Tag Archives: panhandle

Florida noir trilogy wraps up with a big bang

The Big Hello, by Michael Lister. Pulpwood Press. 215 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

Michael Lister is the bard of the Florida Panhandle. His crime novels, distributed through several ongoing series, set a very high standard for originality, style, and impact. The Big Hello, the third and final installment in the Soldier series, features an ex-cop private eye named Jimmy “Soldier” Riley who is at once as tough as they come and as filled with romantic longing as anyone should be. In this series, both homage to and fulfillment of the hard-boiled Florida noir tradition, the story line is drenched with death. BigHelloLow

However, the story line – easy to follow in some ways – is also something of a problem. In this chase to save the woman of his dreams, if in fact she is alive, Jimmy is tangled up in a chase after the super-perverse serial killer who abducted her. One thing is clear: Lauren Lewis in not in her grave!

One-armed Jimmy and his sidekick, a one-eyed Negro named Clip, are regularly arrested by members of the local constabulary (the action runs back and forth between Panama City and Tallahassee during the early 1940s), some of whom are competent, others less so, and others corrupt.

The number of characters juggled in a relatively short book, the nonstop mayhem, and the sketchy development of back story, can leave readers disoriented. I’m thinking this book is best enjoyed by those who have read the two previous volumes in the series, “The Big Goodbye” and “The Big Beyond.” Yet it is highly enjoyable, though a bit perplexing, in itself.

Perhaps the sense of chaos and disorientation is deliberate:

“What’s our next move?” Clip asked.

                We were standing back over near the ambulance again, waiting on Collins.

                “I have absolutely no idea.”

                He nodded and seemed to think about it. “And how is that different from any other time?”

                I managed a smile.

                He was right. That was the job. Stumbling around in the darkness, being lied to and misled by some while others attempted manipulation, intimidation, and bribery, all while not giving in, not giving up.

Okay, I can groove on this.

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The book has many spectacular scenes, including the gallery of macabre art by the serial killer, Flaxon De Grasse, who juxtaposes body parts in his surrealistic compositions (or decompositions). In portraying wartime Northern Florida, Mr. Lister projects – without excessive, show-off detail – the feel of the cars on the pre-Eisenhower roadways, the roadside saloons, motels and other accommodations, and the countless stops at payphones.

Jimmy and Clip comprise an odd couple, a black and white pair unusual in this time and place. Their respect for and loyalty to one another and their handling of situations in which Clip is disrespected or blocked from access are handled by the author with just the right touch. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 27, 2014 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 28 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Big Hello

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Michael Lister’s crime-fighting prison chaplain is complex and classic

“Rivers to Blood,” by Michael Lister. Pulpwood Press. 280 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

This, the sixth “John Jordan Mystery,” finds the chaplain/detective sleuthing through a pile of criminality, much of it quite hideous. We immediately learn that an inmate at the Potter Correctional Institute, a state prison on the Florida panhandle, has escaped with just a few weeks left on his sentence. About to become a free man, why would he put that freedom at risk? John joins others in the manhunt, including members of the sheriff’s office headed by his father Jack. RiverstoBloodCover

During the hunt in the soggy woodlands, John thinks he hears an airplane engine and catches a glimpse of a plane perhaps head for a crash landing. Before long, John himself has a crash landing as someone smashes him on the back of his head. Getting back to his feet, he joins others at the prison transport van where a transport officer is found bloody and unconscious. The officer’s partner is found wearing an inmate uniform. So, where is the inmate?

Soon, the volunteer Potter County Search and Rescue Team is assisting the search. With the exception of one individual, the members of this group “shared the Southern good ol’ bad boy traits of tough-guy posturing, folksy anti-intellectualism, covert racism, and general xenophobia.” This is Lister country.

The next morning, PCI psychologist DeLisa Lopez tells John that there is a serial rapist attacking male victims both inside and outside the penitentiary and forcing them to sodomize themselves.

So what do a falling airplane and a runaway inmate have to do with this latest and most heinous heap of trouble? I don’t think I’m going to tell you.

