Saturday, May 01, 2010

Crime Fiction: Thunder Beach by Michael Lister

Michael Lister continues his dark explorations of northern Florida’s underbelly in Thunder Beach (Tyrus Books), the standalone tale of a former stepfather who still feels a sense of duty toward his late wife’s children.

Journalist Merrick McKnight is spiraling downward. Fast. He’s having an unconsummated affair with a married stripper named Regan. He has lost his job at a daily newspaper in Panama City, Florida. And much of this slide in his life has taken place since his wife and their young son, Ty, died in a car accident. His marriage was an unhappy one, kept alive only because his wife’s two children, Casey and Kevin, loved McKnight. But now all of that has changed.

McKnight hasn’t seen his stepdaughter, Casey, for years. But while in Panama City, he happens to spot her in a photo on the cover of Miss Thunder Beach magazine, a publication affiliated with the town’s annual spring biker rally. So he starts looking for her, only to encounter some very bad men who threaten him and then smash up his shiny new Dodge Challenger.

With McKnight’s concern for Casey rapidly rising, the girl suddenly turns up, tells him that she’s fine, and asks that he leave her alone. She’ll call him if she needs him. Honestly. It isn’t long, though, before Casey does need his help--and more. A local sheriff, John Milton, informs McKnight that someone has filed a missing-person report on Casey (or Amber, as she’s now calling herself).

What follows is a convoluted trip through the world of strip clubs, prostitution, and white slavery in Panama City. Most of the story involves McKnight, the police, and even stripper girlfriend Regan trying to figure out what role, if any, an abusive man named Victor Dyson has played in Casey’s disappearance.

Lister doesn’t let anyone off easy here. Even when the police believe they’ve found Casey’s body, things only get more complicated.

The author’s prose is spare, with the dialogue introduced by dashes instead of quotation marks, à la Charlie Huston. And his narrative is laced with a peculiar sadness that permeates McKnight’s life.
I’ve come in search of a woman.

It seems I’ve spent my entire life searching for something--something elusive, evanescent--something usually involving a woman. Ironically, the woman I’m here to see is not the woman I’ll spend the next few days frantically trying to find.
There are a couple of patches where Lister interrupts his own first-person narrative and gets preachy. In one section, it’s clear that McKnight--and by extension, Lister--is pretty passionate about the decline of the newspaper industry in recent years. However, the passage he devotes to that subject reads more like a dissertation extract or a blog rant than Lister’s usual Spartan poetry. Fortunately, you can count those sections in a peace sign. Lister spends the greater part of his time putting us into a sultry Florida frame of mind with the rumble of motorcycles in the background.

Probably the most skillful bit of scene-building in Thunder Beach has to do with the bikers swarming Panama City. They are ever-present, loud, rumbling, a benign interruption in the normal life of the city. Sometimes they even create obstacles for McKnight and his police allies without deliberately getting in the way. But only near the end of this tale do any bikers play a major part.

Instead, there is Victor Dyson, an oily malevolence whose true nature is unknown. He’s clearly at the center of something that threatens Casey, but it takes McKnight the entire novel to learn what sort of monster Dyson truly is. In a story about the shades of gray that make up noir, Dyson is a glaring reminder that some people are outright and deliberately evil.

Counterbalance that against Merrick McKnight. In our modern world, where too many parents abandon their offspring and too many step-parents look at their spouse’s children as burdens to endure, McKnight steps up to the plate and does more than Casey and Kevin’s real father ever did before their mother died. For that alone, he’s a hero. But his devotion to Casey and her younger brother goes still further: McKnight will risk his own life and freedom to save them.

Novelist and screenwriter Michael Lister, already known for his series about Florida prison chaplain John Jordan, has written in Thunder Beach a poignant and lyrical noir story that’s as much about redemption as it is about shattered lives.

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Sunday, March 6, 2011 at 4:03:00 AM PST  

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