Friday, March 05, 2010

Magic City by James W. Hall

Protagonist: Thorn
Setting: Miami, Fla.
Rating: 4.0
The reclusive Thorn leaves his home in Key Largo to visit Miami for a few days in this novel. He's prepared to show his commitment to girlfriend Alexandra, taking care of her father Lawton, who has dementia, while she's in police training for a few days. But on the first day, two men try to break into Lawton's house, looking for a photo taken in 1964, during the Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight. The photo is important enough for several people to lose their lives, and Thorn is caught in the middle as he tries to find out why.

Hall can write evocatively, especially when depicting Miami, both 1960s and present-day. Every once in a while, he throws in a description of a neighborhood, and not the ubiquitous South Beach we get in every TV depiction of South Florida, but the real neighborhoods in which people live. Writing about the mostly Hispanic Hialeah, he says: "The farther north they traveled, the more congested the neighborhoods grew. Every store sign and billboard was in Spanish, tobacco shops and Latin supermarkets and cafeterias with serving windows that opened onto the sidewalks, drawing groups of leathery men in guayaberas with their paper cups of cafe cubano. Thorn recalled that Hialeah was a Seminole phrase meaning "high prairie." Though as far as he could see, the only spaces that might qualify as prairies were the vast asphalt parking lots."

But where Hall falls short is in his over-the-top plotting and even more over-the-top characters. In the end, these were drawbacks for me, especially when one of those OTT characters is the main protagonist. A shame, because I really liked spending time in Hall's South Florida.

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