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Book Review
Sunday, September 15, 2013
'Dead Last' works as both crime novel and commentary

James W. Hall is a Florida mystery writer and retired literature professor. Twelve of his 16 novels feature Daniel Oliver Thorn, who goes by simply, Thorn.

Thorn is a swamp bum, fisherman and loner from Key Largo. He manages to stay "off the grid" and only occasionally plays by conventional rules. He is a solitary person with few friends whose need for companionship comes only on his own terms. The character has developed a well-deserved reputation for "going off the rails at warp speed." In other words, he is an unpredictable, reclusive misanthrope who is his own man.

As "Dead Last" opens, Thorn has finally settled into a life of domesticity when his wife of one month, Rusty Stabler, dies of terminal cancer. Thorn's first reaction is to lose control in a grief-fueled, almost suicidal rage and try to destroy all vestiges of his past by burning everything he owns. This "cleansing" is interrupted by Buddha Hilton, a strangely disfigured 19-year-old female sheriff from Oklahoma who tells Thorn that his newly deceased wife's aunt, who also happens to be Buddha's adoptive mother, has been murdered in her Oklahoma bed. Thorn's wife's obituary was inexplicably left at the scene of the crime. Buddha shows up seeking Thorn's help.

Despite their differences and an initial mutual disdain for each other, they make a credible detective team. Their investigation reveals that a serial killer is using Miami Herald writer April Moss's obituaries to select his victims. Even more bizarre, the killer is also using Moss's two sons' failing television show, Miami Ops, as the pattern for his murder methods.

"Dead Last" features an interesting array of memorable supporting characters. Sheriff Buddha Hilton was abused as a child and Thorn's lifelong friend, Sugar, is a mixed-blood security professional. While Thorn is a loner by nature and choice, Sugar is an outsider by blood. April's mother, Garvey is a feisty senior citizen. There is a Doberman named Boxley, and of course there is Rusty Stabler, Thorn's lover for two years and wife for one month.

As in Hall's other Thorn books, despite the protagonist's curmudgeonly ways, a reader can't help but be drawn to him.

This book works not only as a crime novel but as an insightful look at grief and a person's ability to rise above pain. It also illustrates the adage that when one door shuts, another will open.

Hall transforms the usually laconic Thorn into an anger-fueled machine ready to lash out at anyone who makes the mistake of getting in his way. The calm Buddha serves as foil for Thorn's anger as she forces him to deal with his grief. Hall paces his book well. Hall's lyrical and beautiful descriptions of Florida are an added bonus that elevate an interesting novel to that "unputdownable" level.

"Dead Last" is a fast read that will hold the reader's interest from cover to cover. It once again shows why James W. Hall continues to be ranked at the top echelon of Florida mystery writers.

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

Dead Last

James W. Hall

Minotaur, 304 pages, $25.99

(Hardbound)