Tropical Heat

by John A. Miller

Published by Forge

320 pages, 2002






And the Dyin' Is Easy

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


A.G. (for Augustus George) Farrell, the sheriff of Hopewell, Virginia, isn't your typically cynical and worldly wise detective. Although he graduated with a philosophy degree from the University of Virginia ("a distinction of some note in a county where fewer than 25 percent of the population could boast of so much as a high school diploma"), he's never ventured out of his home state. When we meet him in 1954, he's still living in his late parents' house, is on the road to marrying a demure music teacher and church organist, and at 34 years of age, remains a virgin.

That A.G. holds his present position of responsibility can be chalked up to happenstance, rather than planning, as John A. Miller explains in his richly imagined new mystery, Tropical Heat:

He was tall, handsome in what his neighbors thought of as a bookish way, and had been born with only one kidney, a defect, if such it could be called, that had kept him out of the army and both the Second World War and the Korean conflict. Appointed sheriff in 1942 when the incumbent officeholder, caught up in the patriotic spirit of the time, enlisted in the Marine Corps, A.G. agreed to serve strictly as a favor to his community, fully intending to return to Charlottesville for graduate studies in philosophy as soon as the war ended. Twelve years later, his predecessor having died storming the beach at Iwo Jima, A.G., much to his own surprise, still held office.

It can rightly be said that A.G. Farrell has grown to fit the modest expectations Hopewell has always had of him. But the discovery of a murdered army captain in a DeSoto, followed by the puzzling demise of a previously healthy teenage girl, will not only upset the town's customary quiescence, but find A.G. taking a giant step off the straightforward path to his future. For good as well as ill.

The late Captain Martin Fitzgerald of the Quartermaster Corps, stationed at nearby Fort Lee, is described by his superiors as "an exemplary officer." Yet he also engaged in big-stakes poker games and was evidently having an affair with the abused wife of Private Joseph Carbone, an army motor-pool worker who had just been tipped to his spouse's infidelity. Either of those activities could have led to Fitzgerald's killing. Or perhaps his smarter and independent blond wife, Theresa, did him in -- a possibility that A.G. would rather not contemplate, as he's swept into Theresa's seductive and emboldening embrace, and loses any objectivity he had regarding her hubby's slaying.

Welcome, then, should be news that the gun employed in ending Captain Fitzgerald's life has finally been found in Carbone's locker. However, the ease with which this case appears to be resolving itself troubles A.G. There are too many loose ends, too many unanswered questions. Who, for instance, was the anonymous caller who told officials at Fort Lee where Fitzgerald's corpse could be found? Was it the same person who informed Carbone of the captain's cuckoldry? And who was the spit-polished black man A.G. saw leaving Carbone's house one day when he went there to quiz the private's wife? Was he really a concerned neighbor, as the sheriff was led to believe?

A.G. has no idea. He has little time to ponder these subjects, either, between his passionate encounters with Theresa and his simultaneous investigation into the passing of 15-year-old Julie Brown. Hopewell's retirement-resistant doctor, Henry Maple, has ruled that Brown succumbed to "heart failure, secondary to septicemia" (blood poisoning), perhaps the result of a burst appendix or ovarian cyst, and he resists A.G.'s interest in an autopsy to ascertain precisely how the girl perished. "What's to know?" Maple chides. "She's dead. Listen, Sheriff, for all this fancy talk in the newspapers about penicillin and the new antibiotics that have been developed after the war, people still die from the same kinds of infections they always died of. What difference does it make what caused the infection, as long as it wasn't a gunshot or knife wound?" Yet the ever-thorough A.G. isn't satisfied. Setting out to learn whether the fate of Julie Brown can be linked with those of two African-American teenage girls, both of whom also died of septicemia over the last four years, he confirms what everyone knows about small towns: that they hide big secrets -- in this instance, a backroom abortionist of grievously inconsistent skill.

Miller, the North Carolina-born author of two previous novels -- Cutdown (1997) and Causes of Action (1998), both featuring a modern, pistol-packing California lawyer named Claude McCutcheon -- is an inordinately patient storyteller for this genre. Eschewing the spare, rapid-fire writing style of James Ellroy or Robert B. Parker, Miller's paragraphs are long, his dialogue often interrupted by narrative asides, his prose loping down the pages, rather than racing to their margins. (I'm reminded of another recent South-based yarn: First Lady, one of my favorite books of 2001.) Backdropped by a summer hot spell that would have had even William Faulkner reaching for a fan, Tropical Heat is lovingly rendered, a tale of eroding innocence and obdurate deception that leads inevitably to greater tragedy.

The book establishes its historical framework without excessive effort. Occasional references to the novelty of air-conditioned automobiles, the oddity of women in the workplace and the advent of television ("[I]t seems like everybody's buying television sets these days, though ... the stuff they broadcast wouldn't entertain a parakeet") make it clear that you're not in 2002 anymore. And remarks recognizing social stratification along racial lines keep Tropical Heat's Southern setting very much at the fore. While this story is low on cinematic violence and builds its suspense so slowly that you can't always anticipate its crests, it is stuffed full of fine-tuned small-town characters -- the whiskey-peddling semi-hermit, the politically connected businessmen, the quiet but fetching waitress yearning for escape from rural confinement, the femme fatale whose success depends on her notion that "Southern gentlemen are so predictable." None of these figures, however, rivals A.G. Farrell for attention -- the introspective, cat-loving, Coleridge-quoting lawman-without-a-badge who has cast his lot upon a tide of fate, only to be pitched between the peak of carefully administered authority and the gulf of onerous exploitation. He's a character with whom many readers might relate, a man fearful of sticking a toe into the waters of the unfamiliar, satisfied with being unsatisfied, his eventual courage to take on a new persona only leading to his betrayal.

Because its ending ties up Miller's plot threads a bit too neatly, if not with justice prevailing, Tropical Heat falls somewhat short of being a perfect book. But it certainly satisfies Raymond Chandler's requirements of a stylistically fulfilling crime novel. As the creator of Philip Marlowe once remarked, "the mystery and the solution of the mystery are only what I call 'the olive in the martini,' and the really good mystery is one you would read even if you knew somebody had torn out the last chapter."

This is a mature and rewarding work, as smooth and potent as a frosty mint julep. Let's hope that we haven't seen the last of either John A. Miller or A.G. Farrell. | March 2002


J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.