscious, as when a character shows up in King's fiction wearing a baseball cap from "Dave Robicheaux's Fish and Bait Shop." And a much-touted blurb for Shadow Men by Burke himself, featured prominently in all the promotional material and on the dust jacket, is just overkill. OK, OK, we get it already.
Fortunately, this series offers plenty of its own peculiar strengths (and a few weaknesses). Although Shadow Men might not be quite up to the lofty standards set by King's Edgar Award-winning debut work, The Blue Edge of Midnight (one of January's favorite books of 2002), it's certainly a step up from last year's A Visible Darkness (reviewed in "The Rap Sheet," 4/03). More importantly, this third Max Freeman outing marks a major turning point of sorts. King has finally jettisoned the rather limiting conceits of an protagonist just "stumbling" over bodies or "helping a friend," and allowed Max to become the full-fledged private eye he's been acting like from the start -- a promising move in establishing the series' longevity and credibility.
The dour, cynical Max is an appealing Florida original -- part hermit, part crab. But he wasn't always that way. Like many of the borderline-dysfunctional detectives who are so fashionable these days, he's got the obligatory "troubled past," which he is more than happy to share with us. Originally a big-city boy, a decorated Philadelphia police officer, his career came crashing down around his ears when he shot and killed a child who was involved in a convenience-store robbery. Although subsequently vindicated, Max can't quite let go of his guilt for that death.
On the bright side -- if you can call it that -- he was himself badly injured in the robbery and scored a nice chunk of change from the Philly force, which in turn was converted into a "sizable portfolio" by his high-powered Miami-based attorney friend, Billy Manchester. That settlement allowed Max to retire and live pretty much anywhere he wanted. So, naturally, he chose a remote shack without power or running water out in the middle of a bug-infested Florida swamp -- a sort of self-imposed residential hair shirt, I guess. The place is so deep in the 'Glades, you can only reach it by boat. Misery evidently doesn't like company, after all -- Max vants to be alone.
But once a cop, always a cop. Max just can't seem to avoid poking his nose into things. Shadow Men finds him once again sniffing around a possible murder case from the past, but this time he is at least being paid for his trouble. He's been hired to investigate the disappearance of one Cyrus Mayes and his two sons, last seen working as laborers on a crew building Florida's legendary Tamiami Trail, which cuts right across the Everglades, connecting Tampa with Miami. But that was way back in 1923. Freeman's client, the great-great-grandson of Cyrus, has recently come across a collection of 80-year-old love letters that might shed new light on his ancestors' fates, but he can't seem to get anywhere with his own inquiry. So he turns to Billy Manchester, a chronic do-gooder who forwards the case to Max, hoping to break his friend out of his exile from the human race.
This is the sort of investigation Max can really sink his teeth into -- a cold case from the past that may have implications for the present, and even the future. A case that allows him to range all over the Sunshine State, interviewing colorful suspects from various walks of life, including not only uppity park rangers and grizzled swamp dwellers who make Max look like the Johnny-Come-Lately he is, but also slick corporate lawyers and thuggish goons who have their own reasons for not wanting to disturb the specters of history.
At least King has the good sense not to have actual ghosts pop up during the course of this probe (unlike his hero, Burke, whose books are becoming so chockfull of spooks that one almost expects Shaggy and Scooby to come wandering through). The phantoms that haunt Max are personal and metaphoric, not literal, and the things that go bump in the night here are usually, refreshingly, made of flesh and blood.
Not that King doesn't indulge occasionally in slightly supernatural -- or merely New Ageish -- portentousness. He's big on sharing Freeman's dreams with us, and early on in this novel he offers this prime slice of otherworldly hokum:
I stood facing east, at the rumpled line of the horizon. I was preparing for something that I did not want to catch me flat-footed, or out of breath, or weak. I couldn't see it yet in my head, but it was there, a tinge of violence, that vibrated low in my spine. Something was coming, and even though I could not name it, I knew I would not welcome it.
It's that deliberate, heavy-handed vagueness, coupled with a sometimes ominous self-importance, that is the real flaw in this book.
Shadow Men offers no fanciful, sugar-coated travelogue -- Freeman's Florida settings are hands-on, sharp and vivid, and you can almost taste the oppressive, dank closeness of the swamp and hear the insects buzzing around. King is the latest link in a lengthy chain of Florida crime writers whose love of the land and passionate concern for its ecological fragility are overriding themes of their work. It's a tradition that harkens back at least to the crime-tinged 1920s short stories of Marjory Stoneman Douglas (who also wrote the pivotal non-fiction ecological work, Rivers of Grass); that wove its way through the works of John D. MacDonald, and continues to express itself in the works of authors as diverse and contemporary as Carl Hiaasen, Randy Wayne White and James W. Hall.
