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Review: James W. Hall's 'Silencer' explores heart of Florida's darkness

Thorn, the prickly hero of many of James W. Hall's thrillers, has always been a sort of modern version of Thoreau, transplanted from Walden Pond to Key Largo. He's most at home in nature and suspicious of any enterprise that requires new clothes — although handier with a handgun than Henry was.

In Silencer, the 11th novel featuring him, Thorn finds himself deeper in the heart of the Florida wilderness than even he is comfortable with after he's kidnapped:

"Chaos theory," Thorn thinks, "every part of the universe connected by a web of fragile pulses no one could predict. Earl Hammond. Coquina Ranch. Florida Forever. The land swap. Thorn tries to do a good deed, and a few flutters of a butterfly wing later, he lands on his butt 20 feet down a sinkhole. Detained by the karma police."

Coquina Ranch would be that sinkhole's location, a 200,000-acre sweep of grassland and oak hammock just north of the Everglades. It's owned by 87-year-old rancher Earl Hammond, who's eager to preserve it in its semiwild state. Florida Forever is the state's acclaimed land preservation program (defunded last year by our brilliant Legislature).

And that land swap? Constant readers of Hall's books will remember that in the last one, Hell's Bay (2008), the usually happily broke Thorn ended up inheriting a large fortune. As Silencer opens, his lady friend, Rusty Stabler, has transformed herself from a fishing guide to a savvy business manager and engineered a complex swap that will add both Coquina Ranch and a huge chunk of land Thorn now owns near Sarasota to the state's preservation lands.

It's such a great plan that Thorn uncharacteristically decides to throw a big party to celebrate. In the wee boozy hours, a couple of strangers brace him in his kitchen, and next thing you know he's down at the bottom of that sinkhole with a severe hangover and nothing but his island shirt, a diamond ring and a sardine can to effect an escape.

His kidnappers are not the karma police but the Faust brothers: handsome, calm Moses and weasely, jittery Jonah, who drive around in a camouflage Prius. They're vicious henchmen, but whose?

Back at the Coquina Ranch main house, three people have been killed. Among the living are Earl Hammond's son Browning; his college friend Antwan Shelton, a pro football player turned celebrity pitchman; and Herbert Sanchez, governor of the state of Florida, who is visiting the ranch to enjoy Browning's recent innovation: a captive hunting operation. Pay your money and shoot your exotic species, guaranteed, since the animals are penned and the "hunters" are driven right to them.

Worse things than bad sportsmanship are going on at Coquina Ranch, though, and Browning's wife, Claire, and his estranged brother, Frisco, a Miami police officer who runs the city's mounted patrol, are trying to figure out just what. Meanwhile, Rusty and private detective Sugarman, Thorn's best friend, are desperately searching for their missing pal, and Thorn himself is busy trying to survive thirst, timber rattlesnakes and the Faust boys.

Hall is really on his game with Silencer. He skillfully bounces the reader around among various points of view — Thorn's, Claire's, Jonah's, Frisco's, Sugarman's — to keep the suspense taut and the story galloping forward.

Hall, a Coral Gables resident who recently retired as a literature and creative writing professor at Florida International University, continues to develop his series characters, Thorn and Sugarman, in believable ways, and weaves some surprising new information about Rusty neatly into the plot. He also expands his evocation of the Florida landscape — he's a past master of the Keys and Miami — to the state's interior, where there are still vast lands not yet crusted over by development.

In those beautiful and mysterious and sometimes savage places, he has set a compelling story in Silencer, one that reaches back into Florida's past and looks toward its future while taking the reader on a breakneck ride through its present.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Silencer

By James W. Hall

Minotaur, 276 pages, $24.99

Meet the author

James W. Hall will sign his book at 1 p.m. Saturday at Circle Books, 478 John Ringling Blvd., Sarasota; at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Haslam's Book Store, 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; and at 2 p.m. Jan. 24 at Inkwood Books, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa.

Review: James W. Hall's 'Silencer' explores heart of Florida's darkness 01/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 3:30am]

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