Tag Archives: Tampa area

Young PI goes from Tampa to Siberia and back to solve murder mystery

The Veiled Lagoon, by Henry Hoffman. Martin Sisters Publishing. 214 pages. Trade paper $15.95.

This is Mr. Hoffman’s second “Adam Fraley Mystery” and his fifth novel overall. The case Adam investigates comes about in an unusual way. A man named Charlton Quigley contacts him because is suspicious of the newspaper report about a young woman’s accidental death.

Quigley’s acquaintance with the late Vickie Murin stems from the fact that she was the waitress at a coffee shop he frequented. During their many conversations, Quigley had developed a sense of her character and circumstances that led him to mistrust the reported facts. He is willing to pay Adam, whose ad Quigley found at the back of his church’s newsletter, to look into the matter.  VeiledLagoonCover

Oh, by the way: Vickie’s husband is a detective in the Sheriff’s Office, a man who seems to have gotten over his loss a bit too quickly.

Since the novel begins with a scene describing Vickie’s murder, that is not the mystery. Rather, as in the classic Columbo television series, the steps by which the criminal is brought to justice are the building blocks of suspense. The obligatory battle of wits between detective and perpetrator could loom larger in Mr. Hoffman’s novel, but there is plenty to hold the reader’s attention.

First and foremost is the introduction of a new character, let’s hope as a series regular. Tamra, whom Adam hires as a secretary and assistant (officially “office manager”), is a real treat for the reader. Her “bright steely demeanor,” her “discerning green eyes,” her “dark red hair” and her abundance of the critical ingredient called “moxie” add a force to the novel that makes this reader miss her when reading scenes from which she is absent.

Her intelligence, eagerness to learn, and desire for adventure all combine to make her a supercharged Della Street. There are signs of possible romance in the office, though Adam is still dazzled somewhat by his college mentor, a woman at least as fascinating as Tamra.

Henry Hoffman

A series of chapters set in Siberia introduce us to fascinating natural and cultural landscapes. Why does Henry Hoffman take us there? When Adam discovers that Detective Murin is a fairly recent immigrant from Russia who has a childhood sweetheart, Alina, living in a Siberian town, he arranges a trip to deepen his understanding of his suspect’s background. Murin seems interested in bringing this woman back into his life – a motive for murdering Vickie. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the January 2, 2014 Naples Florida Weekly, the January 8 Fort Myers edition, and the January 16 Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter edition, click here Florida Weekly – Veiled Lagoon 1 and here Florida Weekly – Veiled Lagoon 2

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The Sunshine Skyway story: a troubled bridge over shallow waters

“Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought It Down,” by Bill DeYoung. University Press of Florida. 208 pages. $24.95.  Skyway_RGB

A skillful combination of local history and biography, Bill DeYoung’s book reveals the sharp eye and patient research of a seasoned Florida journalist. His study makes us think about the societal role of iconographic structures, their majesty and their destiny. Mr. DeYoung’s portrait of the interplay between natural forces and human limitation reminds me of Shelley’s great sonnet, “Ozymandias,” with its timeless concern about human vanity and human vulnerability:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The history that Mr. DeYoung assembles is marked by four important moments. First, the opening of the original, majestic span of the bridge in 1954. Next, the delayed opening of its twin span in 1971. Then, most notably, the freighter Summit Venture’s collision with and destruction of the newer bridge on May 9, 1980. Finally, the replacement of the twin bridges in 1989 with an even more astonishing structure.

The author places the planning and execution of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the context of the Tampa Bay region’s population and economic growth. He discusses, perhaps too briefly, the tragedy five months earlier when a coast guard vessel and a passenger ship collided near the bridge, underscoring the difficulty of navigating the deep, man-made shipping channels of otherwise shallow Tampa Bay.

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

In his moment by moment narration of the May 1980 disaster, Bill DeYoung creates the intensity we are used to finding in mystery thrillers. He takes us, as much as possible, into the thoughts and emotions of the principal players as the unfolding calamity is perceived too late in the fury of a sudden, blinding rainstorm.

The principal character, who receives a full-dress biography, is harbor pilot John Lerro. Lerro’s education and training, his experience, his reputation among his peers, and his domestic life are given detailed attention. It was Lerro who had the responsibility of boarding the inbound Summit Venture and guiding it under the Sunshine Skyway to its port destination. He failed, but could anyone have succeeded given the combination of circumstances that Mr. DeYoung so effectively presents?

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the November 20, 2013 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly,the November 21 issues of the Naples, Bonita Springs, and Charlotte County editions, and the November 28 Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter edition, click here  Florida Weekly – DeYoung 1  and here  Florida Weekly – DeYoung 2.