Lister

Lister

What I am going to tell you is that in “Rivers to Blood” Michael Lister probes the nature of depravity like no one else. And while he is doing this nastily gorgeous work, he is weaving a few other story lines into the tapestry in gorily addictive prose.

One underplot has to do with John’s father’s campaign for re-election, a campaign that for the first time finds the proud man rattled by the possibility of losing. Sheriff Jack’s vulnerability complicates his portrait as well as that of the Jordan family relationships. Brother Jeff, who shows clear hostility toward John, is part of that mischievous search and rescue team. Their mother, strangely on the periphery of John’s world, needs an organ transplant.

Another complication neatly grafted onto the main story line is John’s despairing loneliness. This inner situation, which comes and goes in intensity, derives in large part from his stunted relationship with the woman he loves. Anna, intelligent and beautiful, is – like John – emotionally wounded. Both have a desperate need for intimacy and a fear of it. And Anna is married. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the May 7, 2014 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 8 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Rivers to Blood

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Hurricane threatens missing twin in evocative noir thriller

“Separation Anxiety,” by Michael Lister. Pulpwood Press.  320 pages. Hardcover $26.99, trade paperback $16.99.

Many writers of high repute have applauded Michael Lister’s giant talent and unique vision. And yet, he perseveres in relative obscurity, never embraced by a major publishing house that could help him reach the wide audience he deserves. His John Jordan Mystery series is a treasure of contemporary literature. His books outside of this landmark series are equally suspenseful, provocative, and unsettling.  Mr. Lister’s work always has a spiritual dimension, and in “Separation Anxiety” the spiritual realm becomes dominant. perf5.500x8.500.indd

The plot of “Separation Anxiety” is populated by twins: biological and spiritual. The central character, in this story that involves many major characters, is Taylor Sean. Taylor, thirty-two, is a prominent artist who lives with her teenage daughter Shelby in a Lithonia Lodge, an eery old house in the Florida Panhandle town of Tupelo. This region is Mr. Lister’s home territory, and he knows it inside out.

Taylor is a conjoined twin, her identical sister – Trevor – having died in separation surgery (they had been joined at the lower abdomen) so that Taylor might live. Not only does she carry the internal and external scars of this surgery, she has transformed the outer scars into living art.

Michael Lister

Michael Lister

Taylor, always tortured by survivor guilt, has regained a tenuous stability in the long, chaotic aftermath of that loss as well of the loss of Shelby’s twin sister, Savannah. Taylor’s emotional repair is largely due to the loving care of Marc, her novelist soulmate and thus a kind of psychic twin.

Now, as a hurricane brewing in the Gulf of Mexico aims right at Tupelo, young Shelby disappears – a remarkable recurrence of Savannah’s disappearance some eight years back. The search for Shelby races against the timetable of the approaching storm and, perhaps, the intentions of an abductor. It’s possible, however, that Shelby has simply left on her own or run away with her boyfriend, Julian. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the November 6, 2013 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the November 7 Naples edition, click here Florida Weekly – Lister 1 and here  Florida Weekly – Lister 2

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Michael Lister: a bright talent with a bloody tale

“The Body and the Blood,” by Michael Lister. Five Star. 330 pages. $25.95

Do you enjoy mysteries with religious themes and characters? Forget Father Dowling. Forget Rabbi Small. Catch up with Michael Lister’s unique “John Jordan Mystery” series. A former policeman now working as a prison chaplain in Florida’s panhandle, John Jordan wrestles with the conflict of justice and mercy on the one hand, and justice and vengeance on the other. Lister’s Jordan becomes a flawed everyman whose determination to become a better person and a spiritual counselor to others is constantly tested as he struggles to balance the demands of his chaplaincy with his work as a crime investigator. 

