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Review: Obit page is inspiration in 'Dead Last' by James W. Hall

Thorn fixes things.

The prickly protagonist of James W. Hall's crime fiction series lives off the grid and works as a private investigator, a cranky knight errant of Key Largo who sets things right when legal channels can't. But as Dead Last, the 11th book in the series, opens, Thorn faces a situation he can't fix.

After a terminal illness takes someone he loves deeply, Thorn is overcome with a destructive rage that he emerges from only when someone shows up seeking his help — which has always saved him from himself.

And a strange someone she is: Buddha Hilton, age 19, face covered with intricate tattoos, sheriff of a tiny Oklahoma town called Starkville. She's as adept with a gun as you'd want a sheriff to be, and as precociously wise as her first name suggests.

She has tracked down Thorn because she's investigating the bizarre murder of her foster mother, a lawyer named Michaela Stabler — who happens to have been the aunt of Thorn's wife, Rusty. (As fans will know, the fiercely lone-wolf Thorn has been accumulating family in the last few books, and he's not done yet.)

Why come to Florida to investigate an Oklahoma murder? Found next to Michaela's body was an obituary from the Miami Herald. The byline on that artfully written obit is April Moss. April has made a notable career of writing about the dead, finding the meaning in all kinds of lives. But now it seems someone is finding a hidden meaning in her obits — and it's leading that someone to murder.

Wait, it gets weirder. The real murder of Michaela Stabler seems to echo a story arc on a cable TV crime drama called Miami Ops, in which a pair of rogue detectives is tracking a serial killer who chooses victims by reading the obits and sneaks up on them disguised in a Zentai, a skintight black bodysuit and mask.

One of the cops on the show is played by April's son, Flynn Moss. The show is written by his twin brother, Sawyer.

And far away from the show's Miami locales, in little Starkville, on the night Michaela was murdered, a woman in a bar parking lot saw someone in a Zentai suit. The witness was drunk, but not that drunk.

So Buddha and Thorn are off to Miami to look for the link between fictional murders and real ones. It turns out Thorn knows April Moss, or knew her, a long time ago. They find her on the set of Miami Ops, where they also meet her sons; the show's director, driven Gus Dollimore; and the actor who plays the other lead detective, audacious sexpot Dee Dee Dollimore, daughter of Gus and also Sawyer's "erotically gifted" girlfriend.

Things are, as they say, complicated.

And they heat up quickly, with another brutal murder that almost leaves Thorn dead as well — but that's the sort of thing that just makes him madder.

Hall, who recently retired as a professor of creative writing at Florida International University and lives part of the year in Coral Gables, has set the last few Thorn books largely in wild Florida. Here he takes his hero someplace even more dangerous, painting a charged portrait of Miami: ritzy Brickell Avenue, dismal Overtown, streams of vicious traffic, historic homes of coral rock.

Most of the book is narrated from Thorn's point of view, but occasional chapters narrated by the killer in second person — "You locate her bedroom from the slit of light beneath the door and the density of cigarette smoke. You open her door slowly and step inside." — add chilling intensity.

Hall also uses April's obituaries effectively, often to reveal surprising secrets about characters. And clearly he has been spending some time on TV sets; he captures the warring egos, the tensions and practical jokes, with humor and detail.

Dead Last is a mystery with multiple layers, with Thorn pursuing a ruthless and clever killer as well as diving into his own past — two paths that will have a shocking convergence.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.

Dead Last

By James W. Hall

Minotaur, 336 pages, $25.99

>> if you go

Meet the authors

James W. Hall will appear for a discussion and signing with fellow mystery writer Lisa Unger (Darkness, My Old Friend) at 7 p.m. Dec. 8 at Inkwood Books, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa. Hall will read and sign his book at 1 p.m. Dec. 10 at Circle Books, 478 John Ringling Blvd., Sarasota; and at 4 p.m. Dec. 10 at Haslam's Book Store, 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg.

Review: Obit page is inspiration in 'Dead Last' by James W. Hall 11/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 26, 2011 3:30am]
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