Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye
The cover flap announces that this book is the series finale, but I can’t believe it. It’s hard to say goodbye to an old friend. James W. Hall’s Thorn novels have long been such a central, exemplary and yet distinctive part of the Florida mystery tradition that many readers will be going through separation anxiety. Mr. Hall, please say it isn’t so.
The current of ecological concerns that has gained strength over the series reaches flood stage in “The Big Finish,” the title perhaps a spoof on expectations in life and art.
Thorn’s son, Flynn Moss, whom he and the readers have only recently met, is in trouble. Flynn — or someone — has reached out to Thorn about criminal practices in the North Carolina pig farming industry.
A member of the underground environmental activist organization known as ELF, Flynn has been working to expose and destroy a major player in this industry. At least four kinds of evil are running wild in the remote town of Pine Haven. One is the exploitation of workers through intimidation. Another is the cruelty to the piglets crowded together and plumped up for sale to slaughterhouses. Yet another is incredible pollution from mismanagement of the bovines’ toxic waste.
Finally, there is the secretive nurturing of a plant with “downward hanging trumpet-shaped blooms” from which a dangerous drug is produced.
Webb Dobbins owns a drug company that supports the hog farm, which is staggering under enormous debts. Some of his workers “had tragically succumbed to an overdose of the trumpet flower’s pollen. Losing a well-trained man was always a setback, but it was the unlucky cost of doing the kind of business he was engaged in.” Such is the moral code of this particular drug business.
Thorn sets out with a plan to partner with his old detective buddy Sugarman. From the beginning, however, the mission is compromised by a scheming, unstable former FBI agent, Madeline Cruz. This woman has her own plans and motives and is manipulating Thorn, understanding his need to rescue his son at all costs. She is suspicious of Sugarman’s new girlfriend, Tina, who is along on the ride to North Carolina. Madeline suspects Tina of criminal activity.
So, Thorn’s mission has grown far more complicated and desperate. He perceives the trouble signs, but feels he has to play this game out in order to find Flynn. Madeline admits (or perhaps lies once more) that the plan is to use Thorn as bait to draw out suspects in a big government operation.
Other characters provide further complications.
X-88 is a rock of a man who served at Raiford in the same cellblock with Manny Obrero, a drug dealer who had been Madeline’s husband. Manny has connected X-88 to Madeline, so X is now part of her enterprise and enjoying the company of her daughter, Pixie. Am I going too fast? Here’s more: X-88 murders Sugarman’s deceitful girlfriend Tina by forcing three hamburger patties down her throat to suffocate her.
Murder by force-feeding. Something like how they fatten pigs.
When the action moves to Pine Haven, the pace accelerates (it’s never slow) and the characters and actions become even more grotesque. Thorn’s mixture of loner and do-gooder, a man content to mind his own business and a man on a quest he can’t quit, is on grand display — as are his unexpected physical strength and fighting prowess. Thorn’s quick mind enables him to change the odds that are clearly stacked against him.
After all, Mr. Dobbins runs what is essentially a company town and has the sheriff in his pocket. He’ll do anything to salvage his collapsing business, which Flynn and his ELF-mates, and now Thorn, are bent on destroying.
The whirlwind of showdown action in the later chapters is majestically handled, as are the effects of that nasty Webb Dobbinsbrewed drug on Thorn’s physical and mental state. Mr. Dobbins has found the right dose to keep people alive while rendering them docile, disoriented and controllable. Can Thorn fight through it?
“The Big Finale” is another extraordinary performance by a contemporary master of suspense, characterization and setting. That it alerts us to abominations in our midst only attaches more value to this highly entertaining and tightly plotted romp.
More Thorn, please. He’s our drug of choice. ¦
— Phil Jason, Ph. D., United States Naval Academy professor emeritus of English, is a poet, critic and fr eelance writer with 20 books to his credit, including several studies of war literature and a creative writing text.