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A bridge between two deaths

“Bridge to Oblivion,” by Henry Hoffman. Ivy House/Martin Sisters Publishing. 220 pages. $15.95 trade paperback.

Henry Hoffman’s fourth novel is a taut mystery-thriller that employs the setting of Tampa Bay’s majestic Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The real-life tragedy of a bridge disaster in the Spring of 1980 inspires the novel’s premise: a young woman riding a bus across the bridge during a storm plunges, with others, to her death when a runaway freighter smashes into the bridge, causing a collapse. Where was she going? Why was she traveling without her husband? Was the catastrophe really accidental? 

And what led her younger sister, seven years later, to commit suicide by leaping from that same bridge? Was it really a suicide?

There is a witness to the 1987 Charlene Gibbs suicide, a young man named Adam Fraley. When Adam sees Charlene contemplating her leap, he attempts, unsuccessfully, to talk her out of it. Unsatisfied with the police work and media reporting, Adam launches his own investigation. One thing bothering Adam is that no one mentions the fact that Charlene’s sister, Carlene, has died in the bridge collapse seven years earlier. “No one” includes Carlene’s widower, Monte Wheeler, who was city editor of a major Tampa area newspaper when his wife perished and is now its executive editor. Why doesn’t he want anyone to make the connection? Clearly Charlene was drawn to this spot because of what had happened to her sister.

Adam had served several years in the Air Force before deciding, in his mid-twenties, to get a college education.  He is now attending classes at a local community college while working for a small private detective agency. He’s learning the trade, but mostly doing paperwork. His boss and mentor, Pete Peterson, somewhat reluctantly allows Adam to attempt an independent investigation – but on his own time. Before long, Adam is stirring up trouble and enraging the local power elite. Is there a cover-up of some kind? What? Why?

Henry Hoffman

Author Hoffman skillfully develops Adam’s methodical investigatory style and his commitment to finding the truth. While Adam learns by doing, the reader learns by following him around. Instrumental to Adam’s education in interviewing and fact-finding is another professional, his gorgeous journalism professor who, ironically, once sought the position that Monte Wheeler holds. Though Professor Nancy Egan, who also works at the managing editor of a rival paper, strives to keep her distance, it’s clear that Adam is smitten.

Adam visits the Gibbs sisters’ home town, scours police records, and discovers that he is being followed. Along the way, he also learns that Charlene Gibbs had a child soon after her sister died – the father’s name unrecorded. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the June 13, 2012 edition of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the June 14 Naples and Port Charlotte/Punta Gorda editions, and the June 28 Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Hoffman pdf 1  and here: Florida Weekly – Hoffman pdf 2

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William Heffernan’s detective attends to the dead

“The Dead Detective,” by William Heffernan. Akashic Books. 340 pages. $24.95.

William Heffernan’s Harry Doyle is a hard-boiled, no-nonsense police detective with a spiritual side and a powerful sense of mission. Some say that dead speak to him, and Doyle doesn’t deny it. After all, he was dead once himself – murdered at age ten, along with his younger brother, by a lunatic mother who thought her sons needed the benefits of the heavenly hereafter. Technically, if briefly, gone from this world, Harry Doyle was miraculously resuscitated. In part due to his testimony, Doyle’s mother was locked up for life. The boy was adopted by the loving couple who had become his foster parents, taking their last name. 

The present time of the story is two decades later. Doyle is a detective with the Pinellas County (Tampa area) Sheriff’s Department tasked with examining the homicide of Darlene Beckett. The victim, a gorgeous young woman, was herself recently a perpetrator. Because her victim did not wish to testify, she was able to receive a light sentence for sexual assault of a minor, a fourteen year old boy who was a student in Beckett’s middle school health class. Her sentence included three years of wearing an ankle monitor, but no actual jail time. Many outraged people felt she deserved a much harsher punishment. Would they take matters into their own hands?

Doyle and his colleagues find Beckett’s body seductively posed with the word “evil” cut into her forehead. Though she had bled out from her throat being sliced through, there was no blood pool where the body was discovered, suggesting that Beckett had been murdered elsewhere and then moved.

The case, investigated by Doyle and his team under great political pressure, is conducted (and narrated) with careful attention to procedural detail. Mr. Heffernan is able to fashion the procedural trail so that it is not only authoritative and authentic, but also intriguing and suspenseful.

