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South Florida Schemes

SCAVENGER REEF

By Laurence Shames

Simon and Schuster, $21

Reviewed by Thomas J. Billitteri

Key West is a weird place, the weirdest in Florida outside of Miami, a melange of beach-bum kitsch, monied pomposity and low-life desperation. In other words, a great place to situate a novel.

Just ask Laurence Shames. He's ably captured Florida living at its darkest and most bizarre in Scavenger Reef, a clever mystery about an artist whose "return to life" turns his world _ and that of his closest friends _ upside down.

Augie Silver, a painter of some renown, is presumed dead in a boating accident. His friends _ high-stakes art dealers and his Key West drinking buddies alike _ promptly realize that Augie's work is worth more with him dead than alive. When the "dead" painter reappears, a mystery assassin tries to make him dead for real, and, well. . . . read the book.

What makes this novel enjoyable isn't just the story line, but also Shames' lively and caustic observations about Florida life.

"The day had been cloudless, with an odd desiccating wind from the east," he writes in a typical descriptive passage. "The cactuses were gloating . . . they seemed to stand up straighter and taller as the palms drooped and the poincianas let their feathery leaves hang down lank as Asian hair. Finger-sized lizards clung to tree trunks and climbed the pocked sides of coral rocks; they were brown, gray, invisible until sex or vanity got the best of them and they puffed up their scarlet throat sacs, making themselves impressive and absurd."

Sound familiar?

Or this: "When he arrived in Key West. . . his wardrobe turned abruptly turquoise, he bought a stack of palm-tree and flamingo shirts, which he laundered repeatedly to fade. . . . He rented a houseboat, and felt extremely Floridian having a teensy toilet with a hand pump and a gangplank for a driveway."

Then there are the characters. Reuben the Cuban, the heroic gay houseboy; Natchez, the wacked-out poet; Mulvane, the sweat-soaked detective; Yates, the compulsive gambler and radio host of "Culture Cocktail." Phipps, the would-be seducer; Gibbs, the bottom-fishing boat hand; Brandenburg, the sleazy New York art critic; Fred the parrot, whose untimely death sets the mystery afoot. . . . The list goes on.

If Shames' novel has flaws, they are chiefly sins of excess. Some of his descriptions, as entertaining as they are, seem overdrawn. "Okay, okay," you want to say, "just get on with the story."

And I suppose like a lot of beach-book mysteries _ John Grisham's Pelican Brief comes to mind _ this one rushes at the end to tie up all the loose ends and put the bad guys in jail. The denouement is a bit too contrived.

Still, for a fun read as the hellishly hot months of summer approach, this is just the book to get you in the mood.

Thomas J. Billitteri is a Times staff writer and editor.

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