Friday, February 20, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “Night of the Panther,” by E.C. Ayres

(This marks the 43rd installment of The Rap Sheet’s ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Previous recommendations can be found here.)

Southern Florida has long been in danger of becoming as overused a mystery-thriller setting as Southern California. Once the exclusive haunt of novelist John D. MacDonald’s seductive “salvage expert,” Travis McGee, the area has since grown crowded with Carl Hiaasen’s criminal crazies, James W. Hall’s brooding baddies, the smart-talking sinners of Randy Wayne White’s Marion “Doc” Ford tales, the multiple malcontents of Barbara Parker’s Gail Connor/Anthony Quintana series, the reprehensibles who race through Edna Buchanan’s stories featuring crime reporter Britt Montero, Stuart M. Kaminsky’s unlicensed inquirer, Lew Fonesca, and the occasional double-helping of whack jobs served up by Elmore Leonard. In those authors’ skilled hands, the once promised land of Ponce de León is turned into a land of broken promises, corrupt officials, petty hoods gunning for foreign tourists, and real-estate scammers who would be all too happy to replace the Everglades with cheesy condo developments, if only they could do it without alarms going off at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Gene “E.C.” Ayres is no more generous to the Sunshine State.

A screenwriter who fled to Florida years ago (but later moved on to China and, as I understand, is currently living in my hometown of Seattle), Ayres is best known for turning one of his rejected screenplays into Hour of the Manatee, the 1994 story that won a St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Private Eye Novel competition. Manatee introduced Tony Lowell, an aging former star press photographer who has semi-retired to a Gulf Coast cabin and a part-time detective gig. More interested in resurrecting a venerable old wooden schooner (shades of Harry O) than pursuing the justice he once thought could be found in this world, Lowell nonetheless allows himself to be talked into taking on cases that have explosive political or environmental repercussions. In these, he is assisted by a shady but still invaluable Crow Indian named Perry Garwood, as well as by Lena Bedrosian, a police homicide detective every bit as earnest as Lowell is eccentric.

Night of the Panther (1997), Ayres’ third Lowell outing, involves this unlikely trio in the death of Bedrosian’s cousin, a Fish and Game officer working Florida’s alligator-infested Big Cypress Swamp. The woman had taken a gunshot to the back of the head, but she’s on the books as a hunting-accident victim. Bedrosian smells cover-up. However, her boss, wary of conflict of interest, stops Bedrosian from becoming professionally involved, so she hires Lowell to sniff out a lengthening trail of clues that leads him to the loutish members of a local militia, panther poachers, a dangerous bar owner, and a sweetheart deal between a conservative legislator and a trophy-obsessed hunt and gun club that wants more public lands for its own private use.

This whole mystery hinges on modern anti-government sympathies--the underpinnings and consequences of which Ayres has wicked fun exploring. In one memorable scene, an honest longtime senator must face down a roomful of well-to-do NRA loyalists--all of whom have rifles pointed at his noggin. “The very notion of society’s greatest beneficiaries taking to arms against their own government would seem absurd, were it not happening,” Ayres writes. “It was the same logic ... whereby so many of [the senator’s] colleagues up in Washington could be a part of the government, and still denounce it and fawn and pander to reactionary armed militias bent on overthrowing it. While both hands remained deep in that same government’s pocket.” (Hey, never let it be said that American right-wingers aren’t astounding hypocrites.)

Ayres has an ear for humorous dialogue and an excellent eye for atmospherics--the gossipy trailer parks, political independence, and patience-cracking humidity that are all quintessentially Floridian. He also keeps a lid on violence, never allowing it to substitute for more thoughtful plot development. Regrettably, the author seems less concerned about putting flesh around the bones of his protagonists. Tony Lowell remains a cynical cipher, even though he’s had time to develop over the course of two previous outings (in Manatee and 1995’s Eye of the Gator). And Perry Garwood suffers from never getting enough stage time to prove that he can measure up to better-known sidekicks such as Spenser’s super-cool Hawk or Joe Pike, the right-hand thug in Robert Crais’ fine series of Elvis Cole adventures. Lena Bedrosian seems fully formed, but only because she aspires so ardently to one-dimensionality.

Back when this book came out, I wrote in a review that “Though Ayres hasn’t yet distinguished himself from the current glut of Florida crime fictionists, I suspect he could prove as surprising as those gators about which he so often writes.” My expectations of his future didn’t quite come to pass. After producing a quartet of Tony Lowell mysteries (the last one being Lair of the Lizard, 1998), Ayres “went into remission,” as he puts it, “to raise my son.” He apparently moved to Asia for three years and subsequently penned a non-fiction book about his experiences there, called A Billion to One: An American Insider in the New China. More recently, he’s begun publishing again under the name Gene Ayres, and has revived his Lowell series with a fifth installment, Cry of the Heron (newly available this month for your Kindle). The story is that the previous Lowell books are going to be brought back into print ... or at least into electronic availability. We shall see. Fingers crossed.

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Jeff. I hope they do reprint them soon.