BOOK BEAT Naples Sun Times January 23-29, 2008
by Philip K. Jason
Our wonderful State of Florida must be the charmed zone for authors of outstanding crime fiction. One of the best to come along in recent years is Bob Morris, who turned novelist after years as a journalist, travel writer, and editor – working for such publications as the “Fort Myers News-Press,” the “Orlando Sentinel,” “Caribbean Travel and Life,” “Bon Appetite,” and “National Geographic Traveler.” His first novel, “Bahamarama,” was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award as best first mystery novel. It achieved several other distinctions as well. It was followed by “Jamaica Me Dead,” which also received much positive attention. Most recently, Morris brought to press “Bermuda Schwartz,” which has just been released in mass market paperback.
“Bermuda Schwartz” is a delightful romp, at once travelogue, mystery, and tough-guy romance. Morris’s continuing character, Zach Chasteen, travels to Bermuda with his girlfriend, travel magazine publisher Barbara Pickering. Their visit, occasioned by a birthday party for Barbara’s wealthy and somewhat wacky aunt, turns into a series of interlocking puzzles that Zach must solve.
There is the corpse that shows signs of a unique torture, linking the unknown perpetrator to crimes on Bermuda that happened some years back. There is the strange business of Zach’s sizeable Bermuda bank account having disappeared. And there is the fascinating character of Teddy Schwartz, a famous treasure salvager, whose mysterious behavior causes suspicion and mayhem. Then there is the guy at the dive shop, Bill Belleville, a somewhat questionable character whose name matches that of one of Florida’s most respected nature writers. (Florida authors seem to love these in-jokes.) And there is Zach’s sidekick, Boggy, a man of wisdom drawn from the indigenous Taino culture of the Dominican Republic, and a person of unfailing loyalty. And there is the attractive and determined Australian, Fiona McHugh, whose brother Ned is the victim.
We meet an obstinate Bermudan police officer who walks a tightrope between conducting his investigation by the book and resentfully granting Zach some space to freelance. We meet Manuolo Ferreira, the leader of a Portuguese crime family reputed to be connected to a mysterious religious order seeking an important remnant of the Holy Cross. Indeed, it seems that everyone is seeking it, and this quest becomes intertwined with Zach’s quest to recover his missing funds. We have an adventure that is on one level thousands of years old and on another level goes back merely hundreds of years to the late fifteenth century voyages of discovery to the New World.
Morris adroitly maneuvers Zach through a series of confrontations, alliances, and near-misses until the final pieces of the puzzle are assembled. Morris’s skills in characterization, pacing, and scene-setting are powerful, and he invests Zach with an edge at once hard-boiled and humorous. Zach’s sarcastic, satiric wit and rough-hewn manner sometimes put him at odds with Barbara’s stuffy aunt, but the two eventually gain a grudging respect for one another. And Zach’s relationship with Barbara deepens in the process.
You have to like a guy who played big-time college as well as professional football and has evolved into the proprietor of the Chasteen Palm Nursery. Like many of his contemporaries in the world of fictional crime-solving leading men, Zach Chasteen does not play at being a detective – troubles just come his way. Morris, who knows his Florida and the fascinating world of nearby paradisiacal islands, paints with cool authority a colorful world populated by memorable characters – and his plot clicks like the tumblers in a safe.
You can discover more about this must-read author at bobmorris.net. And you can meet him in Naples on April 5 & 6 as part of the faculty of the Naples Writers Conference, held in conjunction with the Naples Press Club’s Authors and Books Festival.
Philip K. Jason, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A poet, critic, and free-lance writer with twenty books to his credit, this “Dr. Phil” chairs the annual Naples Writers’ Conference presented by the Naples Press Club.