John Straley’s thoroughly enjoyable and slightly wacko “Cold Storage, Alaska” opens with former drug dealer, Clive “the Milkman” McCahon, heading home to Cold Storage after he’s released from a Seattle prison after serving a term for dealing cocaine.
In prison, he elected isolation and Bible study and discovered that animals sometimes talk to him. Determined to go straight, he’s planning to reopen the bar his grandparents once ran in a remote Alaska town that gets 200 inches of rain a year which feeds a natural hot spring and where “almost everyone . . . was either clinically depressed or drunk.”
On the way, Clive picks up a stash of money and adopts Little Brother, a failed guard dog. It’s “a strange gangbanger mix of rottweiler, pit bull and wolf, a brindle-dun carnivore” with the “off-kilter stare of a Mexican street dog charged up on a jolt of methamphetamine.” Up to now, the dog has been managed with a cattle prod.
If the dog can be set free and salvaged, maybe Clive can, too.
Of course there are obstacles. Clive’s younger brother Miles, a physician’s assistant who’s been caring for their ailing mother, isn’t rolling out the welcome mat. A brutal former associate is looking for Clive to recover drug money. And a humorless trooper is determined to prevent Clive from moving his drug business to Alaska.
Whimsical subplots featuring eccentric minor characters abound. A young local who experienced a religious conversion sets off in a kayak for Seattle to meet the visiting Dalai Lama. A Tlingit Indian collaborates on a movie script with a former drug dealer.
Dashes of magical realism mixed with ironic humor reminiscent of the Coen brothers and violence worthy of Quentin Tarantino make this second series novel a winner. Compelling characters and deft treatment of themes like redemption and the power of community take it to a level beyond.
Harry Dolan’s “The Last Dead Girl” opens in a police station in Rome, N.Y. A detective asks 26-year-old David Loogan, a local home inspector, “Why’d you kill the girl?” David, a cool character, answers: “Seriously?” He adds, “Does that ever work for you?”
It’s soon apparent that David’s wisecracks and bravado are covering a load of grief and guilt that will play out over the next four hundred pages as he tries to figure out who killed Jana Fletcher, a law student David had met just days earlier and fallen in love with.
The novel unfurls in flashbacks and flash forwards, narrated from multiple viewpoints. We learn about “the Night of the Doe” — when David met Jana after her car hit a deer. How Jana was haunted by dreams of being “trapped in a dark place underground” and couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched.
“Someone was watching,” the author tells the reader, stepping onto the page and showing his hand. Then he takes us into the mind of “K,” a sexually perverted, psychopathic killer who is watching Jana and savoring what he’s going to do to her.
In many ways this is an old fashioned amateur detective story, replete with Sherlockian clues (Popsicle sticks, a flattened quarter, and two shirt buttons.) The brewing animosity between David and the homicide detective will have a familiar ring.
The storytelling is uneven. Some scenes are rich and compelling with twists and turns that satisfy and surprise. Others feel forced. But the ending is where things really fall apart. When the identity of “K” is revealed, the back story that’s supposed to explain how he became so twisted barely adds up.
Randy Wayne White’s new Doc Ford novel, “Bone Deep,” is an entertaining break from the cold. Sanibel Island and the Gulf Cost of Florida — the docks, bars, mangrove trees, and inland swamps — make a compelling backdrop for a story about black ivory from the Ice Age, ancient relics, and fossils lifted from Central Florida’s Bone Valley.
A request from a dying Crow Indian woman in Montana sends Doc on a quest to recover a pair of stolen Indian artifacts, stones carved with the faces of owls. His first lead takes him to the home of a recently deceased, notorious relics collector. There he finds a trove with, among other things, a mastodon tusk engraved with a petroglyph. Soon he finds himself trying to keep what he’s recovered out of the hands of ruthless marketers and tame his own fascination with ancient relics.
But really it’s all just an excuse for a fast paced tale that features a five-foot long cottonmouth, bull elephants, and a crazy biker with a scarred head and a bionic arm, with time out for sexy fishing guide Hannah Smith who’s spending too much time, for Doc’s taste, on the yacht of her Brazilian client.
It’s fun, but not all that deep.
THE LAST DEAD GIRL
By Harry Dolan
Amy Einhorn/Putnam, 416 pp., $26.95
By Randy Wayne White
Putnam, 384 pp., $26.95
Hallie Ephron is the author of the bestseller “There Was an Old Woman.” Contact her through www.hallie ephron.com