James W. Hall’s “Dead Last” is dead-on

Dead Last, by James W. Hall. Minotaur Books.  304 pages. $25.99.

A new book by James W. Hall is something to put it away for a special treat: something to look forward to. But inevitably I push other things aside so that I can dig into what will no doubt be a most pleasurable experience. I’m addicted to following the exploits of Thorn, a character at once unique and everyman-ish, spontaneous and guarded, outrageous and surprisingly disciplined.

The Thorn we meet in Dead Last is processing grief. Cancer has taken the woman he loves. Mr. Hall’s description of Thorn’s ritualized mourning, which includes burning many of his personal possessions, is dead-on accurate. Thorn is a man who carries little material baggage. Watching him strip even further down to essentials, a kind of excessive and half-mad cleansing, reveals Hall’s nature with dramatic economy. 

As ever, Thorn’s fate presents him with a case to solve and a wrong to right. Uh, better change those nouns to plural.

How’s this for a plot premise? A Miami-based television cast and crew staffs a low-rated cable series named “Miami Ops.” A running plot line involves a serial killer who, outfitted in a zentai suit – a skin-tight garment that covers the entire body – selects victims from hints picked up in newspaper obituaries. The killer deduces locations, weapons and other details from the obituaries as well. The spandex-clad perpetrator is cunning and ruthless, but the series is about to be dropped by the network.

The script writer, Sawyer Moss, knows a lot about obituary writing because his mother, April, is the obituary writer for the Miami Herald. Sawyer’s twin brother, Flynn, is one of the shows stars. The other is Dee Dee Dollimore, a gorgeous, toned actress hungry for fame who is Sawyer’s girlfriend. Dee Dee’s father (and former abuser), Gus, runs the show.

Now the series seems to have inspired a copy-cat – a real serial killer who imitates the methodology of “Miami Ops.” One of April’s obituaries is about Rusty Stabler, Thorn’s deceased wife. Details in the obit lead the real-life killer to murder Rusty’s aunt, who lives in a small town in Oklahoma. Since Thorn is mentioned in the obituary, it doesn’t take long for the Starkville, Oklahoma sheriff, a very young woman named Buddha Hilton, to visit Miami, tear Thorn away from his beloved Key Largo, and involve him in her investigation.

Buddha is a fascinating minor character. Only nineteen, she is a self-made professional with skill, courage, and shrewd perceptions. Like Dee Dee a victim of parental abuse as a young girl, Buddha would seem to have a bright future. She accomplishes much in a short period of time to further her investigation into crimes that become part of an FBI case worked by Thorn’s sometimes buddy Frank Sheffield. However, Miss Hilton’s future is cut short by the zentai killer. Thorn now has one more death to avenge, and his own life is in jeopardy.

There is an unsettling glee among some of the “Miami Ops” gang that the copy-cat news might just spike the ratings and save the series. Is one of them behind these killings?

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the November 24, 2011 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly (and other local editions of Florida Weekly), click here: Florida Weekly – James W. Hall (2)pdf

See also: https://philjason.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/silencer-a-new-thorn-in-james-w-hall%e2%80%99s-crown/

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Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors

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