The range of suspects includes the boy’s parents and members of the church they belonged to, many of whom seem ready to take the Lord’s retribution into their own hands. They have been urged on by the church’s head minister, who has used his pulpit to stir them up. Additionally, the minister’s son, a young man with a juvenile police record, has been one of Darlene Beckett’s playthings and may have his own motives. Another of Beckett’s bedmates is a would-be Lothario policeman soon removed from working on the case. Altered police records point a finger at him.

Harry Doyle and his new partner, the sharp and shapely Vicky Stanopolous, lead the investigation, with the help of an eager young deputy named Jim Morgan. However, something else is on Doyle’s mind. His mother is up for parole after twenty years in prison, and Doyle is determined that she be kept behind bars. His own testimony will be part of the parole hearing.

To read this review (with interview)  in its entirety, as it appears in the Naples (Dec. 30, 2010), Fort Myers (Dec. 29), and Port Charlotte/Punta Gorda (Dec. 30) editions of Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – William Heffernan pdf

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BOOK BEAT 70 – Lisa Unger

BOOK BEAT   Naples Sun Times   June 5, 2008

by Philip K. Jason

Where is the borderline between popular genre fiction and “literary” novels? This is a question that comes up more and more often, as some of the most accomplished novelists writing today choose to mine popular modes. Perhaps that’s the only way of attracting an agent or publisher. In a world of market-driven publishing decisions, one has to aim at a designated section of the bookstore: science fiction, romance, thriller, etc. At the outset of his career, James Lee Burke was a well-reviewed “literary” writer whose books did not sell well. But once Burke hit upon bad-boy Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, he found himself regularly on the best-seller list. 

 Like Burke, like Geraldine Brooks in her astounding history-rooted fictions “March” and  “People of the Book,” Clearwater resident Lisa Unger has gone beyond the conventions and formulas of a popular genre and now knocks on the door of true literary artistry. “Black Out,” Unger’s third novel, is a powerful, penetrating, and truly frightening look at a compromised mind in a series of desperate situations. Her protagonist, Annie Powers, lives a fairly comfortable life with her husband and young daughter in the suburbs outside of (unnamed) Tampa. However, the substance of Annie Powers’ identity is a shell, a graft upon a young woman named Ophelia March who had suffered every kind of abuse, beginning with parental neglect and ending with forced complicity in a series of horrible crimes.

Ophelia was a prisoner to her lack of self-esteem, easy prey to manipulators and control freaks. Her escape from her dead-end life required, ironically enough, her apparent death, and her ultimate psychological freedom demands the sure knowledge that her principal jailor – the dark, mesmerizing, yet vacant young man who is also her lover – is dead.

Somehow (you’ll have to read the book for the slowly and artfully revealed details), Ophelia March disappears to be reborn as Annie. But Annie is haunted by the past, by memory gaps, by nightmares, by threats to the fragile peace of mind she has achieved. “Black Out” becomes the story of a lost identity, a divided identity, struggling to find itself and yet fearing what it will find. The reader can’t be sure, during Annie’s searing journey, if she is doomed to paranoia or if there are external forces at work to thwart her quest for wholeness.

Unger complicates her narrative and deepens the resonance of her psychological probing by interweaving several timelines. Each timeline has its own suspenseful integrity, and yet each is part of Annie/Ophelia’s horrendous, tortured path. By juxtaposing different stages of her protagonist’s real and imagined journey, Unger at once ratchets up the suspense and allows the reader to share Annie’s bewildering disorientation. Readers also recognize her determination to reclaim her life, which means to redeem Ophelia.

The supporting cast of characters is superb, including Ophelia’s inept parents; the psychotic criminal Frank Geary and his equally twisted son, Marlowe, who becomes Ophelia’s lover and controller; Annie’s husband, Gray Powers, and Gray’s manipulative father and stepmother. We meet as well Annie’s amazingly well-balance daughter, Victory; a compromised police detective; an equally compromised therapist; various thugs; and an assortment of lesser characters that are sharply individualized if only in walk-on parts.

So, we could say that “Black Out,” published by the prestigious Shaye Areheart imprint of Crown (itself a division of Random House), is an outstanding example of the psychological thriller. It’s also a white hot page-turner. However, this book is more than a thrill ride. Its feeling-tones and issues linger after the denouement, as is the case with significant literature. Its exploration of the human psyche brings insights both authentic and profound. Annie’s plight will mean something to astute readers – they will take it personally. Lisa Unger is not – or not yet – the American Dostoevsky, but she may be on her way.

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.

Note: I was pleased that the “Book Beat” column ended on this high note. Lisa Unger is among the most talented authors now writing in Florida. You can find two reviews of her more recent books on this site.

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