In “The Body and the Blood,” the latest book in this series, something that seems completely impossible has happened at the Potter Correctional Institution. An inmate named Justin Menge, just short of being paroled, is murdered inside of his locked cell. Most peculiarly, the large pool of blood spreading under the cell door is no longer in proximity to the now-bloodless corpse lying on the cot – a cot whose sheets are almost clean.  How can this have happened in a prison with multiple levels of security? And what does it mean that the danger to Menge had been suggested in two different ways? First, a sister who hasn’t seen him in years voices concern that Menge might be in danger. Second, a mysterious handout appears imitating an announcement for a prison worship service, but with wording that warns of such a crime.

While Jordan and the state prison system’s chief investigator, Tom Daniels, explore the locked door part of the mystery, they come up with a variety of suspects on the basis of motive – perhaps too many plausible suspects for a jury to find anyone guilty “beyond a shadow of a doubt.” Daniels has a vested interest in the case because Menge was about to testify against Juan Martinez, an escaped and recaptured convict who had raped Daniels’ wife. John Jordan has a complex relationship with vengeance-minded Daniels in that Jordan is working hard to rebuild his fractured marriage to Daniels’ daughter, Susan.

Suspicion falls on corrupt prison guards, on a female prison psychologist for whom records show improper time markers for entering and leaving Menge’s section of the prison, and on another prisoner, Chris Sobel – known to be Menge’s boyfriend. Since Sobel and Menge are very similar in appearance, it even seems possible that they might have switched identities at some point or been mistaken for one another, further confusing the permutations of motive.

To read the entire review, as it appears in the October 6-12, 2010 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the October 7-13 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Michael Lister or here: Florida Weekly – Michael Lister pdf

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Alex Kava’s “Damaged” has the goods

“Damaged,” by Alex Kava. Doubleday. 272 pages. $24.95

How did Nebraskan Alex Kava get to Florida? “I was looking for a writing retreat when a friend invited me to her hometown of Pensacola. I love the beaches and the area, so I bought a house on Blackwater Bay. That was in 2004. Six months later Hurricane Ivan hit. Nine months after that – Dennis. I spent the first several years cleaning up.” So, at some point, you put a hurricane in a novel, right?

Here are the ingredients: a category 5 hurricane approaches Pensacola; the Coast Guard finds a cooler filled with body parts floating off Pensacola Beach; a mysterious string of deaths plagues the medical facility at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. Who do you call? Maggie O’Dell.

In this, Alex Kava’s eighth Maggie O’Dell novel, the intrepid FBI profiler-agent has her hands full. Assigned to team up with a Homeland Security official in dealing with the body parts issue, Maggie is thrown into this complex of interwoven concerns. Where did the cooler come from? How has it ended up near Pensacola? What is causing the fatalities among servicemen who have had limbs replaced? How will the approaching hurricane affect finding the answers to these questions?

The medical issue is not directly Maggie’s concern. A Navy captain, the head medical doctor on the base, runs a surgical transplant program. He has invited an Army doctor, an infectious disease specialist, to help address the unknown disease. However, Alex Kava will bring this mystery and the mystery of the stray body parts into an unexpected relationship. The ticking time bomb of the approaching hurricane adds intensity and anxiety, and Kava’s portrait of how different townspeople respond to the approaching threat is handled with impressive skill.

In this novel, Maggie O’Dell is one of two heroic female figures. The other is Liz Bailey, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer whose exploits begin the novel and who just about takes it over at other times. For all of her courage, Maggie cannot imagine herself doing the kind of thing that Liz does; for example, being deployed from a hovering helicopter to secure people in danger – or in this case to secure a floating container. With the hurricane on its way, Liz and people with her training might have plenty of work to do.

The read this review in its entirety as it appears in the August 11-17, 2010 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 12-18 Naples Florida Weekly and Charlotte Florida Weekly click here: Florida Weekly – Alex Kava

Bonus Material: the following Q & A did not get into print because of space limitations:

Where did you get the idea of the epidemic-threatening infection?

