Sunday, February 18, 2018
Books

Review: Thorn is unstoppable in James W. Hall's thriller 'Big Finish'

The Big Finish, the 14th novel by James W. Hall about reclusive Florida knight-errant Thorn, is a wonderfully relentless high-octane thriller. But let me warn you: It will put you off your pork chops.

Two books back, in Dead Last, Thorn discovered (much to his surprise) that he had a pair of sons, adult twins conceived during a brief fling decades before.

In the last book, Going Dark, Thorn discovered that one of them, Flynn Moss, had become involved with a group of radical environmentalists called Earth Liberation Front. When their plan to shut down the nuclear plant at Turkey Point went awry, it was up to Thorn to rescue not only Flynn but a big chunk of the population of South Florida from a possible meltdown.

At the end of that book, Flynn chose to disappear in to the eco-underground with Cassandra, the charismatic ELF leader, leaving Thorn to sit at home in Key Largo and fret about his son's welfare.

That's just what he's doing as The Big Finish begins, about a year later. The only communication from Flynn has been a series of blank post cards sent to the office of Thorn's best friend, Sugarman, who Googles the locations and finds they're related to community protests about environmental depredations. The cards provide Thorn with a kind of log of Flynn's work with ELF.

The latest one, though, offers no such link. The image is of the Neuse River near Pine Haven, a tiny town in an unlovely, economically depressed eastern corner of North Carolina, and Sugarman can find no news about it. More concerning is the two-word message this card bears: "Help me."

There's no question Thorn will respond. "Thorn had been at this precise point so many times before, feeling the first click of gears meshing, the revving heart, the flutter in his blood. Another long stretch of tranquility interrupted. He no longer deluded himself about his ability to resist. This was who he had become. A hermit on call."

He's a hermit off the grid, though, one without a driver's license or any other form of ID, so he can't hop a plane. His car is too decrepit to make the trip, so Sugarman, a private investigator with useful skills, reluctantly agrees to drive him up — a solution Thorn welcomes until he finds out Sugarman is bringing along his girlfriend, the obnoxious Tina Gathercole, "wired and fidgety and a breathless talker," as well as an enthusiastic dope smoker.

They don't even get out of Florida before they're taken into custody (except for Tina, who takes off) by Madeline Cruz, a tough FBI agent with a mysterious mission. It turns out that Cruz, too, had a child who joined ELF — and that she's headed for Pine Haven.

She has a couple of unusual associates for an FBI agent: a skinny rainbow-haired chatterbox named Pixie and her boyfriend, a formidable ex-con with a freakishly sensitive sense of smell who calls himself X-88. As Pixie tells a motel clerk:

"We're straight-edgers, hardline vegans."

"Really? Like what? You beat up meat eaters?"

"Sometimes."

That's not the half of it. But it will take a while to untangle just why they and Cruz, with Thorn unwillingly in tow (she sends Sugarman home), are headed to Pine Haven.

It quickly becomes clear why ELF was in Pine Haven, though. The town's biggest business is a gigantic hog farm where tens of thousands of pigs are raised for slaughter each year. Its waste lagoon alone, filled to the brim with pig feces and urine drained from the crowded barns, is four football fields long. Disposing of the waste means spraying it into the air, where it carries to the nearby town and settles onto homes and lawns and everything else.

ELF was there — but, Thorn learns, several of its members are dead, Flynn's whereabouts and condition are unknown, and one member is being held by siblings Webb and Laurie Dobbins, the pig farm's owners. They're desperate to retrieve a video ELF made of their real business: growing and processing angel's trumpet, an intensely hallucinogenic plant that happens to grow like gangbusters in pig poop.

Thorn will find out first-hand the effects of that drug. Hall has skillfully developed Thorn's character over the years, and here we're reminded of the problems of the aging hero — he does a lot more strategizing and a lot less brawling than he used to do. (And it's a lot harder for him to shake off a bad trip.) He's also more thoughtful, more likely to consider wider consequences instead of just, say, blowing up a pig farm.

But he's still unstoppable, especially when his son's life is at stake. The Big Finish more than lives up to its name with whiplash twists and turns, unexpected courage and a dash of sympathy for the devil — and a little spot of monkeywrenching at the Florida Governor's Mansion.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

 
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