Book Review
Sunday, June 2, 2013
Mayan Treasures, Spanish Plunder and a Motherlode of Silver

"Hard Aground"

by James W. Hall (Delacorte Press Amazon Kindle $7.99)

James W. Hall is a multifaceted South Floridian. A published poet, short story and screenplay writer and the author of 17 novels, he has a doctorate and taught creative writing at Florida International University for more than three decades.

Some of his students, who included Dennis Lehane, Barbara Parker, Vicki Hendricks and Christine Kling, have gone on to become immensely successful in their own right. His own books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. So much for "those who cannot do, teach."

Hall's series character Thorn, an enigmatic, loner fishing guide, has been called Travis McGee without social skills and now has a national and international following. Crime novelist Michael Connelly says Hall's "people and places have more brush strokes than a Van Gogh."

We thought it would be fun to get away from his immensely popular Thorn series and reach into Hall's archives for one of his early stand-alone novels. We chose 1992's "Hard Aground." Miami, Hall's home for many years, provides the setting for a dark but funny and expertly spun crime thriller about a 17th-century sunken galleon filled with Mayan treasures and a local 19th-century homicide.

The book's protagonist is unstable Vietnam veteran, Hap Tyler, who makes windsurfing boards and leads tours through his grandfather's historic house. Hap is very content tailboarding on Biscayne Bay, listening to voices in his head, seducing younger women and living on the edge of family history until his more successful older brother Daniel is found dead of an apparent heart attack. Unknown to Hap, Daniel had been living a tangled web of deceit and greed that led to his death.

Trying to solve his brother's fate, Hap collides with a 450-year-old secret and $400 million dollars in Spanish plunder. He is introduced to a group of colorful lowlifes and sociopaths who include an avaricious senator, a stone-cold killer, a volatile Cuban ex-cop, a Vietnam hero and his flashy black transgender ex-con love interest.

He also becomes involved with Daniel's upscale, crusading preservationist girlfriend, who helps him get to the heart of these sordid matters.

The book has stood up well over time. Its saucy tone reflects the attitude we've come to expect from Florida authors. The plot was outlandishly comical in places and we found ourselves laughing at some of the dialogue. If this one slipped by you until now, you should give it a try.

It will make good summer reading.

-- Reviewed by David and Nancy Beckwith, authors of the Will and Betsy Black

Adventure Series

"Treasure Key" by Wayne Gales (Amazon Digital Services, $12.99)

As Wayne Gales likes to say, "Write about what you know." So he took his seven years of living on a houseboat in Key West and turned it into a novel. Not surprisingly, his story is about a laid-back ex-Navy Seal who lives in Key West on a houseboat.

He describes Russell Bricklin Wahl as "the guy that every Key West local knows and every tourist wants to be. Relaxed, tanned by island sun and comfortable in his own skin."

Bric Wahl (yes, we get the pun) works for an old treasure hunter named Harry Sykas, vacuuming sand off the ocean floor, looking for the mother lode of silver from a 1733 Spanish shipwreck. He accidentally finds a gold chain, an old cannon and Confederate gold bars.

Add an on-again off-again relationship with a local entrepreneur named Karen Murphy, a sometimes love interest named Maggie Jones and Bric's two teenage kids. Gales says, "Virtually all the remaining characters in the novel are real people, or based on real people. My friends in the Keys have learned to be kind to me to avoid being killed in the sequel."

Gales tells a good enough story, written well enough, with few enough punctuation errors, that I'll probably want to read his sequel, "Key West Camouflage -- Hide in Plain Sight." Bric Wahl kinda grows on you.

-- Reviewed

by Shirrel Rhoades