 I love the character of Col. Benjamin Platt (who debuted in EXPOSED) and I wanted to bring him into the story. Pensacola has several military ties so it made sense to find a connection. In the meantime I had read an article about staff infections in soldiers who had lost limbs. The article mentioned a new bone paste that was being used to preempt these infections because they could add antibiotics directly to the paste which was added directly to the wound. As strange as it sounds it was almost like kismet, because I had already started asking questions about possible contamination of donor body parts including bone.

 For “Damaged,” which came first: the hurricane situation, the body parts issue, or the infectious disease?

 The hurricane came first. Ever since I experienced Ivan (2004) and Dennis (2005) I’ve been chomping at the bit to send Maggie O’Dell into the path of a hurricane.

 Will we see Liz Bailey again? She’s a winner.

 I hope so. She certainly won me over, and I ended up giving her a more prominent role than she initially had.

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Doug Alderson: A Prophet in Nature’s Temple

“Encounters with Florida’s Endangered Wildlife,” by Doug Alderson. University Press of Florida. 192 pages. $24.95.

Doug Alderson’s fourteen brief chapters are attractively crafted personal essays that introduce readers to the intricate world of wild Florida, particularly as it exists in the panhandle part of the state. We learn about the creatures who live there, whether native or immigrant, large as a bear or manatee, or small as a salamander or mussel. We also learn that most of these animals are threatened, and that more often than not it is human activity that poses the threat. 

Mr. Alderson mixes awe, affection, and education in these remarkably well-turned essays, which often blossom into a powerful lyricism. Many passages from his book could be excerpted and presented as prose poems. We can only hope that these passages are not elegies.

The general pattern of the essays is one of Mr. Alderson taking us on a journey into the Florida wilderness, sometimes alone and sometimes with a companion. There is usually a destination and specific focus for the journey, such as seeking the elusive, if not extinct, ivory-bill woodpecker, or searching for black bear dens. Such sections have a strong narrative dimension and even a bit of suspense.

Other sections are more expository and fact-based, and yet others are simply in the service of joyous beholding and belonging. Doug Alderson captures so well the healing expressiveness of nature’s beauty and wonder. Often, the tone of his prose is uplifting, reverent, and worshipful.

To view the entire review, as it appears in the June 9-15, 2010 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and in the June 24-June 30 Naples Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Doug Alderson.

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Connie May Fowler’s Novel of Empowerment

“How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly,” by Connie May Fowler. Grand Central Publishing. 278 pages. $23.99

Readers of acclaimed, best-selling author Connie May Fowler will be thoroughly satisfied with her latest novel. The protagonist, Clarissa Burden, meets June 21, 2006 with frustration and trepidation. On the longest and hottest day of the year, she is trapped in loveless marriage in what was once her dream house in panhandle Florida. Not only does her husband demean her by neglect, withering remarks, and compulsive attention to his transparent “business” of making artistic renderings of naked young women, but also Clarissa demeans herself. 

Childless in her mid-thirties, Clarissa is suffering writers’ block after some early successes as a novelist. Her barrenness on various levels marks this highly perceptive and imaginative woman as, paradoxically, convention-bound. Dependent on the opinions and actions of others, she yearns for the independence that requires risk-taking. That is, she needs to learn how to fly.

The 24 hours of Clarissa’s transition are narrated in a style that is exquisitely detailed, at once realistic, fantastic, and ultimately fabulous in all the various meanings of the word. The creatures who share Clarissa’s space in the natural world seem responsive to her moods and actions. Her guardedness and fearfulness are reflected in the warnings of “Ovarian shadow women.” The fauna and the shadow women serve as choric voices, aspects of Clarissa’s own submerged wisdom sounding alarms. 

Clarissa’s imagination – or is it some other force? – puts her in touch with a one-armed compromised angel named Larry Dibble, a carnival of dwarfs, a ghost fly, and a magic tree. Her old house is haunted by the ghosts of a long dead and self-assured Spanish woman, her black husband (a free man when Florida was under Spanish rule), and their young child. Clarissa’s encounters, whether actual or imaginative projections, challenge her as they guide her toward self-realization and self-assertion.

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the May 27-June 2, 2010 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly and the June 2-8 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – Connie May Fowler

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