No, it's not the land that King occasionally has trouble with; it's the people who live on it.
Which isn't to say that these people aren't likable, or interesting. But once we're introduced to them, sometimes rather cursorily, we are never really allowed to know them. They seem to linger in the shadows, eschewing the narrative spotlight. This problem is compounded by the fact that Max, who serves as the series' first-person narrator, can be so humorless at times that it's hard to empathize with him, and he's a little too fond of cryptic remarks that are never quite explained. He's good at telling us all about his own problems, but seems too wrapped up in himself to give us much of a hint about the people with whom he interacts. He resorts instead to a curiously oblique emotional shorthand, a cynical literary coyness that can weaken an otherwise good story and reduce promising members of the cast to mere narrative pawns.
This is too bad, because these are potentially great characters in these pages who could stand some fleshing out. William Lott, a cranky freelance forensic scientist to whom Max frequently turns, and Nate Brown, an elderly guide so weathered and ancient he's almost a local legend, provide some intriguing Sunshine State color. However, they merely drift through this yarn, barely touching ground. Even Max's "lady friend," policewoman Sherry Richards -- theoretically a major figure -- is curiously underwritten. Why she and Max are attracted to one another, and the degree of their attraction, is not made clear, although the sleuth does at one point admit to liking the "bounce in her step." Meanwhile, the fact that Billy, the black financial genius and powerhouse attorney, has an almost paralyzing speech impediment is an imaginative and compassionate detail, yet it soon devolves into simply a tiresome storytelling affectation. We know he stutters, but r-r-reading d-d-dialogue l-l-like th-this for t-t-too long is a-a-annoying.
Billy's interracial affair with Diane McIntyre, a fellow lawyer, is likewise given the narrative bum's rush. We're told, for example, that she's one of the "few women" Max has met who has "enough class and moxie to keep up with Billy on several levels." But the book never elaborates on what those levels might be.
Abuse of authority, in all its guises -- a theme that reverberates through Shadow Men -- is similarly underdeveloped. A subplot that finds Sherry trying to protect a fellow female officer from her abusive husband -- a cop himself -- struggles to reinforce the abuse theme, but instead feels tacked on. It goes, predictably enough, to where it goes, but no further, and certainly not far enough to be the dramatic shock this author probably intends. And another plot thread, about a contemporary killer on the loose who may somehow be connected to a series of 80-year-old crimes, pops up too late in the game to be truly effective. Worse, it promptly withers in the same way as that plot line about the battered policewomen, its only real audacity being its sheer obviousness.
Many other questions, too, are left not so much unanswered here, as abandoned, and even when answers are given, they're too often perfunctory. There are no real plot twists in King's third novel, simply a gradual unfolding of confirmations of what we already suspected. Nor does this adventure feature any overriding mystery to solve -- the "whodunit" solution is revealed, or at least strongly hinted at, right in the story's prologue.
But Shadow Men's prologue is one fine, impressive piece of writing, clean and powerful, an uncluttered, exciting hint of what King can do when he's in the zone, not trying to imitate anyone else, or trying so hard to impress us. Interestingly enough, the prologue is the only part of this book not narrated by Max Freeman.
Not that I don't like Max as a character (even if I do think he sometimes needs a swift kick), but I'm beginning to wonder if his is the best voice to tell these tales. Most of King's characters, even underwritten and sketchy as I think they sometimes are, are compelling enough that I want to see them again, and find out, damn it, what makes them tick. I want to know what happens to Sherry and Billy and Diane. And mostly, of course, I want to know what happens to Max himself.
The quality of these players warrants a return visit, and Jonathon King has clearly shown he knows how to tell a solid, satisfying tale that goes down easily enough. But solid, satisfying tales are a dime a dozen, and it seems obvious that King has bigger ambitions than simply to entertain. Perhaps in his next outing, he will trust his characters enough to shine some real light on them, bring them alive and really put them through their narrative paces. | April 2004
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor, a Mystery Scene columnist and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth, he now lives out in the high desert north of Los Angeles, where the coyotes howl and passing motorists throw cigarette butts at cyclists.