Dead Last
James W. Hall
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Buy *Dead Last* by James W. Hall online

Dead Last
James W. Hall
Minotaur Books
336 pages
November 2011
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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Even resurrecting the elusive and dangerous Thorn from his sanctuary in Key Largo can’t save Hall from his predilection for bizarre plot twists and stereotypical characters with trendy names, but there are a few moments where the thought behind Hall’s novel shows a skillful writer, albeit one caught up in glam. He also introduces a peripheral character in this novel—one I was hoping might be around for more Thorn-inspired mysteries—but her part, while pivotal, is short-lived. Miami is the scene, far removed from the wilderness Thorn has escaped to with his wife, Rusty Stabler, but fate intervenes and Thorn’s life once more veers in a different direction.

At odds with the future, Thorn is caught in an existential dilemma in Key Largo, out of hope and waxing self-destructive when Oklahoma Sheriff Buddha Hilton appears at his retreat: “Women thought he was courting them, but all he was really courting was disaster.” Her unblemished young face tattooed with the backward script of Buddhist dogma by a fanatical parent, Buddha has her own unique story but has put private concerns aside to track down Thorn and demand his help.

A close “aunt” has been murdered in Oklahoma, an obituary left at the scene with Thorn’s name printed on its reverse; that obituary is linked directly to Thorn by his wife, Rusty. The Oklahoma woman’s murder seems to be connected as well to a failing TV show, Miami Ops, which features an unknown killer who leaves similar obituaries next to his victims, an obvious copy cat tie between the TV murders and the real thing. Going toe to toe with a reluctant Thorn, Buddha coerces him into traveling to Miami and the set of Miami Ops, and the plot thickens with villains, rubber-necking fans and miscreants.

Here things take a turn for the obvious: Dee Dee, a sexy female star who heats up the drama with her bedroom antics; identical twins Flynn and Sawyer Moss, one Dee Dee’s co-star, the other the show’s writer; and acerbic, egomaniacal director Gus Dollimore, Dee Dee’s father, grasping for his last shining moment in show business and on the verge of ruin. The TV scripts don’t improve, but the show’s ratings do with more murders. FBI Agent Frank Sheffield assists Thorn and the Oklahoma sheriff as best he can without jeopardizing his own situation. The twins’ mother, April Moss, the obituary writer for a local newspaper, apparently has a past with Thorn…!!! Here’s where Hall segues into treacherous territory awash in stereotypes—bad guys, a surfeit of Dee Dee’s sexual peccadilloes, and a sordid father-daughter history.

Hall throws out a number of possible suspects as the violence escalates and April struggles with the consequences of her past actions and the troubling use of her obituaries in the real-life murder scenes. There are some missed opportunities here, all in service to a snappy, cutting-edge façade that is too slick to retain traction, Thorn’s bad boy image threatened by circumstances beyond his control. In the end, the only character I’ve cared about is the unique Oklahoma sheriff, the rest too vapid to yield a reasonable thriller. The thing is, Hall can write. Maybe next time.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2011

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