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Review: Set in Tampa, Sterling Watson's 'Suitcase City' a noir revenge tale

Tampa is suddenly showing up in new novels, although those literary depictions might not be exactly what the tourist bureau would order.

Next Tuesday, Dennis Lehane's World Gone By will be published, the third book in an epic gangster trilogy, set in a violence-racked Ybor City in the 1940s. But beating Lehane to print by a week is his former professor Sterling Watson with Suitcase City, a noir revenge tale set in Tampa in the late 1990s.

Watson is the Peter Meinke professor emeritus of literature and creative writing at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, where he was director of the creative writing program for 20 years. He also co-founded, with Lehane (an Eckerd alumnus), the Writers in Paradise conference held each year at Eckerd. Suitcase City is Watson's seventh novel; others include Sweet Dream Baby and Fighting in the Shade.

Suitcase City takes its title from the disparaging nickname of the Tampa neighborhood directly west of the University of South Florida campus, an area that, at the time the novel is set, had one of the city's highest crime rates.

The book's main character, Jimmy Teach, lives a long way from Suitcase City. Vice president in charge of sales at a pharmaceutical company, wealthy and white, Teach lives in a handsome South Tampa home and hangs out at the country club. He's a recent widower, but he is comforted by his close relationship with his bright teenage daughter, Deanie, a talented ballerina.

Once upon a time, Teach was a football star, first as quarterback of a championship Gators team, then, briefly, in the NFL. Now, at 45, he just tells and re-tells his glory-day stories to strangers in bars over a couple of bourbons, or maybe half a dozen. Who's counting?

The main traits Teach retains from his football career are a towering ego and a propensity for violence. The latter erupts in the book's first chapter, a prologue set in 1978, and again to set the plot in motion in 1997. Drinking in a bar one afternoon, Teach heads for the men's room along with another customer he had been talking to. Into the bathroom walks a black teenager with a threatening air and what Teach thinks is a straight razor in the waistband of his jeans. When the kid says, "You b----es better give it up," Teach knocks him unconscious with a blow to the head.

Turns out the razor wasn't a razor, and the kid is Tyrone Battles, a high school football star whose family, a police detective tells Teach, is "a walking history of the civil rights movement in this state." Tyrone's uncle, Thurman Battles, is one of the most prominent lawyers in town ­— and he is not inclined to let the incident drop.

With his job and prestige on the line, pressured by both the fiercely intelligent Detective Aimes (who happens to be another one of Tyrone's uncles) and an aggressive reporter named Marlie Turkel, Teach finds a way to get Thurman Battles to drop a possible civil case.

But his relief is short lived. Teach has a lot of secrets in his past, including a stint as a drug smuggler when he was a kid growing up in Cedar Key, a job he returned to briefly after his football career tanked. His partner from those days, a black man named Blood Naylor, lives in Suitcase City, although Teach doesn't know it, and Blood has issues with him. As the story accelerates, Teach finds himself being blamed for something far worse than a barroom scuffle and desperate to find out why.

The plot of Suitcase City ranges around Tampa and occasionally across the bay to Pinellas County. Tony Tampa neighborhood Palma Ceia and its eponymous country club appear under the alias Terra Ceia, borrowed from the Manatee County area just south of the Skyway, and La Teresita restaurant gets relocated to the USF area from its actual site in West Tampa, but mostly the landmarks are familiar.

Teach is no hero; in fact, the more we learn about his past, the tougher it becomes to root for him, so many damaged lives has he left in his reckless wake. The outcome of his actions contrasts with the arcs of Aimes' and Blood's lives — both of them have much in common with Teach, but their race has altered their paths in ways that Teach hasn't had to deal with.

Watson weaves those questions about race into a plot that takes one bloody turn after another, a crescendo of violence that ends with a day at sea that might be the most chilling of all.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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