The Florida Keys is the setting for James W. Hall's latest book,
OFF THE CHART. His protagonist Thorn, who made his debut appearance
in BLACKWATER SOUND (2001), is back. This time, the bonefish fly
tying hero, who has treasured his solitude and believed himself
"too damn rigid … too private, too rooted in habit" finds it
"startling to discover how much satisfaction he found in the
constant presence of [Lawton]. They'd met a few months back when
Lawton [Alex's father] appeared on Thorn's doorstep." The old
former detective had wandered from home, and when Alexandra finally
showed up to retrieve her dad, something happened between her and
Thorn: "the flash of his flint against her steel had sparked a
smoldering connection that since then had been growing even
hotter." Soon, Alex and Lawton move into Thorn's stilt house on the
beach. But as events unfold they are not to be left in peace.
As the story moves along we are told that before Alexandra came
into his life, Thorn had a short-lived but passionate affair with
the lovely Anne Bonny Joy. She and Thorn were not made to last as a
couple, and in a departure from her usually "tight-lipped" self,
Anne "told [him] the vivid story of her youth … lunacy and
violence. Pirates, pirates, pirates." Her mother had been obsessed
with pirate lore and adventure. Mary Joy took her family to see
every film and read every book about the swashbucklers she adored.
Then as teenagers, back in Kentucky, Anne Bonny and her brother Vic
fled to the Florida Keys when their parents were murdered. Vic has
become a sadistic gangster who not only owns most of Key Largo, but
is also a modern day pirate. His venality is such that he and Anne
have been estranged for years. Thorn thoughtfully listens to all of
this, but when Anne is finished with the telling, she "slid from
the bed, tramped to the bathroom, dressed quickly, and left his
house without even a good-bye."
About a year after she walked out, the former lovers see each other
in the restaurant where Anne is a waitress. They are happy to catch
up with each other in the way old friends enjoy a chance meeting.
Enter mob son Daniel Saldone, who is also a diner in the seaside
eatery. He makes a play for Anne Bonny, who quickly falls in love
with him. Unfortunately, he happens to be one of Vic's competitors
in the high stakes pillaging of private and commercial sea vessels.
Vic arranges a "hit" when he discovers that his sister and his
nemesis, Saldone, are a couple. But Saldone escapes! He finds Bonny
and the two make a pact that forces her to run for her life, again,
and reluctantly hook up with her psychotic brother.
He is insanely jealous of any man Anne falls for and his
pathological schemes to keep her free, coupled with his "business"
interests, make Vic a very dangerous man. Thorn tells Alexandra:
"[he] owns half the upper Keys … not a big favorite with law
enforcement. Runs [the] casino boat; owns a dozen marinas and
waterfronts joints … doesn't pay a lot of attention to what's
legal … has a whole law firm working for him full-time to
keep him out of jail … there've been a half-dozen murders
with Vic Joy's name floating around in the background."
But the most action in this wannabe thriller occurs when the
nine-year old daughter of Thorn's best friend, Sugarman, is
kidnapped and Thorn's property becomes the ransom. Modern day
pirates board a millionaire's yacht with knives clenched in their
teeth and toting a cachet of automatic weapons. They attack and
kill everyone on board, except Janey Sugarman. After the snatch,
the villains transport her to a shack somewhere in a tropical
jungle. When Sugarman is told that his buddy could have prevented
his daughter's abduction, he is unforgiving. Both men launch
parallel investigations, but to the incredulity of readers, the
girl is left with a laptop and is in contact with her father. At
first this isn't too much help since she doesn't know where she is.
Wood panels cover the windows of her cell, but she can hear birds,
smell the ocean and see bits of flora and fauna between splits in
the boards nailed to the window. This leads to a totally
unbelievable discourse between father and daughter, in which they
use her pallid descriptions to figure out where Janey is held
As the narrative swings back and forth between the storylines,
readers get a bird's-eye view of the 'pirate industry' as it exists
today; readers are treated to a hefty dose of allusions to Black
Beard, Long John Silver and Captain Kidd; and as a homage to "real
pirates" Hall offers a short commentary on how Hollywood never
managed to get the "pirate story" right. This adds a bit of lore
and a drop of tepid excitement to this otherwise hackneyed novel.
If "Shiver me timbers" or "Blow me down" don't make your blood race
and modern day pirates are not your fare, this is a Hall you need
not enter. Too predictable and without much suspense, OFF THE CHART
is unfortunately off-balance.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 22, 2011